Episode 111: Don’t Wait for Career Opportunities to Come—Create Them Yourself with Executive Coach, Laura Terrell

Episode 111

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • Why it’s important to look for career opportunities and not just wait for them to come to you
  • How government attorneys can be strategic about advancing in their careers
  • Why attorneys should periodically evaluate their practice areas and consider how their skills may translate as their clients’ needs change
  • How learning to ask for and receive feedback can make or break your career
  • What information you should gather before jumping into a career change

About Laura Terrell:

Laura Terrell is an executive coach with over 25 years of professional experience as a legal and business leader. In coaching, she partners with people to support them in reaching new levels of effectiveness and fulfillment in their professional lives. Her clients come from a wide variety of industries, including law, education, financial services, pharmaceutical, oil & gas, non-profit, health care, and technology. Some of them are senior corporate executives like CEOs and general counsels; others are entrepreneurs and small business owners, as well as professionals who may be returning to the workforce, making a pivot to a new career, or switching roles mid-career.

She has worked extensively and in-person in many international markets and financial centers, including New York, Washington, Chicago, Silicon Valley, Canada, London, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Singapore and China. Supporting start-up companies and their founders is also one of her interests, and she is an active private investor in early stage ventures.

Additional Resources:

Laura’s Blog: www.lauraterrell.com

Laura’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lauralterrell/

Laura’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lauraterrellcoaching/


Every lawyer must ask difficult questions at some point in their career. Should I go in-house? How do I become partner when I don’t feel confident? Can I use my skills in another practice area? As an executive coach to lawyers and a former attorney herself, Laura Terrell has helped numerous clients find the answers to these questions. She joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast to talk about the value of feedback; what questions to ask before moving in-house or making a significant career change; and how to create career opportunities instead of waiting for them. Read the episode transcript here.

Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, my guest is Laura Terrell. Laura has been an equity partner at two Am Law 15 law firms, a senior-level appointee at the U.S. Department of Justice, the in-house counsel of a publicly traded company and Special Assistant to the President at the White House. Now she is an executive coach to lawyers. We’ll hear about that today. Laura, welcome to the program.

Laura: Thank you, Sharon. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Sharon: I’m so glad to have you. Tell us about your career path. You’ve covered so much.

Laura: I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve had the opportunity to work in public service in the federal government in a number of different capacities, including, as you mentioned, at the White House and the Department of Justice in legal roles. I’ve also worked in private practice at two very large Am Law 25 law firms. That provided me with a lot of knowledge of the business of law and much of what your interviewees talk about on this podcast, which is marketing, branding, running a business, all of those important things. I’ve had the chance to work in-house as in-house counsel for a publicly traded company. That also has been an incredible part of my journey. So, I feel really fortunate. I feel, as a lawyer, I’ve had a lot of variety in my experience. I’ve had a lot of different opportunities that have given me different breadth and different capabilities along with way.

Sharon: Which is unusual, because I talk to people who have been lawyers for 20 years in private practice or in one area. There’s a lot to be said for that. You’ve really covered a lot of ground. When did you know you wanted to become a lawyer?

Laura: I wanted to be a lawyer very shortly out of college. I was primarily interested in finding a career in law that would help me to mirror my interest in legal matters as well as government policy and government enforcement. I spent much of my career working in areas where I was either an attorney for the federal government or working in a capacity where I was defending clients and working with clients who were under federal investigation or dealing with lawsuits by agencies such as the Department of Justice or the Securities and Exchange Commission.

What I didn’t expect was that I would develop a practice that was heavily based in financial and investigations issues. I didn’t have a financial background, but I learned very quickly about all kind of matters, including commodities markets, trading, options issues, a lot of the things lawyers don’t necessarily go to law school for. They were of interest to me because it taught me a lot about how money moves, about how businesses interact with capital markets and what’s important about that in terms of regulatory practice and regulatory enforcement.

Sharon: So, you didn’t want to be a lawyer when you were 12 or 10. You sound to me like someone who got a degree and said, “O.K., now what do I do? I don’t know. Maybe something different.” Finance is definitely different.

Laura: It is. I was an undergraduate major in government political science, and my interest was working in an area that involved federal government policy. I was tremendously interested in the executive branch and the regulatory enforcement agencies like the FTC and the SEC. I ultimately ended up working for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission as my first job outside of my clerkship and outside of law school. That was a surprise to me, but I always liked investigations work, putting puzzles together, working through facts, putting evidence in place, trying to figure out how it all connects. So, I did not grow up as a young child wanting to be a lawyer, but I saw very quickly in my college career that I was interested in finding a way to marry that policy side of my interest with an interest in legal enforcement and interaction with the court system.

Sharon: You must have a lot of opportunity to put the puzzle pieces together in what you do. It seems there are a lot of pieces you put together.

Laura: I have had a lot of opportunities. You mentioned a varied career. I think part of that is driven by looking for opportunities. That’s something I talk about a lot with clients. When I have lawyers that come to me, they’re often in a transition phase, maybe looking for a career pivot, maybe feeling stuck in a certain way. One of the things we talk about is that opportunities come to you, but you also have to look for opportunities. You have to find moments where there is something that makes you say, “This could help advance my career,” or “This could lead me to work in a different way.”

I’ve had those chances. When I had the opportunity to work in the White House, for example, I didn’t know that was coming. That came up in a very unexpected way, but it gave me a real sense of working across agencies, managing the administrative and executive decision-making process. Those were all things that also prepare you well for the corporate world, being able to manage different interests, understanding who the different stakeholders are. Those were things that gave me different skills that I think I wouldn’t have had with just a law degree.

My law degree is great; I’m proud of it, but I needed a lot of practical experience. Like a lot of people, I’ve found the things that interest me are beyond the bare bones of the law. My clients, for example, have legal issues, but they also need to be aware of where business intersects with those legal issues and what the practical business implications are for the questions that are coming up for them. I feel like a lot of experiences have given me that kind of understanding and ability.

Sharon: Now your business is more about being an executive coach to lawyers. Is that correct?

Laura: I’m an executive coach. I do work with lawyers. I do still practice sometimes in a pro bono capacity, but I primarily work with lawyers who are interested in working with a coach, maybe to reach a goal like making partner at a law firm. I’ve been there. I understand that, and I understand a lot of the challenges that come with that.

Some of my clients are interested in just finding a better footing in their work. Maybe they need to shift how they’re working, or they need to change their practice area because everything is evolving. One of the reasons I decided to become a coach was because I really like talking with people about what inspires them in their legal life. I feel like I have a lot of background that can be helpful as a foundation for understanding that. For example, I work with a number of government attorneys who are looking to shift into a different role, maybe a management role. Working in the federal system in particular, it can be a little bit challenging to try to get those next positions, but I understand that. I understand the hiring process and the evaluation at many agencies. That’s something I also enjoy working on.

Sharon: That sounds very difficult. I would think it takes a lot of patience in terms of a government attorney wanting to go into a more managerial role.

Laura: For some attorneys, it may involve leaving one agency for another and leveraging skills in a highly regulated sector like energy or education and leveraging those into another area. One of the opportunities in government service, particularly federal government, is often once you’re inside the federal government, the ability to move to another agency can be a bit more eased by the fact that you have years of service, you understand some of the issues that come along with practicing in an agency as an attorney, including the budget you have to work towards, getting approvals, the kinds of authorizations you need to take investigative or enforcement action. Those are things that can pivot among different federal regulatory agencies and branches. That can be a chance for someone who may not have thought, “Well, if I can’t make this move at the Department of the Interior, for example, could I move to the Department of Energy or the EPA or another agency where I have a new opportunity, but my background is helpful?”

Sharon: The background must be very helpful when it comes to branding or marketing a new practice area to be ahead of the curve.

Laura: I think that’s right. I encourage all attorneys to think periodically throughout their careers, “What am I branding myself as? What is it that people think of me when they come to me and ask, ‘What’s your practice area?’ or ‘What’s your specialty?’ or ‘What do you work in?’” Sometimes, I think attorneys get trapped in thinking they’re doing one kind of practice, but it’s really not the bread and butter of what they do, or that practice may be waning or waxing depending on the market. It’s important to think about, “Oh, I’ve been focused on commercial litigation, but I’ve developed a different ability in restructuring work. Could I convert that into bankruptcy litigation? Could I bring that in as another aspect of my career?” I’ve met lots of people that have worked in different kinds of trial work, for example, that have also converted that into investigative skills.

Sharon: You have to be thinking about your skills and what you’re really doing, but how do you transform that into staying ahead of the curve? You talk about the importance of being ahead of the curve and not letting it get behind you. How do you stay ahead? Is that one of the ways?

Laura: That is one of the ways. You have to constantly evaluate, “What do I want to be doing? What is the market demand for what I’m doing?” Also, “How do people perceive me in that market?” Maybe you’re hiding your skills a bit. Maybe you’re coasting, or you’re assuming clients know what you do. There’s a certain amount of marketing that has to be done, as you know, Sharon, like going out and speaking at conferences, putting out emails regularly, doing a webinar, something for your clients that gets them engaged.

I also encourage my clients to listen to their clients. If you’re an attorney in private practice, you should be listening to what your clients want. You may be selling them something that isn’t top of mind for them or is an area that is not mission critical for them. A great example is working with a pharmaceutical company that’s getting ready to spin off its oncology business but is really focused on its veterinary medicine practice. If that’s the case, you need to think about what their needs are going to be in that area and ask, “What is it that you’re looking for?” I think a lot of the rebranding and regeneration we need to do as attorneys is also based upon what you’re hearing from your clients. You need to have an ear to the ground, keep abreast of market trends, but also listen to what your clients are saying their priorities are, because clients’ priorities change too.

Sharon: I think that’s really important. I know one of the first questions I asked—and this is like 25 years ago—to a bankruptcy attorney was, “What do you do when there’s no bankruptcy work?” I’ve seen it go up and down since then, but what do you do? You have to know.

Laura: Absolutely. That’s a great example. I know several terrific bankruptcy attorneys who are quick on their feet in thinking through tough problems and getting to the heart of what is it we need to know. You know why? Bankruptcy litigation moves fast. Bankruptcy litigators don’t have the luxury of commercial litigation or civil litigation that can drag on for years. In a restructuring, you have clients that want to reconstitute their business as quickly as possible, address creditor issues, address debts, address pending litigation, so restructuring attorneys are really quick on their feet to think through that. They’ve got to be able to come up with ingenious solutions. They’ve got to persuade people. That makes them great attorneys when it comes to doing investigations that have a short timeline and require an adequate amount of evidence to be collected. They can actually come to a decision more quickly for a company, like, “How do you act on noncompliance without spending a long time doing something?” I find restructuring attorneys have a lot of great skills, even when the bankruptcy field is a bit less than active.

Sharon: That’s interesting. You could really build that into something different when the market isn’t as strong in bankruptcy. You could build it into investigations or other things that are interesting and important.

How did it come about? What was the catalyst for you becoming a coach?

Laura: I had been practicing for a number of years. It coincided with a change in my personal life and a relocation for me and my family geographically, but also just an understanding of where I wanted to go as an attorney. I’d been an equity partner in two firms. I’d had an incredible practice. I enjoyed traveling. I had clients all over the world, but I also wanted to connect more one-to-one with my colleagues, with people I knew that would say, “Do you have five minutes to talk to me?” I realized that five minutes wasn’t enough to dig under the hood of what they were doing.

I also enjoy working with more junior attorneys who are in earlier stages of their careers, where they’re asking, “How do I make partner at my law firm?” or “How do I advance in this corporation when there aren’t a lot of senior roles for me? Does that mean I need to take a leap and change to another organization?” I like working with people that are maybe not sure of where they want to go, but they know they want to make a change. I also like working with people that have a very definitive idea. For me, that’s really rewarding. I like the one-to-one. I also work with groups. I facilitate discussions and workshops with law firms and other organizations. I enjoy that as well, but the one-to-one is very personal. I just like helping people find the best path they want for themselves.

Sharon: You must have a lot of people coming up to after you give a talk on what you do. Do people come up and say, “Who are you and what are you saying? You talk about branding. How do you brand yourself?”

Laura: I tell people that I’m an attorney that likes to help other attorneys find ways to succeed on their own terms and based upon their own goals. I have a lot of diverse experience, so I can understand where they’re coming from. When someone says to me, for example, “I feel really alone. I feel like there’s no support for me in my law firm,” or “I’m not sure how I get that next promotion,” or “I don’t know whether there’s any path for me,” I’ve had some of those questions in my own career. I’ve helped other people work through those, so they’re familiar. I like to help people find the right resources, the right communication tools and the right ways to decide what they do next, how they leverage the things they know, how they find the knowledge they don’t currently have. I feel, as a practicing attorney, that I have a lot of depth and background that is relevant. People tend to trust me because they say, “Oh yes, you’ve been there. You understand this.” I think that does provide a foundation, if you will, for having the conversation.

Sharon: I think it does, especially the fact that you have a broad background and you’re still practicing. That must differentiate you as a coach. There are a lot of attorneys who are now coaches, and I think that’s great, but the fact that you are still practicing and you have this broad background can differentiate you.

Laura: I also spend a lot of time immersed in the legal industry. Many of my conversations and my meetings are with people who are not clients and are not going to be clients, but people that are friends or contacts within the industry. It’s important to ask them, “What’s on your mind these days?” or “How is your move working out at the new firm?” “What do you think is next on the horizon in terms of remote work for law firms?” or “What does this economy look like?” Those are things I get to ask other people about, and it’s as much a research mission for me as it is finding out what’s on their mind and what they’re talking about. It’s staying involved in the industry that I think gives a significance to what I do. I think it’s an extra incentive for people to find me as a coach that would be helpful for them.

Sharon: Do you find that the advice or the counsel you give has changed when you’re talking about somebody who’s working remotely now, in terms of finding more clients or showing your immediate superior what you can do?

Laura: I find that attorneys generally are people that have come out of very successful backgrounds. They’ve done really well in school. They have good grades. They have succeeded in law school. At times, that means that if they’re doing their work and all seems stable and they’re getting the work they enjoy, everything is O.K. I’d like to point out that it’s important to get outside of your work and your tasks to evaluate and consider what other people think of your work, what other people react to. If you don’t know how you’re doing at your firm, but you assume everything is O.K. because nobody’s ever tapped you on the shoulder and said, “We need to have a conversation. Maybe this isn’t the right place for you,” that can be a problem. A lot of times, law firms and even companies will not have a conversation and say, “Hey, this isn’t the right place for you,” until it’s too late.

You need to be constantly seeking feedback. I think that’s tough for attorneys. Attorneys are used to being the person in charge. They’re used to being the person that knows how to do everything. I’m sure you’ve seen this on the marketing front as well. Attorneys say, “Oh, I don’t need marketing. I know I’m good at this,” but do people know you’re good at this? Do people understand what your capabilities are? Are you putting the right pricing on your work? Are you putting the right information out there? Do you have the right, up-to-date skills you need, or are you lagging a little bit behind?

I think that applies in a world where people are working remote as well. It’s really easy to sit at your desk behind your computer and say, “I’m working pretty hard. I feel pretty confident in what I’m doing, and nobody has gotten on the phone to say, ‘Laura, you really need to change your approach.’” Have you asked? Have you gotten feedback? Have you said to people, “How do you think I’m doing?” or “What else could I be doing for you and your company? I know I’ve done this work. Tell me what your reaction is on this. Were there things you would have liked us to have done differently?” I think that’s a key aspect for attorneys to think about. It’s not enough to do good work and get good grades; you also have to be out there getting feedback and getting evaluation from the people around you.

Sharon: I think you raised several good points. First is feedback, which I think is hard for anybody to do whether you’re an attorney or not, but you have to keep getting feedback. You also have to remind people what you do, whether it’s finance or whatever. You have to remind them over and over, because they don’t remember the first time. At least, that’s been my experience. You have to remind them several times.

Laura: I think that’s true. You mentioned finance. When running a law firm or a company or even a nonprofit, there are business and financial deliverables that have to be met. The economics of the organization matter. For many attorneys, that’s something you don’t learn in law school. You find attorneys who say, “I didn’t go to business school. I didn’t know this was going to be part of it. I just know I bring in a lot of work and I have clients that generate a lot of money.” That may be the case, but you have to ask yourself, “What’s the overhead?” What’s the cost for the work you’re doing? What’s the rev cycle for getting that work in? What is your organization demanding? When you get that financial payout, are you making sure your accounts receivable are not aging? Those are questions that are not comfortable for attorneys, and they do need to look to other sources within their organizations to help them understand. It’s more than just practicing law. It’s practicing law within a business environment.

Sharon: Do you have attorneys who come to you and say, “I think I’d be happier if I were on the other side of the desk as a corporate counsel.” Somewhere in-house I should say. Not corporate counsel, but in-house?

Laura: I do have clients that say that to me. One of the things we explore as a first step in that work is to see if they can identify what they know about working in-house. They talk to people that are in fields or companies that might be appealing to them. It’s one thing to say in concept, “I’d like to change jobs to do X. Maybe I’d like to go to a law firm, or maybe I’d like to go in-house,” but you may have misconceptions or assumptions about what that’s like. That can be addressed by asking people who are there.

If you think, for example, that in-house life is going to be a slower pace, you need to talk to some people that are in-house counsel. In certain companies, it’s a very fast pace. It may involve being on call, particularly if you are working with overseas clients at different hours of the day. There may be a lot of travel involved. I have a client that recently joined a company in an in-house role, but one of the incentives for that person was to work in a role where they got the opportunity to travel, in particular to work in Latin America and South America, and to be part of the business where they have a lot of facility. For that person, that was important. For someone else, it might not be important. It might be less appealing to have the travel. It might be less appealing to have more erratic hours.

I think you have to investigate the particular culture of the workplace you’re looking at and ask the right questions. It’s something we talk about. Just saying the abstract, “I think I’d like to move,” my first question is, “Why is that the next step? What is it that’s appealing about that? What do you know about it already?

Sharon: Do you usually get a blank expression?

Laura: Sometimes I have people that have done some preliminary discussion. Sometimes I have people that say, “I’m not sure I would be the right person to work in this environment.” You also don’t know that until you ask the questions. I work with clients to try to find their resources and the people and the outlets that can give them better knowledge and help them make better decisions.

Sharon: Have you found, because of what you do and the clients you’re advising, that working remotely changes things? Do they have to reach out in other ways? What are you finding?

Laura: One of the things that has developed over the last couple of years with remote work during the Covid pandemic is people assuming that because you see someone on video, or you talk to them on the phone, that you are connected with them. We have different interactions when we speak with someone in person. I encourage clients to spend some time going to other offices or seeing if a colleague can meet them for a couple of coffee dates. Perhaps if you’re not in the office on the same days, make it a point to be in the office at least one day together during the week, if this is someone you work closely with or someone you have a need to be engaged with.

I think you need to ask yourself, “Who are the people that really need a good relationship with? Who are the people I need to engage and communicate with? Am I getting what I need professionally in that relationship by just doing it on a screen or a telephone call or over a text message or SMS?” Most people realize there is a degree of depth you get from in-person interaction.

I’ll give you an example. I have a client who recently went on their first long, overseas business trip with some colleagues. They’ve all been working very closely together for several months on a project, but this is the first travel they’ve done as a team in over two years. The client came back and said, “I can’t even tell you how different it was having dinner with people, having downtime, getting a bit more of the pattern of how they work, feeling the energy.” That in-person interaction can give you more understanding of how people work best, how people respond and even what they need from you.

Sharon: Is that one of the reasons you went behind the desk, because you saw law firms changing? Is this why you went behind the desk, in terms of being remote? I said behind the desk, but I mean corporate counsel or in-house.

Laura: Frankly, it was because I had worked as outside counsel for so many years. I enjoyed working in depth with a lot of my clients, and one of my clients said to me, “You know our business as well as you know yourself. Better than we do sometimes. Have you thought about going in-house?” That gave me the perspective that I really like being part of the business world. I wanted to understand more of the business piece of my client’s work and the holistic way in which things operated.

Now, sometimes that can be a bit messy. Sometimes you can say, “I’m not sure I really did want to know how the sausage got made,” or “There are some politics involved in this.” We’re accountable to shareholders, and that’s driving a lot of public disclosures; that’s driving a lot of our timing. That may be driving our budget, but I found that to be interesting. So, for me, going behind the desk and being the client, as opposed to being the counsel outside, was just a different aspect of lawyering I wanted to try. I found it fascinating, and I liked the idea of being part of the business world as well.

Sharon: I think that’s important. You knew you liked it, even if you didn’t want to know how the sausage is made or you didn’t care about the disclosures. You have to know that also. I guess it depends on what kind of lawyer you are.

What are the one or two pieces of advice you give to the junior lawyers you talk to? Junior being lawyers that aren’t yet partner. What would you say?

Laura: The primary thing I encourage junior lawyers to do is to get out from their desk and ask partners out to lunch, ask them if they have time for a cup of coffee. Spend some time getting feedback from even senior associates that are supervising you, not just relying on the paper that comes back with the edits on the memo or draft you wrote or the document review you’ve done and being told, “Great. We’re done. Good job. Move on.” Try to get in the weeds of the work that’s being done. Even if you are not in a senior role and you have a very discrete piece, try to understand what the bigger picture looks like. Sometimes that means sitting down with a partner or a senior associate and saying, “O.K., I understand why we did this document review,” or “I understand why we’re focused on this contract or this part of the deal, but what’s the bigger picture here? Can you help me understand how this fits?” It’ll help you understand a little bit more about your career.

So, I think getting out from behind the desk and asking questions is important. That’s often hard for young attorneys because what they’re told is, “You’ll get an assignment. You’ll do it, and then you’ll get the next assignment,” or “When somebody asks you to do something, just do it.” But fitting together what that means in the broader scope of the matter and the clients you’re working for is an important question too. Why is this important to the client now? Why are we doing it this way, when we know the better way would be to do this part of the legal work first? Maybe it’s because the client has constraints around that. I think being educated so you can understand the bigger picture earlier in your career is important.

The other thing I’ve told particularly young associates in law firms is that you’ve got to start understanding the financials. This is a business, and you have to understand how the business of the law firm runs. That means sitting down and getting information, like what does my billable rate mean? What is the number of hours you need me to achieve every year? Why is that relevant? What happens if we don’t hit budgets? Where do we make that up within the firm? Those are important understandings to have as well. You can’t just be a cog. You have to find a way to get from the assembly line to the senior roles and understanding where you fit within that is critical.

Sharon: Those are very good points. I think it would be scary for a young associate to ask a partner out because they’ll think, “I’m just trying to have them like me.” I don’t know. That’s a different kind of advice than I’ve heard before.

Laura: I have several partners that are clients that often say, “I wish associates did that. I wish they came to me and said, ‘Do you have time for lunch?’ because otherwise I feel like they’re just treading water, doing the work they’re supposed to do. I’d like to get to know them as people. I may not be able to have lunch. It may be coffee. It may not be this week. It might be next month because I’m going to trial right now.” But I know several clients that have asked for that and said they find it to be a sign that a young attorney is interested in more than just the four corners of the work assignment. I also think there’s no harm in asking. What’s the worst that someone can say? “I just don’t have time.” O.K., that’s great. Find another person you can ask.

Sharon: I think that’s a good point also. A higher-up, a senior associate, might want that feedback or that level of interest from somebody, somebody asking those questions. I think it works both ways.

Laura, thank you so much for being here today. You gave us a lot to think about. Thank you very much.

Laura: Thank you, Sharon. It was a privilege. Thank you.

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