What It's Like to Go Through a Major Career Change
by Lorie Eber
Are you considering a career change? After 23 years as a corporate litigator I abruptly resigned and went off to explore who I was as a person and to identify a new field of endeavor which I hoped would translate into my second career. In this excerpt from my book How I Escaped Legal Practice and Got Myself a Life, I talk about some of my experiences.
Why I Decided to Give Up the Big Bucks
Don’t mistake my drastic career change for disenchantment with the profession. In fact, I loved being a litigator for 23 years.
In many ways my upbringing had primed me for my chosen career. There is no better training for being an aggressive litigator than growing up in Manhattan, fighting your way through the crowds, eyes peeled for danger at all times.
My personality was also well suited for the profession. I am strong willed and determined, and being a tough guy comes naturally. I’m not the kind of girl who gets her feelings hurt easily and runs to the bathroom to cry it out. When I step back and analyze my personality characteristics, I realize that I act more manly than girly. That probably gave me a leg up on most female attorneys trying to make it in a man’s world.
My tough-guy persona was noticed not only by opposing counsel, but also within my mid-sized San Francisco law firm. Women lawyers often get tagged with the label of “too soft” or with the “b” word. This dichotomy requires some delicate tiptoeing to get it right. Somehow I was able to navigate this thicket of expectations and emerge unpricked.
I enjoyed working hard and discussing legal concepts and strategy with other smart lawyers. I relished the jockeying involved in settling cases as well as working up the cases to get opposing counsel to the table.
I have fond memories of decimating the credibility of a plaintiff’s expert witness when I impeached him on the stand. He was caught flat-footed by the information I’d uncovered and wilted faster than a bouquet of roses in hot water.
I was a supremely dedicated workaholic. I did marry, but my husband was more like a roommate and we eventually parted ways.
Despite the prevalence of lawyer jokes and widespread animosity from the physician community, practicing law with a reputable firm still carries cachet. Still, I never thought that because I was a lawyer I was a brilliant person who should look down on others who had not achieved my esteemed station in life. If I needed to make money, I’d have no problem working for minimum wage to make ends meet.
Life Throws a Curve Ball
Strange things can happen in life. After my divorce, I moved to SoCal to establish a branch office for the firm and somehow was able to pull that off. Things settled into a fairly stable, predictable rhythm. Since my divorce, I’d found time to squeeze in a few long term relationships, including one with a former two time Mr. Universe from Barbados. He was charming and buff but turned out to be chronically broke and treated me like his personal ATM.
One day, one of my gym buddies whom I knew only casually, burst into the locker room in her usual whirlwind fashion and sought me out. She delivered the message that there was a guy who was interested in meeting me. She told me his name was Wes, which didn’t ring a bell. While we habitual gym-goers recognize many members, we often don’t get past the “How are you today?” conversation. To trigger my memory, she delivered two tidbits about my potential suitor: (1) he still has all his hair, and (2) I think he makes a good living. After eking out a few rudimentary details of his appearance, I had a reasonable supposition as to his identity. I decided to be brave and scrawled my email on a napkin and gave it to my friend.
After an email exchange, Wes and I agreed to meet for a coffee date which he abruptly canceled at the last minute. I assumed he’d gotten cold feet. When I tried to reschedule for the weekend, he told me that was a no-go because he had tickets for the Penn State football game. Imagine my surprise when he showed up in the gym that Sunday. When I saw him, I recalled that I had heard predictions of a hurricane barreling down the east coast over the weekend, so I assumed he’d thought better of making the trek. My opening salvo to him was a bit acerbic: “I see you have a modicum of good sense.” Despite my snarky remark, he invited me to join him for a cardio workout on the Stairmaster. We talked for the entire 30 minutes while huffing and puffing through our routine. By the time we’d finished our workout, I knew he was my guy.
As a cynical New Yorker, I’d always pooh-poohed the soul mate thing as an idealistic notion not based in reality, which is where I operate. Yet my gut told me Wes was perfect for me and, uncharacteristically, I chose to trust my intuition. No spreadsheet was necessary to say yes to his marriage proposal a mere 10 weeks after our first cardio date. We’ve now been married 16 years and we both feel like the luckiest people in the universe to have found one another.
OMG I Should Have Hired a Shrink
Meeting Wes also forced some soul searching about my life priorities and goaded me to make the difficult decision to retire from legal practice at the age of 49. The first Monday after my resignation felt downright frightening. The realization hit me that I’d unmoored myself from the predictable rhythm of my days and the structure I’d built in my life over the last two decades. I’d knew I’d have to fashion a pattern for my brand new life and that doing so would likely entail weathering some rough patches.
I was at sea. As I sat on the couch trying to decide what to do, I quickly whipped myself into a full-blown panic. Suddenly the house seemed impossibly big and empty and the absolute silence was unnerving. I rushed to add some background noise to calm my mind. The contrast between my new reality and my long-standing norm of commotion, phones ringing off the hook, and people constantly barging into my office was disquieting. One of my fears was that I had no other talents and that law had tapped into the best of my paltry skill set. But, as I progressed through my forays into a variety of fields including elder care, public speaking and creative writing, I was pleased and relieved to know that there was a lot more to me than “Lorie the Lawyer.”
My Eureka Moment
One day, during my ongoing ruminations to find my next act, it dawned on me that health and fitness had always been my hobby and perhaps my passion might lie somewhere in that realm. When this revelation struck, I felt like hitting myself upside the head for not zeroing in on this a lot sooner. Oh well, better late than never.
After my usual false starts, I settled into my true calling as a Health and Wellness Coach, providing one-on-one coaching to clients looking to improve their lives, and typically lose some weight, by making permanent lifestyle changes. I have truly found my passion helping people get healthier.
Reflections on My 180
Quitting a long and successful career that defines you and plunging head first into uncharted water ain’t for sissies. It was tempting to let inertia be my guide and just keep on slogging away. After all, I’d worked prodigiously hard for over two decades to get where as I was and on one level, felt that I deserved to enjoy the fruits of my labors. I’d achieved an enviable socioeconomic status with a patina of societal respect.
But I have a different barometer of self-worth than worldly trappings or a business card with an impressive title on it. What drives me is the satisfaction of spending my time doing intellectually challenging work that fills my soul. While I knew that my self-esteem would take a huge hit if I gave it all up, my head and heart were in sync with the certitude that despite the initial pain, I’d ultimately be happier and more fulfilled if I moved on. While most attorneys in my position don’t opt for the risky gamble I took, and many reacted with incredulity when I told them I was getting out of the legal rat race at an early age, from my perch 15 years later, I can say with absolute certainty that I’ve enhanced my life beyond my most far-fetched imaginings by opting for a career restart.
Although I consider myself relatively brave, opting for a second career late in life is a choice I would not have even considered had I not had the good fortune to meet Wes. His unexpected embrace of my retirement decision as a vote of confidence in his ability to provide for my financial needs while I navigated the thicket of possible second careers, provided me with the luxury of meticulously chipping away at my hard exterior to discover whatever treasures were buried beneath.
I’m amazed at the person I’ve become in my old age. No longer am I afflicted with the innate shyness that was usually misinterpreted as an off-putting aloofness. In fact, I’m likely to strike up a conversation with just about anyone on the slightest pretext. Somehow, as if by magic, I’ve transformed from introvert to extrovert while in search of my new purpose in life. I’m now exceedingly comfortable admitting to my inadequacies, whereas I’d previously gone to great lengths to hide them. I’ve become all but impervious to embarrassment. If I make a mistake or do something really dumb, which happens on a regular basis, I fess up immediately and chalk it up to “stuff happens.”
My decade long journey has been more gratifying than I’d ever dreamed possible and now I enjoy the rare privilege of living my passion every day, feeling humbled and privileged by the life-changing impact I have on the clients who seek my help. My legal career was fulfilling in many ways but doesn’t hold a candle to the satisfaction I get from knowing that I am improving the quality of people’s lives.
But my greatest happiness comes from the marriage. I’m still dumb-founded that my soul-mate was out there just waiting me meet me, and that we finally found one another. That touch of fate almost made me change my doubting New York ways. I love and adore my husband and he makes sure I know he feels the same way every day by thoughtful deeds and reassurance. Life doesn’t get any better than this!
Health and WellnessLorie Eber shares with GracefullyGreying.com her career shift from attorney to wellness and nutrition coach