RL 90: Megan Boyd — Placing Your Mental Health First and Transitioning From Law
Release Date: 06/18/2018
In this episode, I am excited to have Megan Boyd on to talk about what transitioning into a new career from law looks like.
Megan Boyd is a lecturer at Georgia State University College of Law. Before entering academia, Megan served as a law clerk and practiced law at a mid-sized firm, where she did insurance coverage and bad faith work as co-chairperson of the firm's appellate practice group. She has written numerous articles about legal writing and is a frequent speaker on that topic at continuing legal education events and conferences throughout the country. She is also the co-author of the book "Show, Don't Tell: Legal Writing for the Real World."
- How she made the decision to leave the traditional law practice and focus on legal writing, and her advice to law students to better prepare them for working in a law practice.
- Advice for students and lawyers thinking about leaving law; understanding that although the job can be stressful, constant anxiety towards the amount of work is unhealthy, and balancing your happiness with a career is possible.
- How to discern when is the right time to re-evaluate your happiness/career, and tools to help manage work anxiety.
- Challenges with and benefits of leaving the law practice.
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Megan Boyd: [00:00:09] When you find something that you love, one of two things will happen. Either the money will come, or it won't but you won't care.
Intro: [00:00:18] 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: [00:00:40] Hello my friends, thanks for joining me for another episode of The Resilient Lawyer podcast. In this episode, I have Megan Boyd. She is a lecturer at Georgia State University College of Law. Before entering academia, Megan served as a law clerk and practiced law at a mid-sized firm, where she did insurance coverage and bad-faith work as co-chairperson of the firm's appellate practice group. She's written numerous articles about legal writing, and is a frequent speaker on the topic at CLE events at conferences around the country. She is also the co-author of the book "Show, Don't Tell: Legal Writing for the Real World." I wanted to have Megan on the show to chat about career options for lawyers that don't want to practice law anymore.
[00:01:25] Also, if you haven't listened to the last bonus episodes, go back and check it out. It was on May 16th and May 30th. I shared 2 six-minute meditation and mindfulness practices to help you let go of stress and anxiety. It's a preview for my course, Mindful Pause. I know for so many lawyers, finding any time for themselves and giving the thinking mind a rest can be a huge challenge. So I wanted to create a course that can fit easily into even the busiest lawyer's schedule. It's called Mindful Pause, and you can learn more about it on JeenaCho.com. Again, that's "J-E-E-N-A-C-H-O" dot com, or head on over to the show notes to check it out. And with that, here's Megan. Hi Megan, welcome to the show.
Megan Boyd: [00:02:13] Hi Jeena, thank you for having me.
Jeena Cho: [00:02:15] Let's start by having you give us a 30-second introduction of who you are and what you do.
Megan Boyd: [00:02:19] Sure, my name is Megan Boyd. I'm a lecturer at Georgia State University College of Law. I teach a number of different classes, including legal writing classes, animal law, civil procedure (which is going to be new for me this coming year), and I have written a number of articles about legal writing. I do CLE's and speak at conferences about it, and I am the co-author of a book on legal writing, so it's a topic that I'm very, very interested in.
Jeena Cho: [00:02:48] And so I want to start your story back when you were in law school. When did you decide, law practice isn't right for me?
Megan Boyd: [00:03:03] So, I loved law school itself. I mean literally loved every minute of it. I'm that rare person who really, really enjoy law school, because I love to learn, I loved the environment. But after my second year of law school, I did a summer clerkship, was a summer associate, and it was a really, really terrible experience. And I found myself crying on my drive home most days, and I just knew that this was not normal.
[00:03:31] Something was wrong, and so I thought do I really want to be a lawyer, if this is what lawyers do every day? And obviously a summer associate experience is not necessarily indicative of what lawyers do every day, but the fact that I was unhappy doing that told me that there might be some problems in the future. But I graduated from law school in 2008, a lot of my classmates didn't have jobs and I felt really lucky to have a job. I had gone straight through from college to law school, and I needed to get out and earn some money and try this at least, I thought. Even though I was pretty sure after that second-year summer that I did not want to practice law for the rest of my life, which was really sad and hard and difficult, a really, really, difficult situation to find yourself in. Because I still had one more year of school to go, and I'm thinking did I make a huge mistake in coming to law school? And now thinking, I'm going to have spent these three years going to school to be a part of a profession that I don't think I really want to be a part of.
Jeena Cho: [00:04:47] Wow, yeah.
Megan Boyd: [00:04:49] So that was tough.
Jeena Cho: [00:04:50] Yeah. And going to law school is such a huge commitment, and to be halfway through it and go oh, did I make a mistake? That must have been really hard and scary.
Megan Boyd: [00:05:02] It was, it was really tough and really scary. And the prospect of being as unhappy as I was that summer for the next 30 years or more was really, really daunting for me. And again, I went back for my third year. And I loved law school so much, and I couldn't figure out why it was that I didn't like doing the things that lawyers do. And subsequently, I figured out what it was about law practice that I didn't really enjoy. But at the time, I really couldn't put my finger on it.
Jeena Cho: [00:05:41] What were the specifics for why you didn't enjoy law practice?
Megan Boyd: [00:05:46] Well I think one of the things is that I am a Type A person, which many lawyers are, but I did not like not having control over my own schedule. I always felt like I could not anticipate what each day would bring. And I know for some people that's a really exciting thing, they love new challenges and things like that. But I'm the type of person where I need to get up each day and be able to know what my day was going to look like, and further ahead what the next few days or the rest of the week was going to look like. And I never felt like I could do that in law practice, because there were always "emergencies" that weren't really emergencies that would come up. Or I would have prepared extensively to go take a deposition and it would get canceled the night before, and I had in my mind mentally prepared for that and that's what I'm going to be doing tomorrow. And I just found that that was really bothersome for me. And I remember the first year I practiced law, a big document review project came up right before Thanksgiving.
[00:06:57] And this was when we had a bunch of documents still on paper. And I remember lugging home binders and binders full of paper, and sitting on my grandmother's floor over my Thanksgiving holiday when I wanted to be spending time with my family, sitting and reviewing these documents. And it was a miserable experience.
Jeena Cho: [00:07:22] So when you're working with law students now, how do you have that conversation about the realities of being a lawyer? Because so much of what you say, and I'm sure every lawyer that's listening to this podcast is like yeah, that's just what law practice looks like. So what do you tell the law students?
Megan Boyd: [00:07:44] So I walk a really fine line, because I never want to discourage anyone from being a lawyer, from completing law school and becoming a lawyer. Because I do think that in many ways it's a really great, honorable profession. And there are many people I know who are happy practicing law. So I never want my dissatisfaction with law practice to rub off on them. But I do talk to them quite a lot about figuring out what it is in law that you want to do, what is it that motivates you? I'm thinking about writing a little article for the ABA law student blog about this, but I think one of the things that I did not do as a law student and that would have served me well was to figure out what it is that motivates me, what it is about law practice that I enjoy. And then look for a job or look for a job in the future that met all of my criteria and the things that I wanted.
Some people are motivated by money, and that's absolutely fine. Other people are motivated by doing good, having that hands-on client contact and making a real difference in some folk's lives. Other people are motivated by a job where they get a lot of praise and they feel like they're being told on a regular basis that they're doing a good job, and that they're earning their keep and that type of thing. So I really encourage students to figure out what it is that motivates them early on, and to work for that and toward that. I always tell students, so many of the students that I see and so many people who go to law school are motivated by the prospect of money. And I tell them from my own experience, when you find something that you love one of two things will happen: either the money will come, or it won't but you won't care. And I think that that's a really important thing for law students and young lawyers, and even more developed lawyers to remember. When taking a risk in particular, maybe changing a practice area or firm, or whatever the case may be. That when you're doing something that you really love, even if you are motivated by money, it stops mattering.
Jeena Cho: [00:10:08] Yeah, that's really great advice. And also, I really appreciate the fact that you're willing to have these conversations with law students. Because when I was in law school, I don't know that I had a whole lot of conversations with my professors about the actual practice of law. And it's kind of a charming experience to go from law school to my first job and go, I don't really know anything and no one told me about having to work around the clock. And just the constant level of anxiety that I would feel.
Megan Boyd: [00:10:44] Yeah, and talking about things that made me ill-suited for the practice of law, that was one of the things as well. I lived in pretty much 24/7, constant anxiety. When I started practicing law, initially I would look forward every week to Friday because I would have the whole weekend. And then the dread would start setting in on Sunday afternoon, which was bad in of itself. But the longer I practiced, it got to the point where I didn't even have my weekends anymore; the dread started setting in earlier and earlier, and there was no point at which I was happy or comfortable, or anxiety-free.
Jeena Cho: [00:11:34] Wow. So, did that anxiety dissipate once you left law practice and went into academia?
Megan Boyd: [00:11:42] So I will tell you that it did, but it took a number of years for it to come down, which sounds strange. So I initially practiced at one law firm, and about two years in I left to go to another law firm. And changing firms did make some difference, because at the second firm I had a little bit more control over my own schedule. Still not any real control, right, because of clients and courts and scheduling, things like that. But I had more control, and so it did get a little better there. And I thought for about a year, maybe I can do this; maybe I was wrong, maybe it was just the two prior environments that I was in. But after about a year of being at that job, I still was not happy. So I knew that I really had to consider making the change. Once I left law practice, it really took about two years for me to come down from the constant level of stress and anxiety that I existed under when I practiced law.
Jeena Cho: [00:12:52] Wow.
Megan Boyd: [00:12:53] And that was, it was amazing to me that it didn't immediately dissipate. I think in my mind I thought it would, I thought as soon as I leave law practice all of a sudden my life will change immediately. And it didn't, it really took a while to get rid of all of that anxiety that had built up inside of me.
Jeena Cho: [00:13:16] Because you know, I think that's always something that I struggle with internally. How much of the anxiety is just the way that I am wired? And so going and seeing a therapist and getting more tools under my belt, having a mindfulness practice and having all of these tools to manage anxiety is really what I need? Or is it just that the job itself is wrong for me? So I feel like it's always that dance of being able to discern the two. Do you have thoughts on that? Because you can experience anxiety in any job, but how much of it is sort of you having to do internal work on yourself and have tools to manage anxiety, versus an, "I just need to leave this job" kind of situation?
Megan Boyd: [00:14:14] Yeah, it's definitely both. I am a high-anxiety person; I always have been. So it's not that my job now is no anxiety by any stretch of the imagination. So I think that one of the things that leaving law practice made me see was that I needed to learn to control the anxiety that is always present within me. Now my anxiety decreased substantially by the end of those two years after I left, but it certainly didn't go away. And again, that was something that was surprising to me because I thought it would. So that's when I really started looking into how can I learn to control the anxiety that is always going to exist within me. I'm one of those weird people who if I don't have something to make me anxious, I start creating possible things to make me anxious; it's that bad. So it was once I left law that I was able to start thinking more deeply about tools and strategies and the work I needed to do so that I could live a life that I didn't need to take a vacation from all the time.
Jeena Cho: [00:16:11] What were some of those tools or help or strategies that you found to be helpful for managing that persistent, low-grade anxiety?
Megan Boyd: [00:16:17] One of the things that I learned from a therapist (she taught me a lot of really great things, but) was every day I would write down (I would just do it on my phone, make myself a little note) ten things that I was grateful for. And in going back and looking at some of those now from years ago, it's many of the same things. And at first I had trouble coming up with ten things that I was grateful for; I was in such a bad state that I couldn't really think of ten things that I was grateful for. And every now and then, even now when I'm feeling a lot of anxiety, I will sit down and do that. And sometimes it's something really simple, like I was able to take a nap today. And sometimes its big things, like my family and my friends and stuff like that. So that was one of the things that really helped me. It sounds really simple, but it really helped me focus on the things in my life that bring me joy and that make me happy. Instead of focusing on the things in my life that stress me out, give me anxiety. So that was one of the things.
[00:17:23] Meditation practice is another, I use an app called Insight Timer. I recommend it to students who I talk to who have anxiety issues, I think Insight Timer is really great. Sometimes I use the guided meditations, sometimes it's just the music. But it really puts me in a good state, if I'm willing to focus and work on the meditation. You know that's another thing, meditation is really a practice; it does require effort. That's the misnomer people think, that meditation you can just sit and do it and not have to work at it, just passively. But doing that, learning to take better care of myself in terms of doing things that I enjoy. For so much of my life, literally everything I did was work. My therapist used to tell me that I collect jobs like people collect knick-knacks. Because at any given time I would have two or three jobs that I was doing; I am a workaholic and I've always been a workaholic.
And it's stepping back from that, and I honestly had gotten to a point where I could not remember the things that I enjoyed doing that weren't work. Which is a really sad and sick place to find yourself in. I remember one thing I started doing is I really liked to read magazines, so I would give myself permission every week when I would go to the grocery store on Sunday, to buy a magazine. I didn't want one that came in in the mail, but to actually purchase a magazine and to sit down and read it. Which Was something that I really enjoyed, but I had gotten to a point in my life where everything that I used to enjoy no longer brought me any joy, because when I was doing it I was just worried about what I needed to be doing instead. Exercise is great for me; I need to exercise on a regular basis. When I do not it is not good for my mental health. So it's just knowing that and knowing that even if I really, really don't want to go to the gym or don't want to go for a walk or run, that I really need to do so for my own health, that it's a self-care thing.
Jeena Cho: [00:19:35] I love all of those, and that word self-care is just so key. It's funny, I also had a therapist that suggested I write down just three things I'm grateful for every day. And I actually started having so much anxiety around the fact that my grateful list wasn't good enough. I'd write down things like, I'm so grateful for the lunch that I ate today, and then I'd be like oh my gosh really, you're grateful for your lunch?!
Megan Boyd: [00:20:00] Right, yeah. You know my therapist was really good at telling me, these can be silly things. They can absolutely be silly, they don't have to be big, monumental things. I laugh, I always tell people I am the best direction follower you can possibly imagine. So I was dutiful about doing this, and I would bring it and I would show it to her and she would give me approval, and I was like yes I've done this right!
[00:20:30] Which is in itself not the greatest thing, but I was dutiful about doing it. And the more I did it, the easier it sort of got to do. And again, it sounds like a really silly thing, but it really, really did have a big impact on me. And like I said, even now I'll go back and I'll read the things that I wrote as long as four or five years ago, and see what it was that day that I was feeling really grateful for. And it's many of the same things that I feel grateful for now, so it's a reminder that these really good things are still in my life.
Jeena Cho: [00:21:08] I use an app called Happy Feed, kind of the same thing. It's three things you are grateful for, it prompts you. And I also like being able to scroll back and see what I wrote previously. I'm also a huge fan of Insight Timer. I have some of my guided meditations on there too, so definitely check it out. And what I love about Insight Timer is that you get stars, and I feel like as adults we need more opportunities where someone give you a gold star for a job well done.
Megan Boyd: [00:21:36] Yeah, absolutely. I love it that it's like you've meditated five days in a row. And I'm like yes, yes I have! Again, it's the gold star thing. It's really good at cheering you on. And I think Insight Timer is really cool because it has so many different options for you. So whether you want a really short practice or longer practice, whether you want to sleep, whether you need help with anxiety, or various things that you can put into Insight Timer and it'll pop up with suggestions for meditations and talks and all kinds of things that will really help you.
Jeena Cho: [00:22:14] And for the younger attorneys out there, or even law students that are like, I just don't think law practice is right for me. What advice or tools or strategies would you offer to them?
Megan Boyd: [00:22:32] I would say that you need to at least try it out. Even though I really didn't want to, I needed to go and try it out and see if maybe it was just a bad time in my life that led me to believe this. And so I stuck it out for five years, but it was about at the end of year three where I started getting ready to make my move. And it took two years for me to do it. So I think that that's a good lesson, because even if you get in and you're like gosh, I really, really am ill-suited for this, I need to find something else to do. It's oftentimes really difficult to do that. It's figuring out how to, number one. And it's getting up the courage to do so. That was one of the things that was hard for me, because as unhappy as I was, it was still fear of the unknown was worse than the unhappiness that I felt. And actually, one of the things that I did was I got some bonus money (one of the years when I got a bonus) and I took that money and I hired a career coach. I remember some of my friends saying, that's a waste of money, you don't even know that that's going to work. And I said yeah, but what I'm doing right now isn't working so it's worth a shot. And the thing is that the stuff that the career coach did for me was nothing that was rocket science right?
Now in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. But what she did was sit me down and say, "What is it you like to do? Are there parts of law practice that you really enjoy? Could we figure out a way for you to practice law so you did mostly those things and little of other things?" And she really got me thinking about what is it that I do really enjoy about law. I loved law school, as I've said several times here, and I really thought that I might want to go teach. I had no idea how to get on the path to do that, and she really helped me to figure out what I needed to do to get to a point where I could go into academia and teach. And again, because I'm a good direction follower I did everything that she asked me to do. She would give me homework assignments and it was the fear of disappointing her or letting her down that really motivated me to do them, because they were things that made a lot of sense but it required me to reach out to people and go outside of my comfort zone. And without that additional motivation, I'm not sure I would have done it on my own or I would have done it as quickly as I did.
Jeena Cho: [00:26:30] Yeah and I think that's really the key, is to do those things that scare you and make you uncomfortable. Because that's really the only way you're going to grow and find your path.
Megan Boyd: [00:26:38] Yeah, absolutely. I talk to so many lawyers who my friends, my age, many older, who are really, really unhappy, but they're not willing to put in the work it would take to figure out how to change what they do or to leave law. There's not a lot of advice that either you or I or really anybody else can offer somebody who's just not willing to do that. It is scary, it takes a lot of courage to leave something that you've spent so many years of your life both preparing for and doing. And so you really have to motivate yourself to get up that courage to do it, or you're never going to leave. Because let's face it, there are lawyers who make a ton of money and lawyers who don't make a lot, but nobody is living at the poverty line. People who practice law for the most part make an okay living to survive.
[00:27:36] So for those people like me, who made a pretty good living, it's also hard mentally to think to yourself, I'm going to be leaving all of this for the unknown. I know when I was getting ready to leave, people (including my family members) thought that I was just absolutely out of my mind. They said why would you leave what you have? You have a great job, you're doing well at your firm (which I was), you have a job that many people would die to have. Why are you voluntarily giving this up? And it was again having the strength and courage to be like, this isn't for me. And it took years to get up that courage, it wasn't something that happened immediately.
Jeena Cho: [00:28:21] And also I think that's where working with a coach is really helpful, because they're not going to have an agenda. "You have such a good thing going, why don't you just stay?" They're going to be unbiased and figure out what is it that you want, not what your friends think you should do or what your family thinks you should do. So I think that's the other benefit of working with a coach.
Megan Boyd: [00:28:34] Yeah, absolutely. And that's where it's different than talking with friends or things like that, people who know you. Having somebody like a coach or a therapist, who is unbiased and who is not willing to put up with your crap, is really, really important. Not everybody can afford to hire a career coach or things like that, but I think finding somebody you can talk to, who will give you good advice is key. And honestly it's frightening; it was frightening for me because I didn't want my firm to know that I was thinking about leaving law practice. So I was initially very hesitant to even tell anybody, and it was actually the telling people once I got more comfortable with that idea that really got me thinking about other things that I could do. Because of course my experience was somewhat limited, but talking to other folks they said, have you thought about doing this, or have you thought about going here? And it was really sharing that with other people and hearing their feedback that convinced me that I could do it; that it was something that I could do, and that the world wouldn't end if I left.
Jeena Cho: [00:29:45] And so much of that is thoughts that are not based in fact or reality.
Megan Boyd: [00:29:48] Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. You know I really loved the boss that I worked for at my firm, so much so that my friends would say, yeah if you can't be happy practicing law for him you can't really be happy practicing law. And I absolutely thought that that was true. And one of the things that was very stressful for me was leaving him, because he was great and he was so good to me. So that stressed me out, and I left and the world didn't end, and everything is fine. He's still practicing law and doing great, and has other associates and partners who work for him, and everything is fine. But again, when you're caught sort of in yourself and in your own head, that was something that also stressed me out. Money is a huge stressor for many people who want to leave the law but don't feel like they can because of finances.
I wasn't a person who was in that position because I didn't really have a lot of loans from law school, I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to go to law school so I didn't have a lot of student loans. I hadn't bought a big house or a fancy car, I didn't have children in private school; I wasn't caught by the golden handcuffs. And so I felt that I had a lot more ability to do this than maybe some other lawyers did. But it still took preparation for me to leave. My job after I left traditional law practice was as a law clerk for a judge, and I made less than half of the money there that I made the year before. So that required looking at my finances and figuring out what am I spending extraneous money on that I don't really need to. And I found that there were a lot of things that I was doing and buying that I was doing and buying to make myself feel better.
[00:32:49] I was justifying my retail therapy; I had worked so hard, I had been up late at the office many nights in a row preparing for this trial, and then it settled. So I'm going to go out and buy myself something to celebrate all the hard work I've put it in. And once you get to a place where you're happy with your job and happy in your life, you don't need that anymore. But for anybody who's thinking about leaving, obviously money is something that you have to think about. You have to start preparing for that ahead of time, reducing your debt or minimizing your expenses, or figuring out can my spouse maybe go back to work or go back to work full-time, and can we make this work in that way if I do this? I don't think for most lawyers it's something that you can just one day say I'm going to do this and immediately make that happen.
Jeena Cho: [00:33:49] Megan, it was so nice having you on the show. For the listeners out there that want to connect with you, what are some of the ways they can connect with you?
Megan Boyd: [00:33:51] I am pretty active on Twitter, my handle is @LadyLegalWriter. And I tweet about language and writing and travel, and other things that just really interests me. And anybody who is interested in chatting about leaving law practice or figuring out ways to find an area of law practice they really love and enjoy, can absolutely e-mail me. I'm happy to chat about it, because again I've done it and I think it always helps to talk to somebody who's done it before. And so my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeena Cho: [00:34:23] And Megan, my last question to you is this. The name of this podcast is called The Resilient Lawyer. What does it mean to be a resilient lawyer to you?
Megan Boyd: [00:34:31] To me, being a resilient lawyer means always learning from everything that you do. Whether it's law-based, learning from past mistakes that you've made, figuring out what you would do different in handling cases in the future. Or learning more about yourself as you go along in law practice, and figuring out what it is again that motivates you. What are the areas that you love, what are the areas that you don't love as much, and how can you figure out a way to develop a law practice in the traditional sense, or to move outside of a traditional law practice to find something that really makes you happy and brings you joy? Because now that I have that in my life, I realize how unhappy I was beforehand and how I would be so unhappy now if I were still in the area of practice and in the traditional law practice that I was in. So it's absolutely about figuring those things out, and being willing to take a chance and figure out what it is that really motivates you, and to move outside of what people think that you should be doing or should do into something that you love and that you want to do.
Jeena Cho: [00:35:41] Great advice. Megan, thank you so much for joining me today.
Megan Boyd: [00:35:44] Thank you Jeena.
Closing: [00:35:44] 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 email@example.com. Thanks, and look forward to seeing you next week.