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Episode 89: To Pivot or Not – Evaluating Your Career Path as a Lawyer with Vicki Rothman, Career Strategist & Counselor at Rothman Career Services

Sharon:      Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. Today, my guest is Vicki Rothman, head of Rothman Career Services. Vicki has significant experience working with and advising professionals on career transitions or in helping them become more satisfied with their own careers. Today, we’ll learn about Vicki’s own career and the elements we should be thinking about when evaluating our own professions or track record or when considering making a move. Vicki, welcome to the program.

Vicki:          Thank you so much. I’m really pleased to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Sharon:      Delighted to have you. So, can you tell us about your own career?

Vicki:          That’s a really great question. People don’t normally ask me that because they’re so subject-specific. Like many people, I went to college. I figured out a major after searching two, three, four majors. I graduated; I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I went through on-campus recruitment and I ended up in an industry that was completely not Vicki. I ended up in the banking industry as a training program for operations manager. I literally would say things like, “O.K., so we have blue and white sheets for the credit and the debit” and the other managers who were training me would be horrified. I realized very quickly it was the wrong career.

I actually sought my own career counselor. I always knew I liked people. I was also the person that no matter who I met, they would tell me their life story within minutes of meeting me. I was the one that sat in all the malls and I people watched. So, I was very attuned to people and after my own experience with a career counselor and on my assessments in this great time, I looked at him and I said, “I want what you do. How do I get there?” and he laughed, and he said, “I was waiting for you to get to that because I thought that would be perfect career for you as well.” I ended up—there were only two master’s degrees at the time, one of them in California, one in New York. So, the master’s was an MS degree in career counseling, and I got it at Cal State, Northridge and that was where my career took off. It was just an amazing degree.

Sharon:      At one point you got really interested—I know you still are interested in working with lawyers and you did a lot of research on that to find on that if I remember correctly?

Vicki:          Yeah, that’s a great question. My husband was a paralegal at the time while he was in his own master’s degree and I would go visit him at the law firm. For some reason, I kept going into the law firm. He had really nice men and women that he worked with and they’d say, “What are you doing?” and I’d say, “I’m getting a master’s degree in career counseling” and they would all turn to me and say, “I am miserable” and they would start telling me their stories. Remember, I’m the woman people tell their stories to and so when it came time for me to do my thesis because it was a three-year master’s degree, I was like, “Oh, the perfect thesis would be to write a career program for dissatisfied attorneys” and that’s what I did. Through all my research with attorneys and all my research into my industry, I wrote a program for them and ever since then I’ve been seeing attorneys in my private practice, whether they’re happy, unhappy, just don’t have a good work/life balance. So, it’s been great.

Sharon:      When lawyers come to you, what is their most common issue that they come to you to resolve?

Vicki:          What happens is, attorneys go to law school for the most part because they were really good students as undergraduates; they were generalists; they were not sure what they wanted to do and law school seemed like a great avenue to an interesting further education, probably good job security and that’s what was attractive to them. And I will say, Sharon, that most people don’t do a tremendous amount of research into what an actual career will look like until they’re in it because that’s the way we’re raised and what we’re taught and then get into the field of law. So, people who go to law school are oftentimes very artistic and creative and they see law as something where they can be creative; they can contribute; it will be interesting and what happens is that get into law—and remember, it depends on the kind of law you go into, but I’m looking at the basic person in a big law firm because that’s where I met most of the people that I did my interviews with for my thesis—and in the beginning they’re literally just a cog in the process of a case and it’s not what they thought it was going to be. They thought they were going to get to do the whole case because that’s what would drive and thrive and feed their interest and values, and there also the requirements, as everyone knows, of billable hours per year which are tremendous and the law firm of course justifies it because they’re paying you a very good wage, there’s no doubt about that—and they sort of—I don’t want to say buy your soul—but they buy you and so what happens is people work and work and work and their values begin to change. They get married. They start to have kids. They no longer have room—not in the law group. They want to start different things, but those billable hours and what needs to be done to dedicate yourself to be a really good attorney starts to become in conflict with the values. Our values are the one aspect of ourselves that change through our lives depending on a work situation, maybe something that’s happened in our lives, a death, a traumatic illness, a car accident. Things cause value change, like the last year has changed a tremendous number of people’s values and so that’s what happens with attorneys and they start becoming dissatisfied and that’s at the point when they come to find me is they’re dissatisfied.

Sharon:      Because they’re in conflict with their values.

Vicki:          Usually their values are coming in conflict with the law firm. I’ll give you a quick example. I just worked with a young lady. I want to say she was only about—let me think—26, 27. She had been hired by a major law firm here in Los Angeles. They were paying her—I was shocked when she told me how much she was making for how young she is—but they bought her soul and she said to me, “Vicki, I don’t have time to even—I want to get married; I want to have kids. I don’t have time to date. I don’t even have time to—like the first thing they did was attach a cell phone to me and attach my computer to me and I’m available 24/7. How am I supposed to live?” And that’s kind of a typical case. Now of course, for me—let me be really honest—the person that doesn’t have kids usually is able to maintain the workforce.

Sharon:      What was your conversation with her and what did you come to an agreement on as her next steps?

Vicki:          That’s a good question. I’m going to give you two examples. I’m going to give you the example of her. She loved the field of law, but I’ll tell you the process. What happens is a client comes to me and I kind of do a work history: How did you become interested in this? What did your parents do? What were the messages you received about what work means? What was the family value around work? How did you choose this? What did it look like for you? And the first session, possibly two, is just talk and then I begin with the values assessment and what I say to them is, “Your values have changed, so let’s go ahead and take a look at your values and how they relate to the world of work? What values do you feel are your core values that I cannot buy from you for any amount of money that you need in your job?”

And so we do that and we have a lot of discussions around that, and I have them describe to me like: What does the value mean to you? How would you envision using it? And then we move on and I almost always give my clients the Meyers-Briggs type indicator. It’s a personality assessment. There are no tests in career planning, career counseling; it’s an assessment. It helps people understand how they gather their energy in order to take in information, to make decisions, to then function in the outer world and for my clients, that is the absolute biggest eye opener; it blows people away. I had an attorney recently that was a trial attorney for 25 years. When we saw what his Meyers-Briggs type was, he was like, “Oh, no wonderful. It nearly killed me to do this profession.” The kind of type he came up with is someone who would normally go into like—they might be a clergyman; a priest, a therapist and here he was right in the courtroom. Anyway, so many attorneys are so interesting and remember, they’re a very bright, articulate, artistic and creative population, so they’re really a lot of fun to have conversations with.

Then we moved on after that and we did a skills assessment and what I love about the skills assessment is it helps my clients understand: What skills are you really good at that you like that you want to keep doing? What skills are you really good at, but you’re burned out; you’re done? If you never employ that again, you’ll be thrilled and are there then skills that you just never developed that might want to be things that you learn as a hobby, a possible career change? And then we look at the whole package. Now the whole time I’m telling them, “Any career that comes to you as we’re doing this process, jot it down. Any career that comes to me during the process, I’ll jot it down and then we start discussing: What have you come up with?  What have you come up with?

So, for this young lady, she did in fact move into a nonprofit that actually liked her legal background. It was a nonprofit environment something—I don’t remember the name of the company which is not a nice thing for me to say—and I ended up spending a tremendous amount of time with her on salary negotiations and I helped her negotiate ten grand above what they wanted to pay her. I mean it was beautiful. I literally taught her what to say during the negotiation and then she would get off the phone; she’d call me; we’d discuss it; she’d get back on with them and we went back and forth. Anyway, so that for her worked out really well. She’s someone that actually chose to leave, but remember, she was young enough that she paid off her student loans and she could financially do it.

Now let’s talk about those attorneys that have been in the field a number of years and here’s the other thing about attorneys—and interrupt me if I’m saying too much. Here’s another thing about the legal field. When you get into your profession, you start living the financial amount that you make. If you’re making $100,000, maybe $200,000, you expand your life to meet that amount of rent. You’re able to buy a nicer house and cars and vacations and whatever it is. So, when they get to me, they say, “Uh-oh. I can’t go take a job for eighty grand, Vicki, because I’ve now got two kids and whatever the situation is” and so what I end up doing with them I still do all the same assessments. The difference is I help them think about, if you’re going to stay in the field of law, how can we change your mindset? What can you possibly negotiate with the law firm to get a little bit more of your needs met? Or is there a different kind of law that you might want to practice? I had one client very early on career. She was miserable. It took her 2½ hours to do my values assessment. This is a values assessment that normally takes people 20 to 30 minutes. She talked me through every value. What she ended up doing is she went part-time at the law firm which of course wasn’t really part-time; there’s no such thing I think in a law firm unless you’re 100% job sharing and then recently, I saw her and she had become a—oh gosh, Sharon, what are the people in the hospital that go and visit you and they’re clergy?

Sharon:      Ombudsman-like.

Vicki:          Sort of—I’ll spit it out. I don’t know why I always forget what this person’s called. It’s a lovely profession. They go in. They say, “Oh, I see from the roster it looks like you have a Catholic last name. Let me sit with you. How are you doing?” She eventually transitioned to that, but that was like 30 years later. So, for me, when you really feel locked in and like you cannot make a change, then my goal is how can we make you happy enough and how can I help you figure out external things, hobbies, whatever it is, toys, games, that will bring you some satisfaction so you’re not on burn out all the time?

Sharon:      Wow! Wow! I’m thinking two sides: how a law firm would want somebody like you to talk to their lawyers to get happier lawyers that are more productive and better at bringing in business and connect more people and on the other side, it might be very scary to them I think in terms of a kind of Pandora’s box reopening, but that’s interesting—so you also help with salary negotiations too.

Vicki:          I do the whole interview process and I will say just for your women that are listening, look, women get paid less than men. If you’re a white woman, you get paid 75 cents to 80 cents to the dollar for a man. If you’re a Latina, you get paid—I think the recent research was 40 cents to the dollar for a man and Black women get paid something like 30 cents to the dollar for a man. So, you can bet when I have female clients, I am focusing very hard with them on salary negotiations. This is not for an attorney, but I had a Black woman come see me and she was saying, “Look, Vicki, I don’t have a college degree, but my experience buys me this job at (I don’t want to say, sorry)” and I said I agree, and she had to go back and back and back and back, and they finally came up to what she was worth. She just kept saying to them, “That is not my value. You are buying this, this and this and this and the amount of money for that is this.”

And then I just want to address what you said about law firms. People who feel valued, people who feel like they matter, I will tell you that the number one and two values I’m getting in my practice is work/life balance and family. What people don’t understand—and I think most corporations don’t understand—if your people have room to breathe, they are more productive in the time that they’re with you. I have always—this is just my personality; I think I got it from my dad—I am someone who sits down and when I work, I jam out probably four hours of work in an hour; it’s my personality based on the Meyers-Briggs. Other people can just work like this all day long. So, imagine if you have a workplace that said, “Oh, Vicki, that’s how you work? As long as you get that work done, get it done.” We’ve also got an industry that you’ve got to be able to bill. Everything’s bill, bill, bill, bill, bill because that’s how you charge your clients. So, I understand, like for a law firm it could be a little bit, “Ooh, Vicki, whether or not we do want to open that box.”

Sharon:      And at that same I mean the emphasis today—I think law firms have finally come to the conclusion or understand that happier lawyers are more productive or will benefit the firm to have a happier lawyer that’s billing a lot rather than a firm of unhappy lawyers who are still billing a lot, but just the atmosphere is so different. You had also mentioned in this pandemic or in this last year, you think values have changed. Maybe it’s brought to the fore the values that people didn’t realize were their values. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Vicki:          I will and I don’t want to blanket say this, but I will tell you a lot of attorneys that see me are either active alcoholics or recovering alcoholics because when you’re under that amount of stress all the time—I’ve got to tell you that I definitely have friends who are the happiest attorneys I’ve even seen, but that’s not the majority, so a lot of them will self-medicate. That’s also endemic to that industry and not across the board and people will probably be kicking and screaming that I just said that, but a lot of attorneys I see have self-medicated, so then we, may have to deal with that as well.

What’s happened in the pandemic, so I sit in my office here at home and I have a view of my street. I didn’t even know we had so many kids in the neighborhood. There are people that are walking all the time. They’re with their families. It’s the first time that people—even if you’re home, like my door could open; my kid could run in, have a little visit with mom or dad, run back out—and so it’s the first time that people have been like, “Oh and maybe I don’t need to be sitting at my desk in Century City for 60 hours, 70 hours a week. I could possibly be working at home maybe half that time, and so they’re starting to see like where’s time for me because it isn’t all about kind of the money. Maybe it’s not all about what I have to do to get that money—and again, I’m talking about people that are dissatisfied. I know there are people that love their work, so I’m talking to those attorneys; I’m talking to the ones that end up in my practice, the ones that aren’t happy and so I see the pandemic as people who will say to me, “I used to travel a lot when I was younger, but I can’t do that anymore” and you know what, when things open again—that actually is a value of mine and I’m going to start doing that again.” So, those are the kinds of things I’m seeing.

Sharon:      Your value question is making me think in—that’s a hard question, what are your values and what could you not buy from—like if it’s of such a significant value to let’s say figure myself that you couldn’t buy, that’s a difficult question.

Vicki:          Yeah, yeah and you know those are tense discussions and when the person was sitting next to me, that’s one thing, but now that I’m on Zoom with them, I have them share the assessment with me so that I’m watching them so they can talk me through their thought process and I’ll have people be like, “This is not easy” and I say, “Well, it wasn’t meant to be easy. You’re here with me to do work to figure out how to maintain and remain an attorney, and what that’s going to look like or are you going to move or are you going to pivot because one of the things I also want to quickly just bring up is: sometimes attorneys think that they’re stuck and they forget the number of skills that they have that are transferrable, so I also talk about how do you start pivoting, how do you start talking to people, what is the story that you’re going to tell to be able to make the pivot.

Sharon:      You reminded me because I was going ask you do a lot of lawyers—and if they’re transitioning—do they end up like working for Westlaw or Thomson Reuters or using those legal skills in a different way or do they just get out of it?

Vicki:          It depends on their age. The younger people can just get out of it. There are so many short-term certificates at community colleges that you can go get and combine that with your skills as an attorney and jump fields. We know anything in technology. There are many attorneys that could go into technology and be making just as much as they’re making right now. Tech pays well, but there’s so much fear around a change, so a lot of it is talking about where’s the fear coming from, what’s going on. So, you’ll see; you can see how I’m talking. I’m not a therapist. I don’t ask anything like: how do you feel about that? It’s more like let’s look at the heart of what’s going on in your soul around career, what’s your fear, what’s stopping you, what’s the roadblock because we got to talk your way over that, or you’ll just talk, and you’ll never do.

Sharon:      As I’m listening to you, I think—and there’s nothing wrong with it—I think you are—there’s a lot of therapy going on and action, I mean therapy that leads to action, but I’ve been asking you some deep questions—to me, I came to therapy. One thing too, when you talk about salary for ethnicity, it seems to be, at least in law firms because they are in such demand, a Black woman, a Latino woman who’s trained as a lawyer—it seems like they’re not going to—I guess I can surmise that women necessarily would be lumped in with the statistics you cite.

Vicki:          It probably won’t be as little, but I promise you if you asked a major law firm to look at their salaries, you would probably see that there’s a teeny bit still of an imbalance.

Sharon:      Wow! Wow!

Vicki:          I think after everything that’s been going on and with society realizing equity, equity, equity, we will probably start seeing a change. You said something else just before about—

Sharon:      Therapy.

Vicki:          Therapy, I have had many clients who say to me, “Working with you was more helpful than any therapy I’ve ever done” and the interesting thing is—you’re going to laugh—my husband does sort of an adjacent career to me in that he actually coaches people as a professional coach on progressing. How do you progress to get what you want in your personal life, in your work life and it’s funny because what ends up happening is many of clients finish with me and they just transition over to him because he gets them where they want to go and he’s the one that really says, “You’ve got that roadblock,” so his is a lot around progressing; let’s get you progressing and he works with many, many, many, many extremely successful people who just want to improve different things in their lives. So, there are all sorts of things out there.

Sharon:      Yeah, wow! This has been very, very interesting and I hope that it gives—hopefully, we have a lot of happy people listening, happy lawyers listening, but if there are those that feel like, “O.K., been there, done that, I’m ready for something else,” that there are options. So, Vicki, thank you so much for talking with us today.

Vicki:          Thank you, I’ve enjoyed my time with you, thanks, Sharon.

Sharon:      It’s been great.


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