In this episode, I am so excited to have spoken to SaraEllen Hutchison. SaraEllen is a Fair Credit Reporting Act lawyer in Seattle, Washington and on top of being a talented law professional and entrepreneur; she is a writer for her blog on finance and work-life balance which can be found on her website saraellenhutchison.com. She joins us today to talk on "lawyer burnout"; from defining "burnout", it's causes, and different aspects of the recovery.
SaraEllen goes into detail as to how her work as a Consumer Protection Lawyer, and the politics/policies that go with that, led to her starting and developing her blog that aims to have a joint conversation on consumer issues and mindfulness.
She defines her own personal experiences with burnouts, the symptoms that led to them, her own recovery through journaling and meditation, and how burnouts can happen to anyone, working for a practice or running their own.
How her journey of self-care led to her creating a more frugal and lower over-head solo practice and the importance of knowing your worth and valuing your services appropriately.
The dysfunction of the way we think of money by comparing ourselves to other lawyers financially and valuing our days by the 6-minute increment.
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SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:00:28] It takes time to calibrate your boundaries, your sense of case selection at your firm. And then when you go solo, all of a sudden you need to learn it all over again. But you learn it faster than you did the time before.
[00:00:44] Welcome to The Resilient Lawyer podcast. In this podcast we have meaningful, in-depth conversations with lawyers, entrepreneurs and change agents. We offer tools and strategies for creating a more joyful and satisfying life. And now your host, Jeena Cho.
Jeena Cho: [00:01:08] Hello my friends, thanks for being with us today. In this episode I'm so delighted to have SaraEllen Hutchinson. SaraEllen is a Fair Credit Reporting Act lawyer in Seattle, Washington. She's also an entrepreneur and a writer. She blogs about personal finance and work-life balance over on her website, saraellenhutchison.com.
[00:01:28] But before we get into the interview, if you haven't listened to the last bonus episode, go back and check it out. I shared a six minute guided meditation practice to let go of stress and anxiety. It's a preview for my new course, Mindful Pause. So often I hear lawyers tell me that they know they should practice mindfulness meditation, but they just don't have the time. And I always suggest just starting with six minutes. Or just .1 hour of all the hours you dedicate to your clients, your work and others. Don't you deserve to have at least .1 hour to yourself? Mindful Pause is designed for lawyers like you, to fit into your very hectic schedule. Think of it like taking your daily vitamin to boost your well-being. Head on over to jeenacho.com to learn more. And with that, here's SaraEllen. SaraEllen, welcome to The Resilient Lawyer podcast.
SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:02:27] Hi Jeena. Thanks for having me here.
Jeena Cho: [00:02:29] So to get us started, can we have you just give us a 30 second introduction to who you are and what you do?
[00:02:36] Well I am a consumer protection lawyer and my area of focus is Fair Credit Reporting Act. And essentially that is if Equifax, Experian, TransUnion, or one of the other smaller credit reporting agencies, also called the bureaus, if they mess something up on your credit report, like put somebody else's debt there that's not yours or merge your records with another person who might have a similar name, social security number or something like that. Or even you know, report something that was discharged in bankruptcy like it wasn't discharged, things like that.
[00:03:22] You can bring a lawsuit against the credit reporting agencies and, in certain instances, against the creditors who report things to the bureaus. So that is my day job. And I also recently started blogging earlier this year, because as a consumer protection lawyer my work is so intertwined with politics and policy. And I think consumer issues are like a great uniter, they're pretty universal to people; fairness, truth, your good name, being treated well in a customer service context or by banks. That's pretty universal stuff across political affiliation. And I just saw how polarized people had become in this country, and I thought you know, this conversation needs to be about consumer issues and mindfulness at the same time. And when I started the blog, I wasn't completely sure how I was going to meld those together. But you know, we're working on it and it makes a lot of sense to me. And some of my blog posts are a little more political, and some of them are a little more about the mindfulness journey and the spiritual path. So that's what I'm doing on the side now.
Jeena Cho: [00:04:57] Wonderful, I love that. And I know on your blog and you talk about lawyer burnout and sort of the causes of burnout and recovery. Before we sort of get into what burnout is, what got you interested in that topic and what made you start to write about it?
SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:05:19] An intimate familiarity with burnout; all the different flavors and qualities of burnout. I've been a lawyer for 12 years; I went to law school pretty young. And it took me a while to find my current practice area, and to have the courage to go solo, which I did in 2010. And I found myself getting burned out pretty much everywhere I worked, for one reason or another. Either I was dealing with the wrong kinds of clients, or I was dealing with the wrong kind of workplace culture, or I loved everything about it but I wasn't being paid nearly enough. There was all these reasons and they always seemed external to me, and in many ways they were.
[00:06:15] You know if you're wearing the wrong pair of shoes, you're going to rub a lot of blisters into your feet. But then you have to look into yourself and go, why do I keep picking the wrong shoes? Why do I keep walking around in them for so long? Uphill in the snow both ways.
[00:06:30] So when I went solo in 2010, I had this great renewal of energy and enthusiasm for practicing law. And for the first time, I actually started to like it and realized, you know, find myself as a lawyer and have confidence and feel motivated and really love the clients that I was working with. But that didn't by itself make me immune to burnout forever. That wasn't just like, okay I fixed it. I'm never going to be angry or frustrated or burnt out at my job ever again. You know, there's no fix. Burnout is such a universally understood thing for American professionals these days, that it really is so cultural, it's so ingrained in American culture and Western culture too.
[00:07:36] But from the very origins of our you know, the kinds of people who first settled the country, the colonial people. And the kinds of people who came here throughout the years and even today as immigrants, as people who just want to work really hard and make something of themselves. And that's wonderful, right? But the flip side of that is, is it sustainable? Are you going to get exhausted? Are you going to burn yourself out? Are you going to you lose sight of the goal behind the goal for why you're working so hard?
Jeena Cho: [00:08:12] Yeah, yeah.
SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:08:13] I had to then encounter burnout while I was basically still very happy with what I was doing. And I was pretty surprised, I was like, oh I'm self-employed. I can go skiing on Wednesday, what do I have to complain about? I'm making good money. And then I realized that the deeper origins of my burnout, and I think a lot of other Americans, were just sort of the liabilities of those positive traits that say, I'm going to go out and make something of myself. I'm going to go out and change things for the better. And I had to just come up with a way to realize that burnout was something that, it's always a risk. I think if you're working in law, it's always a risk if you have a position of much responsibility even in some other field in modern American life. And so it's a mindfulness practice to not dance too close to that fire.
Jeena Cho: [00:09:24] Yeah. Well when you were going through burnout, what were some of the symptoms? Because I went through a burnout, and I don't know that it necessarily looked like what I thought it would. Like for me, I just felt really disengaged from my job, and I would just feel tired like all the time. Despite having gotten enough sleep, I just sort of felt lethargic and just tired and I thought, oh I'm just losing focus, all I have to do is just work harder. Which is of course just the opposite thing that you need to do when you're going through burnout. So what were some of the symptoms or signs you were going through a burnout?
SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:10:04] Well earlier in my law career, I had mysterious health problems. My skin was a mess; I was tired all the time. I had to be perfect about my nutrition or I would immediately feel bad. And so I changed a lot of those external habits in my 20's and felt a lot better. But then when it hit me again a few years into my solo practice, I had this year where my neck would never be right. And I was also more active in CrossFit at the time. And I'm not now; part of it is my neck. But I just could not get my neck to feel right.
[00:10:56] And I wake up in middle of the night and my mind would just be racing. Not really about anything upsetting, but just thinking about you know, miscellaneous stuff. Yes. My mind is just very, very active. So I had to quit drinking coffee. I cut way back on caffeine you know, from like tea and everything. And that helped. You know, there's always some external thing you can do to probably help support you in recovery from burnout, but ultimately you have to examine everything mentally and emotionally as well. But for me it was just like thinking too much. Waking up and thinking. And then my neck; I was in the chiropractor so much it was almost like a rent payment or a car payment, to go to the chiropractor. And my chiropractor was really nice and I kind of miss chatting with him. But I sure don't miss going to the chiropractor twice a week to have my neck and shoulders worked on.
Jeena Cho: [00:12:16] So what was the recovery process, that journey from burnout to wholeness or well-being? What did that journey look like for you?
SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:12:28] It was a few steps. I have off and on been a big journaler. So what I did, because I realized I had been just so happily working, working, working, that I hadn't been journaling. And my life was pretty good and happy, so I wasn't meditating. And I felt pretty good physically, I was active and everything. So I thought well, you know, no reason for me to slow down. I realized I had to do all of those things; I had to pick up my journaling practice again. I had to pick up meditation practice again.
[00:13:12] You know, there's a big part of me that's a bit of an introvert. So I had to just create more downtime for myself, so for me that turned into going out to eat less and just riding my bike to the grocery store or something very simple like that. Where I'm just bathing in my own energy and not necessarily having a constant hustle and bustle of being out in the world. Just having some active meditation time where I'm just quiet, you know. So being quiet, doing activities by myself; just because the work can be so busy, and your social life could be so busy. And just taking that time and you know, changing what I was doing to stay physically healthy. Like you know, if my work is kind of intense, you know litigation practice can be pretty intense, maybe I don't need to also be in a competitive CrossFit class.
[00:14:21] As much fun as that is for a lawyer and a type-A person, to go be competitive for fun, maybe that was counterproductive on certain levels. Will I say no to that forever? You know, probably not. I mean I don't like absolutes, but just trying to create a counterbalance to the intensity and in the fast pace.
Jeena Cho: [00:14:49] Yeah, it sounds like so much of that journey was learning to treat yourself kindly. There's this tendency for us lawyers to sort of go and drive ourselves exhaustion, rather than treating ourselves kindly and as we would a good friend. And I've certainly gone through that experience of almost using exercise as, you know it's like exercise is supposed to be good for you. But there is also a point in which you're doing it but it's, you know maybe like counter to the actual goal. Like you were talking about, going to CrossFit and just pushing yourself a little bit too hard. Which is probably not what you were needing, especially if you were going through burnout at the office.
SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:15:43] There is a time and place for everything. There was a point in my life where I had a job that I really enjoyed but I was not challenged very much. And so you know, being competitive outside of my job helped scratch that itch. But then when the stakes were higher several years later, I don't need to raise the stakes in every aspect of my life. You know, there needs to be a place where you can just be average. Where you don't have to perform, you don't have to be on. You don't need to measure yourself, you don't need to strive or achieve or even have a goal.
Jeena Cho: [00:16:35] Yeah and I think that's such an important point, that over the course of your life your self-care practices are going to look different and that it will shift. Like it may be fine to do CrossFit at certain points of your life, but then as your life circumstances change, as your body changes, that we sort of have to modify what we do for self-care and those various activities.
SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:17:02] Exactly.
Jeena Cho: [00:17:03] So I know that this whole journey from burnout into, I don't know, something better, healthier, also gave you some insight into creating a more frugal and lower overhead solo practice. So tell me about that.
SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:17:23] Yeah, so I was making pretty good money. I am making pretty good money. And the first couple of years that it started to really take off for me, I was just enjoying the relief of like, ahhh I can breathe. Everything's paid off and I can breathe. And then you get to another level where I had this huge tax bill. And it was about the time that I was burned out, that income was the product of a really hard working year you know, I earned it. Right? And I knew that I was going to have this tax bill, and I had the money set aside, I was responsible and all that stuff. But when it came time to pay it, I was not emotionally ready for it.
[00:18:29] It made me look very deep into myself and go, why am I working so hard? Did I put forth double the effort to just get 30% more benefit? And so I had to ask myself, what I am a part of here? You know, doing consumer protection law you are running into people who are all across the socioeconomic spectrum, and they're all middle class people. But there are some at one end who are barely making ends meet and have you issues with debt collectors and creditors and are doing a spinning plates game with credit cards just to get by because they've been dealt a bad hand or have been unconscious about their own relationship with money.
[00:19:47] And then on the other end, you have people who have great credit and high incomes, and spend a great deal of what they make. And when something happens that isn't their fault that still interferes with their ability to get the credit that they're otherwise qualified to get, it's a big deal to them. And so I was like, what am I working for? I'm bailing people out on one end, and then I'm just helping people spend money on the other end. And you know, is this good for anybody? And the busier I got, and I've always had a pretty low overhead practice. Off and on I've used a little contract labor here or there, I don't have any assistants or anything. But off and on I have used independent contractors and off and on I've used an answering service. And I got so busy that I was spending more on the answering service and the phone was ringing a lot. And a lot of it was just you know, I didn't have time and I didn't have space in my caseload. And I was spending all this money just to manage things that I wasn't going to get any benefit from and wasn't going to benefit anybody else. These are just people calling me that I can't help.
Jeena Cho: [00:21:18] Yeah. And you know, I think that (because I do bankruptcy law, so I see my clients go through their own financial struggles) we're not really given a whole lot of tools for having a healthy relationship with money. And it wasn't until more recently that I actually had to sort of sit down and ask myself, these money beliefs that I have and like where do they actually come from, and are they actually serving me. And some of them are just, I don't know beliefs that I had that weren't true. Like I always sort of thought well you know, really wealthy people they're all bad or that someone like me can never be wealthy or someone like me can only earn a certain amount of money.
[00:22:12] And it's just such an interesting thing, and for me it's actually become sort of more like a spiritual practice. To really sort of examine my relationship with money. And it sounds like maybe that was kind of part of your journey too and just sort of figuring out what is my relationship with money, what are the limiting beliefs I have around money?
SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:22:34] Absolutely. I grew up in a middle-class household, middle-class family, everybody has a college education but no one's rich. And just the messages I got about money, some of them were really, really good. And some of them did limit me, and I had to work through those to just open up my channel to really earn what I was worth it. And once I had done that, then it was a whole new level of (and I feel like it's a privilege to even be able to ask this question) what's the larger meaning of my work. And you know, in the consumer credit realm, very broadly law, what's my spiritual role in the lives of my clients? You know, I just I don't really go there with my clients. There are limits to what we can do as legal practitioners.
Jeena Cho: [00:23:53] Right, they're there because they want to hire you as a lawyer, not as their financial therapist.
SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:23:59] Exactly. But when I am in that role, I'm holding an energy of this is a teaching opportunity. This is an educational opportunity. I'm still learning. I've been learning. And I spend a good deal of time thinking about what is the energy of money. What's our relationship to money in American culture, because that's a topic unto itself. And there's a reason why this person has found me and not one of the other lawyers in town. I mean that's one thing, there's not a lot of Fair Credit Reporting Act lawyers running around. And the other ones who are Washington licensed are excellent. But we all have our own flavor; we all have our own vibe and our own styles about how we relate to our clients. And I think it's really important to like your clients, only take on the people that you like. That's very important because you might be with this person for a year or two, on a journey toward their wholeness. Making them whole from their harm.
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Jeena Cho: [00:26:28] You know I want to actually go back to something you just said a moment ago about knowing your worth, because that's something that I often struggle with, it is figuring out how much are my services worth, and actually valuing it appropriately. Talk a little bit more about that, how did you figure out, when you say I had to figure out what I'm worth, what did that journey look like. And how did you end up coming up with that conclusion? And was it a certain dollar amount that you came up with? Or was it just more, I don't know, something different?
SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:27:11] That's been a lifelong process for me. For whatever reason, I had a pattern growing up and in my younger adulthood where I felt like I had to work really hard to get half the credit of other people around me. I don't know why. It started in ballet class. That's a whole nother topic. But I just had to, I guess we're taught to be humble and not to toot our own horn too much. And not to be shamelessly self-promoting. I mean those were definitely messages I got. You know, don't be too boastful. And then, when you get into a workplace...I mean when you're in law school, there's a lot of ego flying around, whatever. But at the end of the day, you're just competing for a grade and you don't have the office politics dynamics in law school that you have in actual workplaces.
[00:28:36] And once got out into the work world, and I might have been one of two female lawyers. And there might have been seven or eight male lawyers for every gal. I found that my reluctance to toot my own horn or to overestimate my abilities and actually to underestimate my abilities in the interest of humility and caution and good taste, that did not help me. And I just wanted to compete for a personal best, and that just wasn't the culture of most places to work.
[00:29:28] And when I went solo, I finally could have a safe bubble around myself where I am not really in any kind of power struggle with anybody in my workplace. All of the jerks are external to me. It's opposing counsel or it's a judge who has no feelings for the little guy or whatever. But then I was suddenly removed from it. And I decided that I wanted to do well financially, I was doing okay but it wasn't great. I knew that I was underpaid in my previous jobs. And so I just started journaling affirmations about income goals, like and it seemed really huge. The kind of numbers that now are what I expect to do and is not all that remarkable for me, was a big deal five years ago. And so I would journal goals. There was a book that I found about the time that I was studying for the bar called, "Write it Down, Make it Happen." It's a really light read but it really inspired me. And I was already a journaler and already somebody who would write down goals and everything, but it gave me a lot of ideas about how I could use visualization to greater effect and gave me some ideas for my journaling that were really effective. And I continued to refer back to that book off and on for years. That was a great find.
Jeena Cho: [00:31:35] There is that Goldilocks dilemma, and I feel like it's more permanent for women. But you know it's like, be successful but don't be too successful. It's like what you were saying earlier about like, don't be a showoff but be really good at what you do. But don't brag about yourself. And earn money, but don't earn too much. And it's just this impossible tightrope that we have to walk.
SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:32:04] Yeah. I mean so no wonder a certain amount of anxiety has been normalized. It's great that we all can identify with each other and hopefully have some empathy, but it's not good if something that's not really optimal is the "new normal." What an excuse, the new normal. Why be normal if you can be healthier? it takes a little bit of mental jiu-jitsu sometimes, but it's worth it.
Jeena Cho: [00:32:42] I feel like as lawyers there's this pressure to sort of "keep up with the Joneses" or you your partner or other lawyers in your circle. And there's also this weird dynamic with money where we literally trade six minute increments for a certain dollar amount, which necessarily means that we can only generate so much income because there's only 1,440 minutes a day. And I feel like the way that we even think about money, there's just something really dysfunctional or not healthy about it.
SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:33:20] Exactly. The life cycle of your average lawyer is, you work your butt off in law school and you pay a significant amount of money to go. And then you emerge into the practice and you have a big bill and your student loans to pay off. And then if you are working at a law firm, I mean obviously it depends on where you're located, if you are in a city or if you're in a small town. If it's public sector, if it's nonprofits, if it's private firms. There's a big, big, wide variation. But let's just take an average, all of a sudden you need to look the part, you need to look like you're a success.
[00:34:26] You don't want to look like that frumpy person who shows up to court in the suit that has a stain on it and a bunch of pilley fuzzies under the arms or something. And there's a lot of lawyers who are like, well you know I'm making money now. As long as I'm servicing all of my debts and I have enough to live in this expensive house and drive this expensive car and have these expensive dinners out and also pay my student loans, then that's fine.
[00:35:09] No one thinks that it's going to crash down on them. And no one thinks that they're going to run out of energy. Like oh, as long as I don't run out of money I'll be fine. I'll just continue to work harder and do better every year. And then I'll have enough when I'm when I'm 65 so I can retire and sail off into the sunset. And I think a lot of people get to the point where, if you're making a million dollars a year, but you're spending $900,000 to do it, to live the life, to keep up with it. Then how are you any different from the person who's just got a part-time practice out of their kitchen? And ultimately it's the utility of your time, and your time is money.
[00:36:11] Like you said, we live in these tenth of an hour increments. Well what about the value of your own life force? I really like the book "Your Money or Your Life." by Vicki Robin. Some of the finance advice in there is a little bit dated, and that's acknowledged in later editions of the book. So you might want to branch out and read other things to get a complete plan for yourself. It's like when you're exercising on a treadmill or outside running hills. What's your rate of perceived exertion? Is this a five, where you can still carry on a conversation? Or is it a 10, where you can't talk and you are about to collapse in a pool of your own sweat?
[00:37:10] If you can calibrate that for yourself in your work and then you look back at the past year, you will find that there are certain cases where maybe you might have made a large pile of money on it. But it took a lot of your life force, and it's trade-off. Like that's fine, you make that trade-off. But are you going to make that trade-off at the same pace every year for the rest of your life? And are you going to set up your own personal financial plan on the assumption that you're going to be able to continue at this pace for that many years? And I offer to anyone listening that practicing law, especially if your practice touches on policy at all, in today's polarized culture and environment it's not going to be sustainable at that pace. For all but the most special amazing people; an average person with an average amount of energy is not going to be able to sustain it at the same pace and keep up with their lifestyle for that long. But unfortunately the culture of law is, if you want to take a mini-sabbatical and go travel for three months, you don't have a job when you come back. You're a weirdo if you want to do something like that. And the millennial generation, people criticize them for being flighty or whatever, but they got something right. They're honoring that part of themselves and I know that some of them I've talked to really struggle going into the traditional law firm environment. Because you know, they want your butt in that chair X number of hours a week, pushing it and billing it whether it's really billable and they're to be billed or not.
[00:39:39] It's very disordered. It's kind of a factory farm model of employing people to perform a service. I like to be more of a free-range lawyer.
Jeena Cho: [00:39:58] Yeah. And I think understanding your own boundaries and your limitations is so important. And coming around full circle and avoiding burnout is, you know, I think burnout is stress, chronic stress sustained over a period of time that leads to burnout.
[00:40:19] And often we just, you work and work and work, and we don't realize that we're kind of going at that 10 speed, where you're just sort of huffing and puffing, trying to catch your breath and you can't carry on a conversation. But we don't even recognize that that's where we're at. And I think that's where the danger comes in, like if that's your intention to work at that pace, great. But at least be mindful of it, like be cognizant of the fact that that's what you're doing. And also have it be something that is coming from a choice, an intentional choice that you're making rather than just going along with it whatever lands at your desk and not really paying attention to your own well-being.
SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:41:05] Exactly. I think you know, you want to sustain that pace for five or ten years, then you should be saving a large portion of your income. So that you can slow down considerably after that amount. Even if you love it, even if you never want to actually retire from practicing and being of service, that's not what this is about. It's giving yourself the option to take care of yourself. For me you know, that's been self-employment. The answers might be different for other people.
Jeena Cho: [00:41:51] Yeah and I think that's really important to point out, that there's no like singular right answer. And I think also that's where having self-knowledge is really important. Which is why I'm also such a huge advocate of having a regular mindfulness practice, because that gives you insight to yourself. And it's kind of shocking how little we often know about ourselves and what our limitations. Or even what we desire.
Jeena Cho: [00:42:24] Well SaraEllen, I am so grateful to you for joining us and for your time. But one last question before I let you go. The name of this podcast is called The Resilient Lawyer. What does it mean to be a resilient lawyer to you?
SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:42:41] I liked what you said earlier about boundaries, to know yourself, to know your limits, and to find a sustainable way of practicing.
Jeena Cho: [00:42:55] And if you're doing it right, hopefully this will be a long career. It's a marathon not a sprint.
SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:43:01] Yeah, and it takes time to calibrate your boundaries. And they change. You know, you might have a great sense of case selection at your firm, and then when you go solo all of a sudden you need to learn it all over again. But you learn it faster than you did the time before. And I think just being flexible. That would be part of it too. Being flexible, knowing yourself, being flexible and being willing to constantly question and experiment.
Jeena Cho: [00:43:39] I love that. SaraEllen, for the listeners out there that want to learn more about you or check out your blog or connect with you, what are the best ways of doing that?
SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:43:50] I would love it if you would check out my blog, it is at saraellenhutchison.com. And Sara does not have an "H" and Hutchison does not have an "N" there, it's just the end "Hutch-is-son." And you can also check out my practice website that is seattlefaircredit.com.
Jeena Cho: [00:44:18] Awesome. SaraEllen, thank you so much for joining me today.
SaraEllen Hutchison: [00:44:23] Thank you. I am honored to be part of this great podcast.
[00:44:33] Thanks for joining us on The Resilient Lawyer podcast. If you've enjoyed the show, please tell a friend. It's really the best way to grow the show. To leave us a review on iTunes, search for The Resilient Lawyer and give us your honest feedback. It goes a long way to help with our visibility when you do that, so we really appreciate it. As always, we'd love to hear from you. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks and we look forward to seeing you next week.