Episode Synopsis:Self-described “recovering attorney” Katheryn Burmeister joins Scott Key for a candid conversation about her journey in law, from starting her own firm to abandoning the status quo in search of happiness and fulfillment. She shares how her battle with burnout and the sudden, tragic loss of a mentor caused her to reevaluate her career path, and cautions fellow legal professionals to avoid becoming addicted to success.
Kathryn: When I talk about living this status quo and overcoming that, people will keep up appearances professionally, not just white picket fence with 2.5 kids, professionally to their own detriment. And I’ve seen it happen over and over again. Some of the most “successful lawyers” in the city and across the country have these things that happen because they put themselves in that situation. And that’s why I say that status quo and living to the status quo is an addiction. I’m not being flippant when I say that. I genuinely believe that people do things to the detriment of themselves and others to keep up with the status quo. And for lawyers, the status quo is being seen as successful.
Scott: I’ve often said if we were building the law from the ground up starting today in the court system from the ground up starting today, it wouldn’t look anything like it does. If there was a silver lining to the pandemic, and it’s not a thing that really has a silver lining, but if there were a silver lining to the pandemic, it would be that it forced us as a profession to look at the way we practice law, the way we handle court. And it forced us to make some major leaps and bounds in the use of remote working and virtual court systems. And I’m afraid that some of that is receding, and some of the innovations that we’ve gained, we’re starting to lose because we are I suppose reverting to the bean, you turn the legal profession around about the way you turn a battleship around very slowly, and sometimes there are forces at play that would discourage efficiency. For instance, judges, I think don’t like the convenience of virtual court because the convenience of it makes it harder to compel people to enter guilty pleas or to settle cases simply because they just get worn down by all of the court appearances and maybe the courts became too efficient over time.
But I’ve often said, again, if we were going to build the court system from the ground up, it wouldn’t look like it does. And Kathryn Burmeister and I talked a little bit about those issues, although we talked about some bigger issues in the practice of law and how the use of the traditional office and the trappings of success and law sometimes bring us down as a profession, sometimes individually contribute to the undoing of many lawyers. And so Kathryn Burmeister shared her story with what she went through in her transition from a lawyer practicing in what seemed like a successful law practice into something that was quite dysfunctional in her transition to her own law office and how she built it from the ground up and her transition to being a consultant to other unhappy lawyers to try to find some peace of mind practicing law.
This was a really fantastic podcast that has caused me to re-examine a lot of the old assumptions that we have about what it even is to be successful as an attorney and how often it is steeped in some materialistic view that is not even what we want. But sometimes we devolve into trying to impress people we don’t particularly care for, to begin with, and it doesn’t make us any happier. It actually leads to our undoing, so lots of big practice issues in this podcast. I hope you’ll enjoy it and I hope you’ll also check out Kathryn Burmeister’s book, her website, a lot of the great resources, and things she does to help other lawyers. And so without further delay, I give you Kathryn Burmeister. Kathryn, it’s so good to have you. I have been looking forward to this. I think we’ve been friends on LinkedIn a really long time, and then a mutual friend said that I should have you on the podcast. I’m very honored. I’ve been looking forward to this.
Kathryn: Oh, thank you for having me. I really appreciate it. It’s one of those things on LinkedIn where you know a lot of people but don’t “know” know a lot of people. So it’s good that we’ve made this full circle.
Scott: Absolutely. So, I do this with every podcast guest. I have them introduce themselves. And I’m gonna ask you this question, and you can take it as a simple factual question or you can take it as a deeply philosophical question or somewhere in between. But who is Kathryn Burmeister?
Kathryn: Yeah. I think my knee-jerk reaction is deeply philosophical.
Scott: That’s what I always hope for.
Kathryn: Yeah. I’m a very passionate, authentic person who wants to make my corner of the world the best that it can be, to the extent that I can make that a bigger corner, that’s great. But I also recognize, you know, just limitations in life and other people and the world in general, so just making my place as good as I can make it for others and myself.
Scott: And specifically then, what is it that you would say you do for a living? What do you hope to do when you grow up?
Kathryn: Right. So I’m now saying that I am a soon-to-be recovering attorney. I have a, right now, full-time practice in personal injury that I’ve been running since 2018. But I am pivoting to being the happiness lawyer, so helping lawyers basically live a fulfilling life. Unfortunately, a lot of us if not all of us have a fear of failure, and that fear of failure really holds us back from leaning into who we want to be and recognizing who we want to be even. So, my goal is to help people figure out who they are, where they want to be, and how to get there like I’ve done for myself.
Scott: And we’ll talk about the process of being a recovering lawyer a little bit later. I’m always curious and I always ask everybody who’s a lawyer on the show, who I think is everybody I’ve had on the show has been a lawyer so far. Well, no, I’ve had a jury consultant. I take that back. But she also has a law degree. What made you want to become a lawyer? What was it that drew you to the law? How did you get there?
Kathryn: Yeah. In middle school…I’ve always been an avid reader but especially in middle school, I was just devouring books. And we had to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” And those two writings together really just set a lightbulb off for me. Particularly, even though Martin Luther King is not a lawyer, obviously, this idea of just and unjust laws resonated, and then “To Kill a Mockingbird” obviously, standing up for what’s just through the law and making a difference in that regard or trying to at least make a difference. So, really seeing that power come to light through a profession made me want to be a lawyer. Nobody in my family was a lawyer. I didn’t know any lawyers. But I literally decided that’s what I want to do and figured out, “Okay, how did I get there?” And laid out all the steps between where I was in being a lawyer and just set myself on that path.
Scott: Tell me about that path, you going out of high school, where did you go, and what did you major in, and what were the things that you were doing, you know, kind of in that part of your educational journey to become a lawyer?
Kathryn: Sure. So I even did joint enrollment where…I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. My senior year in high school, instead of going to classes there, I took college classes at Kennesaw State, and then the other half of my day would be spent actually working in a law firm. So I was quick to get exposure to all different types of law and size firms so I could really say, “Hey, is this what I want to do for the rest of my life?”
So, I worked in a small general practice room in Canton during my high school senior year. After I graduated from high school, I went down to Mercer and worked at a big international firm during the summers as a document clerk. And I did that for a couple years, and then I took two years off after undergrad, worked there full time still at that international firm, and then went to law school. And I was able to start exposing myself to even more practice areas, which included personal injury.
So my third year of law school was when I first came in touch with PI, and I fell in love with it. I just love the idea of that David and Goliath mentality going against the insurance companies and standing up for people who had been wronged in a physical way. So, it just really resonated with me. That was my first exposure. And so from there, I ended up holding out for a plaintiff’s job because I’d obviously worked big firm defense and desperately did not want to go back to it. I knew how draining it could be and not in a good way. Draining when you’re passionate about something is, you know, different than draining and just being miserable. So, I really held out for that plaintiff’s job and ended up getting it not long after I got licensed.
Scott: This is the plaintiff’s job that you discussed for the bulk of your book.
Kathryn: Yes, it is. So my book “Overcoming Addiction to the Status Quo,” the middle part of that is where I talk about that experience with that first firm, my dream job.
Scott: Uh-uh. So, when you were going through law school, it was fairly late in the game that you decided that you wanted to do plaintiff’s work.
Kathryn: It was. I mean, I’d always been interested in criminal. I mean, it’s sexy, so I think that’s why it’s appealing to a lot of people. I considered family law, and really, my original passion was animal law. I’m a huge animal advocate generally and really had seen through philanthropic work that I’d done, the law being used to advocate for better conditions for domestic animals, farm animals, wild animals. And I wanted to do that. It turns out, in the Southeast, there really isn’t a big demand for that. Most of that demand is out on the West Coast, and even then it’s a very small group of people. So, as a practical matter, I decided to get something that was more…get into something that was more sustainable for the long term and allowed me to stay where I am since my roots are here. My husband was already here working for a number of years at the same company, and fortunately, I found something I was just as passionate about.
Scott: Yeah. You know, I think the one animal rights lawyer in the state has already been a guest on the podcast. It’s interesting that you mentioned that. Jessica Rock is someone that I interviewed…
Kathryn: Yep, I know her.
Scott: …several months ago, and she’s great and inspirational.
Kathryn: Oh, she’s amazing. Yeah.
Scott: You decide to go into plaintiff. And I got from the book that you had maybe…I know that you were in that international law firm for a little bit when you were in school. And I got the sense that you maybe had some experience in big law other than that as well, or am I reading that wrong?
Kathryn: No, that was all at the same law firm. So, it was just two summers in undergrad and then two years after undergrad that I worked there. So it’s broken up a little bit but all at the same firm doing the same type of work.
Scott: Yeah. And you talk about some struggles with the bar exam and with law school and, you know, trying to find the right job. One thing that comes across to me, not only when you talk about the journey you took to become a lawyer, but also what you went through as a lawyer is, you know, you do talk a lot about vulnerability, and we’ll get to that. And, you know, you reference Brené Brown quite a bit, who’s really big on vulnerability. But, you know, what comes across and I don’t think this is ever an adjective that you use to describe yourself in the book. But I finished this book thinking, “Man, she’s tough.” I thought, “Man…” You’re actually very tough to have gone through what you went…first of all, to go through what you went through and to talk about it in a book that openly and then to have gone through the experience in the firm with its, kind of…I guess we’ll call it…I’ll call it a meltdown. There’s a lot of toughness in that.
Kathryn: Thank you. Yeah, it was. And you’re right. I don’t describe myself as that. I don’t even think I use resilient even though I recognize that I am. It’s one of those things…I want people to learn from it. I don’t want people to think I’m looking for gold stars at the end of the day, and also not least of which I think there’s plenty of other people that are tough and resilient too. And I don’t want to detract from those stories. So I’m always trying to be conscious of that. But no, I appreciate that. I think that’s ultimately why I was able to pivot to having my own practice. And then now transitioning to being the happiness lawyer is I’ve realized how strong and resilient I am. And I hadn’t really believed it up until that point.
Scott: Well, you know, it’s interesting, usually when lawyers talk about starting their own practice. You know, that’s an incredibly hard thing to do. But I guess you, sort of, realized you had been running a practice all along.
Kathryn: Yeah, pretty much.
Scott: It’s almost like when you get to the part where you’re starting your own practice in the book, that almost sounds easy compared to what you had been doing.
Kathryn: 100%. Yeah, I never wanted my own practice. I never wanted my own business. And after I’d gone through what I had with the meltdown, like you said, I’m going to start describing it as Chernobyl because that is a great way to do it. Yeah, it did seem easy. I wasn’t afraid anymore because I’ve been…I won’t say scared straight because there’s nothing straight to scare me about. I stared into the face of what I thought the worst could be. And I think at that point when you’ve done it, you think the worst that can happen is I have to start over, go get a new job. Things don’t seem as scary when you see the worst for yourself.
Scott: Now, that PI job, and we’ll talk more about it in a minute, that you took, was that your first law job out of law school as a newly admitted lawyer?
Kathryn: No, I had a short stint at a small firm…a small PI firm where a lot of promises were made, and the partner did not fulfill those, not, you know, things don’t work out, kind of, way, just blatantly, kind of, did a 180. And I was told I was a luxury that he couldn’t afford. And he started making allegations that I wasn’t working, you know, and completing the work, which was baseless in its entirety. So I had a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth about just the realities of the world anyway. But I was there for a little bit after I’d been licensed and then went back looking for another plaintiff’s job in personal injury.
Scott: I mean, the way you describe when you interview for the job that you ended up in for a while, it has a movie quality to it. There’s a cinematic quality to it. I mean, it is very much like the beginning of a Grisham book.
Kathryn: It is. It’s crazy. I did not intend for it to be that way, but it just literally started to take that life on its own.
Scott: As I recall the scene, it’s fancy conference room. It’s, you know, floor-to-ceiling windows. You go in and you ask for a particular salary. You have, kind of, an older seemingly mentor figure who says, “No, you’re not asking for nearly enough,” and you’re offered a higher salary than the one you requested. And things seem like they’re going well.
Kathryn: Yeah, that’s exactly what happened. I’ve never had an easier interview process. It seemed like everything clicked and fell into place. I got along with the partner. I got along with the associate that was there, the senior associate that was doing the interview as well. It worked. It seemed like it was kismet.
Scott: How big a firm was it?
Kathryn: So, there was the partner, two other associates…so two associates, the one that was interviewing me, one other man, and then myself, and there was a support staff of three at that time, so fairly small.
Scott: And then you get into it and I think you pretty soon have your own caseload and I think he’s taking you to court with him and you’re sitting in for depositions and things seem, kind of, perfect.
Kathryn: Oh, yeah, definitely. And I had my own paralegal. We brought somebody else on who…she was just amazing, had no training in the legal field at all but was quick to learn and attentive to detail, which, in my opinion, is really all you need for somebody to actually do well in the legal profession. You can teach all the other stuff. But, yeah, I was going. I was doing…my partner was really teaching me the right way in terms of practicing. He wasn’t keeping us under his thumb and having us just do grunt work, which so many firms…I don’t even think it’s a necessity. I think they just choose to do that, almost keeping you in the background and not really letting you be a “real lawyer.”
Scott: So, I mean, it sounds like to some extent…and we’ll talk about where things went terribly wrong later. But it sounds like to some extent, you did get some good mentoring in the early time that you were in that firm.
Kathryn: Oh, I did. And that’s what’s probably the hardest to reconcile once we get to that other…you know, the other part of the story is I was taught right, you know, the right things in how to be a good lawyer and a detailed and dedicated one. So it makes the whole situation even worse in a way. I don’t know. I mean, at least I got the benefit of that. So I guess that’s not obviously a bad thing, but it just makes it a little more astounding what happened.
Scott: And how long were you there before the big thing happened that, kind of, changed everything?
Kathryn: A year and a half.
Scott: Okay. And in that year and a half, I mean, had you gone to trial and done things like that at that point?
Kathryn: So, we had not gone to trial. Everything ended up resolving ahead of time literally like the night before. But a number of trials had already taken place before I’d started there. I was, you know, initiating suit, following through with complex discovery and, you know, advanced litigation pieces. So, I really was doing, you know, the entire case except for the trial, and again, that wasn’t lack for trying of any of us. It just…they were settling.
Scott: But you were getting close to and you were preparing for trials. I mean, you had done pretty much everything in that year and a half.
Scott: And how old are you at this point in time at the point in time where you’re a new lawyer in this firm?
Kathryn: Oh, good question.
Scott: Or just roughly. I mean, are you in your 20s at this point?
Kathryn: Yeah, I’m still in my 20s.
Scott: And then one day, you get a call in the middle of the night from, I guess, a new partner in the firm, telling you to come in early the next morning, and you don’t know really what it’s about.
Kathryn: No, I don’t. So he was a senior associate who had recently become a new partner. That’s never a good thing, right? Checks in the middle of the night from your employer and anyone in that capacity is never a good thing. So in my mind, again, I’m still new-ish, you know, the youngest one, the newest lawyer, the only female in a male-dominated profession, let alone a male-dominated practice area, I thought it was me. I’ve always been really self-critical, and that’s what I thought.
Scott: You thought you’d done something wrong.
Kathryn: I did, yeah. So we had to be in there before staff, and I get in there with the other associate and the now new partner for just a month. You know, it’s one of those things in your life like where were you when 9/11 happened. It’s the same thing. I can just absolutely see, you know, the room, you know, sitting there and the guest chair’s across from somebody’s desk and the new partner coming in and sitting down behind his desk. I’ve always been very perceptive of people, just the energy, their facial expressions, just vibes, for lack of a better phrase. And I very much knew something was wrong beyond just a mistake. And what probably stood out the most was our actual…the partner who founded the business was not there, and the new partner told us that he had…the founding partner had committed suicide, and he had been stealing from clients for eight years. So, that obviously rocked myself and the other associate to our core to say the least.
Scott: And how long…? Was it immediately known what the motive for the suicide was and that he had been taking money from clients? Or is that something that developed…? I mean, I know the details of it developed over time. Was that immediately apparent?
Kathryn: It was. He left notes. He left notes to the state bar. He left notes to myself and the other associate, the partner, his daughters, the staff. And he literally said in the one to the state bar that we read, “If, you know, it’s between this and prison, this is what I’m doing.” And, you know, I don’t think any of us wanted to believe it because obviously, you don’t want to think that at all about somebody, let alone somebody who you felt like was teaching you the right way to practice law and be a lawyer. And then beyond that, he would be the first person to give you a shirt off of his back. So, it just did not align. I mean, I think we really thought that there was some underlying like, I don’t know, he was covering for something else. Like, it just didn’t make sense. And none of us had any idea or any inclination that anything like that was going on.
Scott: Well, I mean, I know you mentioned in the book that when a case settled and it was time to, sort of, work out the escrow and do the settlement statements that he, kind of, cordoned that off for himself and… I mean, so, you know, I guess hindsight being 2020 as it is, you, kind of, saw that he was taking that portion of the end of a case and, sort of, being secretive about it.
Kathryn: Right. But I wouldn’t even say secretive. How many lawyers, you know, do you know that are unorganized, aren’t good business people?
Scott: Like half the bar. Right.
Kathryn: Right, right. So it’s not that unusual now especially having more experience seeing that it was a little disorganized, that he was still doing things old school in terms of writing checks by hand and not like having it all be done on the computer. And since it was the money part, also I guess, you know, I thought in my mind, “Okay. Well, he’s running the finances so that’s why he’s doing it.” And I didn’t have any other reference point for resolving, you know, cases and settlements and what that process was like except for this. When I worked at the personal injury firm in my third year of law school, it was much more paralegal, you know, new lawyer type work. I wasn’t even getting into like liens and settlement and finances or anything like that. So, I had nothing to base my perception on except for what I saw then.
Scott: And I think one of the things you learned is to some extent what was motivating him to do that is I know he was in a relationship with someone who maybe had addiction issues who may or may not have been extorting him, something like that.
Kathryn: Yeah, I think that was part of it. We knew there were problems there with the relationship, so that’s why my initial reaction was maybe he’s following the sword for her for something and, you know, that he was just saying that it was this. You know, I couldn’t even piece it together. It’s just such a mind-boggling situation when anyone commits suicide clearly, let alone everything else that came with it in that letter. It was just a lot to process. And then also, I mean, there wasn’t any glaring thing. It wasn’t like, oh, he’s driving around in Bentley’s and buying new, you know, Italian suits. He was seriously somebody who wore…they weren’t crocs, but they were like basically crocs shorts and like a fishing shirt. It just didn’t make any sense.
Scott: And, you know, fast forward, it’s basically you and this really great paralegal that you describe and the person you describe in the book as the new partner left to, kind of, pick the pieces up. I know that there’s an issue with, you were dealing with the state bar and you were trying to get all the clients paid off out of…you thought it was going to be insurance proceeds that the family was going to pay to, sort of, get the firm back on its footing. And then they decided to keep that money. It sounded like it was just… I mean, I think I got stressed out reading it.
Kathryn: Yeah, it really… And that’s where I always say it sounds like it could be easily be a John Grisham movie because it is just so dramatic, and every day was something new. I mean, it was already stressful enough, like, again, the situation we were dealing with and let alone finding out new information and having to pivot yet again and pivot it yet again. And you have to keep in mind there was an entire firm to keep running. It was so much. You didn’t even have time to process it.
And what I’ve always done when, you know, significant things have happened in my life, I have a tendency to throw myself into work, and I think a lot of us do that. And it’s a distraction and it keeps us going. Well, when the catastrophic thing is your work, it makes it almost even harder to do or at least compartmentalize, right, because every waking minute was spent thinking about the firm and what had happened and what was going to happen and what we had control of, what we didn’t have control of. It was insane.
Scott: And at this point, you’re in your late 20s. You don’t really have any equity in the firm.
Scott: It would be an easy thing, you know, in that position to walk away from, but you hung on there how long trying to pick the pieces and reorganize?
Kathryn: I held on just over a year. I thought about it while we’d been talking, and I turned 30 the winter after the suicide. So, yeah, I say we…I helped continue this firm from August of 2017 to September of 2018.
Scott: So a little over a year. Sort of the three main characters that are in the book. It would be you and the person you referred to as the new partner and then this really great paralegal.
Scott: And it’s the three of you. And I guess we all deal with trauma in our own way. But it sounds like the new partner maybe was paralyzed, maybe had some decision paralysis, or maybe he seemed to be, kind of, checked out for a good bit of that process.
Kathryn: He did. And I had, to be honest, a really hard time writing this part of the book. I had a hard time living it clearly. And I was so empathetic to what we were experiencing that I gave him a lot of credit where probably I shouldn’t. And I say that only in so far as I was living the same thing too. I get that his name was on the door, but we all went through the same experience. And I was emotionally carrying my own weight, let alone my paralegal’s as, you know, a superior leader, you know, figure and then his as well. My empathy and sympathy at this point has waned dramatically only in so far as, you know, we were all experiencing it. But he did. He checked out mentally and physically.
Scott: Now, one thing I didn’t…I don’t want to do anything that disposes any names or anything because I know you’re very careful to speak very generally. Was this person much older than you or, you know, roughly your same age?
Kathryn: Roughly my same age. I’d say roughly four, five, six years older than me at the most. He had actually grown up with the founding partner’s daughters.
Scott: Okay. I mean, it just sounds like you were just day and night holding this together, taking care of the… I mean, it’s tough to run a firm and bring in new business even under the most normal and ordinary circumstances. But beyond that, you’re trying to make up about…I think it was around a million dollars that you were trying to pay like, sort of, make the original clients whole.
Kathryn: Right. So, I think what’s interesting about this whole situation that we learned is when you have a firm that…not that anybody else is going to be in this situation, God forbid. But we had the firm beforehand. For the month that the senior associate came on as the new partner, that was a new firm, right? And then the founding partner commits suicide. So, during that time that month and then a little bit after, it was a “new firm” And I remember telling him, “You need to change the name.” Like, “You need to at least change the name to distance yourself from this.” So then it basically incorporate…it was just a name change, but still it was a new firm. So, those old firm cases weren’t our cases. They were the old firm’s cases. So, the logistics of managing that when nobody exists from the original firm, it was really convoluted, and unfortunately, the bar didn’t help us at all. I mean, they were right in what they were saying, saying, “They’re not your cases. They’re not your responsibility.” However, we both agreed, yeah, it may not be our responsibility but we…
Scott: There’s a moral.
Kathryn: Right. Clearly, what are we going to do, just not pick up the phone? I didn’t know how that was going to work out in their mind logistically. So we did. We dealt with it to the extent that we could, try to help them, try to get information to them. We didn’t know half the time what was gonna be happening because he died intestate, so without a will. He had no assets to speak of. I mean, I think it was something crazy like $4,000 in his personal assets because he leased a car and, you know, rented a house. The operating account had something like $10,000 left in it. I also had nothing.
Yeah, it was just…the logistics of it were a nightmare, and we finally pieced together that he had stolen about a million dollars. And we thought that the insurance proceeds, so the malpractice insurance proceeds would help. Well, turns out, I mean, it makes sense, if you lie every year on your application for renewal about any known or, you know, likely cases of malpractice arising, they’re not going to cover that when that comes up. So, not only were we not getting the coverage to help compensate these people, but then we’re worried about, okay, what ramifications does it have for us practicing right now, even though we had nothing to do with it.
Scott: Yeah, I mean, that sounds like a frightening turn in your life that you find out that your partner has committed suicide, and there’s no money left in the account. Oh, and the clients and the bar may hold you somewhat accountable.
Kathryn: Oh, yeah, and that’s what I was most afraid of at that point personally is what implications long term is this gonna have on me. And for the longest time, I just didn’t talk about it. And I finally realized that people would not hold me accountable as a new lawyer for something that someone who had practiced for 30 years and who ran all the finances and was the only one on the finances made decisions about. You know, it was the least of my concerns at that point. We were just trying to survive day to day.
Scott: And for about a year, it’s, kind of, you and the paralegal doing this very herculean task of trying to maintain this law firm and fix what was broken with a partner that had been checked out. I want to fast forward to, kind of, the breaking point, which is you’re on what sounds like a wonderful trip. Is it Portugal?
Kathryn: I was in Portugal, yes.
Scott: And you had been horseback riding, and you would come in and, like, you get a phone call from your phone. It’s like in a saddlebag or something.
Kathryn: Yeah, it was on a saddlebag. I mean, because I was taking pictures and stuff on my phone, and is my paralegal. I’m thinking of myself, and clearly, we’ve gotten very close, you know, in this time frame with everything that happened, but I’m like, “This can’t possibly be happening to me.” And I answered the phone, and she needed permission to pay for our private process server to go out and perfect service on a defendant. Then that weekend we were going…the statute was going to run on Monday.
Scott: It was going to run that following Monday, and you had to get this person served.
Kathryn: Yes. And I said, “Yes, of course. Why didn’t you call our partner? And she said, “I did. He’s not responding.” And I said, “Did you leave him a voicemail? Did you check…?” “Yeah.” And he had gone off on a retreat in middle Georgia, a silent retreat. So he wasn’t…literally was not talking, was not answering his phone, was not doing any technology or communication at all. And I left this country thinking that, hey, the person in charge of the business would, you know, take up the slack. And we talked about the statute coming up, everything like we all discussed it. And he hadn’t gotten what he needed to to our paralegal in time for her to discuss it with him before he left and then he just checked out. So that was the point where I just… You know, I knew it was problem clearly anyway, but I managed to compartmentalize for the last bit of the trip. And then I came back on Monday, and he was still on this silent retreat. And I remember, again, sitting at my desk and just not being able to process another thought.
Scott: Because you came dangerously close to malpractice while you were in Portugal, and you thought you were trying to be on vacation.
Kathryn: Yeah, 100%. You know, we checked that box, got that taken care of. And, I mean, anybody who does personal injury and litigation and personal injury knows that, you know, it’s tons of deadlines, right? I mean, there’s a lot of things. That’s why malpractice insurance is one of the highest ones I think into like mergers and acquisitions or something. There are a lot of things that can go wrong. And so, you know, best case scenario we get it done six months in advance. Sometimes it would be closer to the statute. It’s fine. As long as it gets taken care of, it gets taken care of. But that was dangerously close like you said. And so I just sat there and thought, “I can’t process another thing literally, like, not even what I’m doing with the next second of my life, let alone the next five minutes, let alone the next day.” And I just thought, “What if I…?” Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever actually said this out loud about what my actual thought was. But my thought was, “What if I just drive off the road on the way home?”
Scott: I think you said in the book, “What if I weren’t here?”
Kathryn: Yeah. And that’s specifically what I was thinking was, “What if I just drove off the road on the way home?”
Scott: And that’s suicide talk. That’s suicidal ideations as you described it.
Kathryn: It’s suicidal ideations. You know, it’s not like, “I’m going to do this, or here’s my plan at this point I’m going to.” But that idea of just not wanting to be here, and I was so tired. It’s not like I really didn’t want to be here. I was just exhausted because every waking minute had been spent dedicated to this firm. I woke up thinking about it, went to sleep thinking about it. I mean, you think you think about work now when you’re just stressed out when things aren’t functioning “normally.” It was to the nth degree during this time. And I didn’t know how else…I did enough know that there were other options, thankfully. But at that point, I didn’t know how else to process it.
Scott: I mean, and you’re so paralyzed. This is the point where you call your husband, ask him to come home right away.
Kathryn: I do. So I’ve dealt and managed anxiety and depression throughout my life. I have actively managed it and done well, been in therapy. I think everybody can benefit from therapy as a side note. But I thankfully knew enough about that and who I am and where I was at that moment to call somebody to help me, and so I did. I asked him to meet me at home, called him out of a meeting, and he was there for me. And I just, kind of, kept my eyes and mind on that. Like, “Just get home to see your husband. Just get home to see your husband.” And was able to sit with him and process things to the extent that I could.
Scott: Who you describe in the book as a type B personality.
Kathryn: Yeah, very much so. I mean, he manages and does great with business and everything, and so he has to be A type there. Personally, and then, you know, in our relationship and things, he’s just much more of a B person. And so dealing with somebody who’s like me in my personal life and professional life is just…can be a little intense sometimes. And then clearly, just the simple fact that you care about someone and been with them this long to see them going through something that they couldn’t fix is…I can only imagine traumatic.
Scott: And it seems like…I mean, you go through this experience. I think it’s within days, the new partner comes back from his silent retreat, and you’ve, kind of, been through hell from the moment the phone rang in Portugal to going and literally asking your husband to come be with you because you’re thinking about not being here. I just, kind of, see him breezing in talking about how awesome…
Kathryn: Oh, he did.
Scott: …and how fulfilled that silent retreat left him. I gathered that was the end for you.
Kathryn: Oh, yeah, it was. Again, like where were you when certain events happened? That’s another one I can just distinctly replay in my mind. I’m sitting there in the, you know, guest chair in my office and just super excited, and I was just so amazed. Not everybody, again, is like me and can pick up on the vibes. But I’m sure my facial expression did not, you know, show that I was happy and, like, into this conversation.
Scott: I think you said something, “Well, while you were out finding yourself.” I forget what the exact line was, but that was…
Kathryn: Oh, it was, “While you were out finding yourself, I was trying not to commit suicide.” Of course, he stopped and pulled up short. It was mind-boggling to me.
Scott: So I have to ask and this was the question I had…well, I mean, just factually, I think what happens is you end up…he ends up I think telling you he can’t really afford to have you or anyone else work there. But I think ultimately, you were about to leave had he not done that is, kind of, the sense I got from the book.
Kathryn: Yes. Clearly, I had done more than enough, but in my mind, I want to have no…I didn’t want to have any doubts in my mind about what I had done and where I stood with things. So I even suggested…I can’t remember if it’s before this or after this, honestly. I think about going to like a…
Scott: A business coach or a business counselor.
Kathryn: …counseling or counselor. Yeah, a business counselor about this to try to, like, at least can we plan for the next week. He couldn’t even agree to planning like what our goal was for the next week. And I was like, “I’m done. I’m 100% done. I have literally done everything I possibly can, paid for us to do this to try to salvage something or have some, sort of, definitive next step.” And he would not commit. I knew before we had those meetings that it was 95% done before he told me he couldn’t afford to pay me anymore. But then that just was there on the coffin.
Scott: So I have to ask…I mean, I think you had been promised potential equity in the firm, but, you know, who knows. I just have to ask because I was asking myself this the entire book, and maybe this is the title. I mean, maybe this is where the title…part of where the title of your book comes from, which is “Overcoming Addiction to the Status Quo.” I have to ask, why didn’t you just walk away from all of this and start your own firm initially or go somewhere? I mean, why did you stick it out for a year?
Kathryn: Yeah. You’re not the first person to ask me that. My friends did while I was going through it. I was afraid. I was not confident in starting my own practice at any point I think before then because I never run one. I mean, for all the reasons people are concerned about it, how many have jobs?
Scott: I mean, you were running when you just didn’t realize you were running one.
Kathryn: I think that was part of it and everything was happening so intensely all the time that I just didn’t have time to process it. I think the other part of it was I desperately wanted to have that camaraderie and be able to keep it together…keep us together since we’ve gone through all this since, you know, worked well together, worked well in so far as we were functioning to any capacity at that point. I think I just wanted it to work. I think I didn’t believe in myself until that point where I hit what I call my rock bottom. And that’s ultimately what I realized when I started writing my book was I had finally proven to myself overnight when I had those suicidal ideations that I was enough and I had done enough. And up until that point, I just hadn’t believed it. I have always been somebody that has gone above and beyond and pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed and still, you know, thought I wasn’t doing enough. That’s why I held on for so long.
Scott: It’s very interesting the wrist piece of it. It seems like between, you know, having nothing in the escrow account and dealing with the bar and wondering if you were going to be held liable or partially responsible at the beginning, all that fear, you know, running the situation as a newly admitted lawyer in your late 20s with a partner that was, kind of, checking out. That’s a much riskier environment. That’s a much riskier day-to-day than starting your own practices, but it’s so strange that we don’t see that until after.
Kathryn: Right. Well, I think it’s like anything else. When you’re in the sick of it, you can only see what’s right in front of you, and that’s what we did for a year and what I did. I could only process what I could, and there was a threshold that I just wasn’t able to pass. And I think when I started realizing…I mean, I knew clearly well before this point that things were not good, this was not sustainable, but I just went…I foolishly thought if I tried harder, which is, kind of, always the way I thought, “If I tried harder, it would work out.” Well, you can’t will something to happen that’s just not possible, right? I mean, you can’t force somebody to do something they don’t want to do.
And I also didn’t have any background. I hadn’t been exposed to the running of a law firm. So, even my mentors…you know, most people just don’t tell you the day-to-day logistics of running a practice. They sure as heck don’t teach us in law school about it. That’s why so many of us are horrible business owners. They don’t talk about it. They don’t tell you. People don’t want to open up, you know, and pull back the curtain, to be honest, about the struggles and the challenges and all that. And so I literally lived through it. And it wasn’t my money, but I definitely spent all my energy and time running a practice. And so at that point, it was, “What’s the worst that can happen? It doesn’t work out. I have to go get another job? Okay. I’ll try, at least say I tried and go from there.”
Scott: Now, and starting your own practice…this is pre-pandemic by several years, right?
Kathryn: Yes, two years.
Scott: I mean, 2018 is when you did this. The practice that you started for yourself sounds a lot like the post-2020 practice looks.
Kathryn: Yeah, it was. In the time that I’d been there running that practice, I saw the pitfalls of what we could have done better aside from the obvious of working for somebody who stole money…don’t work for somebody who steals money. Lower your overhead. Drastically reduce your overhead. There is absolutely zero reason to have a dedicated office space as a personal injury lawyer. You can say there is, but there really isn’t. If you can get access to space for when you need it even pre-pandemic, then why do you need to be storing physical files? Why do you need for somebody to be sitting in office 9:00 to 5:00 with their butt in a computer seat if they can do it somewhere else? It just is not efficient. And at the end of the day, that was my goal, keep the overhead as low as possible and, you know, go from there. And I’ve always been about efficiencies and I feel like a good leader. And I was able to create an environment amongst my team that I found that allowed us to function…not just function but succeed in what we were doing. You have to realize my paralegals that I had all were out of state. I’d never met them up until one of them that happened to me when I was in Arizona where she lived, and we met up. But I never met my other two paralegals, still haven’t.
Scott: So you started off as a completely distributed law firm.
Scott: I don’t mean specifically. What would a person do to find paralegals that would work in the, kind of, arrangement that you had when you started out?
Kathryn: Yeah, I used Upwork. Upwork has a lot of different professionals on there, support professionals on there, and there are a lot of paralegals. And so that’s what I went on and just start…and they’re independent contractors. And I went on there and started interviewing them, and found people that were really good at specific things. I’ve worked with both models. I’ve worked with people who…the paralegals did the entire case just for a set number of cases. And I’ve worked where paralegals have done the specific tasks for all the cases, but every paralegal essentially worked on every case just in a different capacity. And I feel like, you know, people do better at what they enjoy doing and what they’re good at. So, instead of breaking up the number of cases amongst paralegals, I broke up the tasks among paralegals.
Scott: What do you mean by that? Instead of breaking up…what do you mean specifically?
Kathryn: Yeah. I had a full caseload when I left this partner.
Scott: Because you took a significant portion of the cases with you.
Kathryn: I did. I took about I’d say over half. I took all the cases that were in litigation. That’s what he did not want. And honestly, I could have taken all of them legally. I’d been working on them the entire time. Realistically, the bandwidth wouldn’t have been there, and there’s just no way. And I didn’t want to end things on a bad note or any worse than they were, right? I just wanted to be done and start this next process and just move on.
So, I took all the ones that are litigation, and, yeah, I just realized that I…anybody who’s tried to do it on their own, if you’re scaling up, that’s one thing, because my colleague from before the other associate, he did this. He scaled up on his own, didn’t have any cases, and he was really able to do a great job at putting in automations while he did it as he went. And I look back and go, “Wow, I should have done that.” But the reality is I had a full caseload with all of these cases well into litigation. It was just keeping my head above water, let alone bringing in more business. So in 6, 8, 10 months, I wasn’t going where the heck is, you know, a cash flow.
Scott: What did you do about that? That seems like the scariest part.
Kathryn: Bringing in cases?
Kathryn: Yeah. So I had never generated cases in my life. So, to answer your question too back about, like, why did I stay in it for so long. I didn’t have a natural network. I had never gone out to generate business. I never had to. I’ve lived in Atlanta all my life, but I didn’t have that network. The partner I was working for did. A lot of people knew him. He knew a lot of people, and work just came to us. So, that was another part of what I was terrified about. Yeah, I’d run this law firm, but like you just said, huge part of it is bringing in more business, and I didn’t even know where to start with that.
Scott: And you describe yourself in the book. And you describe…and thank goodness someone’s finally said this. You’ve described litigators generally, I mean, not every litigator, but litigators generally as introverts, which is absolutely what I am. And when I tell people I’m an introvert, they laugh. They think there’s no way you’re an introvert.
Kathryn: Right, same with me.
Scott: You’re so outgoing. And, you know, I think, I’ve read Susan Cain’s the “Quiet” and it, kind of, made it all…make sense, which is extroverts take energy from being around other people, and introverts lose energy from being around other people. And has nothing to do with whether you’re shy or not. That does make networking hard if you’re an introvert.
Kathryn: Absolutely. And then not having a name in this business at all. I mean, it’s not like I’ve been going to events even with my other partner. So having a new firm, not knowing people, not even knowing where to start. And then also just the bandwidth. How was I going to do this with a full caseload? So I knew very quickly on even though I’ve literally done the jobs from a legal assistant all the way up to a lawyer and knew what to do every day for, you know, my cases, I couldn’t do it and still generate business at the same time.
Scott: The cases that you took were already in litigation, so you also had to finance that litigation.
Kathryn: Yeah, it was…
Scott: What did you do? I’m curious.
Kathryn: I took a personal loan for myself and I was in a very fortunate place where my husband has done very well with his business and his work and his job. And so I was able to invest my money into it. But we all know and I think that’s the reality of what doesn’t get talked about is it’s extremely expensive. And, you know, I know people that have had to like, you know, put two mortgages on their house or, you know, just go into crazy, crazy situations to keep the money coming in. And that’s how these things happen, and that’s why…when I talk about living the status quo and overcoming that, people will keep up appearances professionally, not just white picket fence with 2.5 kids, professionally to their own detriment. And I’ve seen it happen over and over again. Some of the most “successful lawyers” in the city and across the country have these things that happen because they put themselves in that situation.
Scott: Okay. So you speak of this, this is, kind of, an undercurrent in the last half of your book is that you definitely see lawyers in…maybe with a little bit of a skeptical light, particularly the ones that appear to be at the top of their game. I don’t know that you exactly… Maybe you say that but it’s definitely an undercurrent if you don’t explicitly say that in the book.
Kathryn: That’s true. I don’t specifically say it, but as a fair observation and assessment, that is true. I am skeptical, not because I want to see people fail or it’s not possible. I think it is possible. I do think that so many people rush into things. And it’s not just because it wasn’t…you know, I couldn’t do it. That has nothing to do with it. It’s just I know of enough stories and have seen enough people, you know, have issues to know that it’s extremely, extremely difficult. And if you can do it, it takes a number of years. It takes a small fortune, and it takes a very specific model to make it work. And then even if all those stars line up, you are going to be sacrificing yourself to do it. There is no if answer buts about it. If you’re gonna be saying yes to all these things with your firm and everything works out, you’re gonna be saying no to a lot of other things. And it’s just a matter of what you’re saying no to, and unfortunately, that tends to be everything else in your life.
Scott: You know, I just recently read a book called “The Psychology of Money” by a guy named Morgan Housel. It’s called “Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness.” I think he runs a hedge fund now. He talks a lot about…something you just said there makes me think of something he said, which is when he was maybe in college, he was a valet in the Bay Area. And so a lot of wealthy people driving all kinds of like crazy sports cars would drive up, and he would park those cars. He made the realization at some point along the way that a lot of people that were getting out of those cars were not happy like were not happy people generally. And that he also made the realization he didn’t want a car like that because no one at…he couldn’t remember who the people were who actually had those cars because the moment he saw those people driving up on those cars, he didn’t think about them as much as he thought about himself being in that car. And so literally, you’re, kind of, invisible when you do that kind of thing.
Scott: I just wonder why it is that… This isn’t a thing just limited lawyers, but why it is that there’s a tendency in this profession, you know, to have, you know, your own fumes with your bank account, but you are leasing lavish cars and condos and stuff like that. What do you think’s behind that?
Kathryn: A fear of failure, 100% fear of failure. And now how people are defining failure is the crux of it, right? So when I talk about, you know, being the happiness lawyer, how do you define happiness? A lot of lawyers’ minds and I would say the vast majority of them and almost all of them in personal injury, in particular, is we don’t want to be seen for not succeeding. And anything short of making money, having the big cases, winning big money on the cases is going to be seen as failure in their minds.
And it was in my mind for a while. You know, that’s what I thought success was, and the reality is it’s not. Clearly, you have to have bare minimum, you know, your needs and necessities met with money. I’m not saying money is not important. But money in and of itself I would argue, even though people push back on this, does not make you happy. Experiences you can have with money, perhaps, and even then there’s plenty of people that have tons of money and can have experiences and are miserable. But money in and of itself and notoriety and, you know, accolades and things like that don’t make you happy. It just accentuates who you are, whether you’re a good person or not.
Scott: The same book that I just talked about a minute ago, he says in there that the best thing that money can purchase for you to the extent that it can buy you happiness is if you use it to purchase freedom and autonomy. But if you’re using it to purchase things, you’re, kind of, enslaved to it and the things that you’re purchasing with it.
Kathryn: Absolutely. I’ll be the first one to say I like cars and I like exotic cars, but I’m also not you know, putting mortgages on my house to buy it, right? You can, again, have good experiences and fun experiences traveling, doing things, but you don’t do it to the detriment of yourself. And that’s why I say that status quo and living to the status quo is an addiction. I’m not being flippant when I say that. I genuinely believe that people do things to the detriment of themselves and others to keep up with the status quo. And for lawyers, the status quo is being seen as successful however that’s defined within your practice area. I think it plagues personal injury the most because we work on contingency.
Scott: Yeah. And you don’t get paid till the end, and if the case flops or you can’t settle it, I mean, you… And one thing about criminal defense or domestic or, you know, anything other than contingency work is win or lose, you’ve gotten paid at the beginning. And, you know, gosh, if you did criminal appeals and you worked on a contingency, you really would be poor. I think there’s trade-offs and there’s a lot that can be said for… One of the problems with criminal defense is you don’t evaluate it on the strength of the case, and so you end up taking a bad case if they have the money to pay you. And you end up sending really defensible great cases away because they can’t. What I do like about personal injury is that that’s not really a factor in whether you take the case or not.
Kathryn: Right. No, it is nice. I mean, you’re right. Like anything, there’s pros and cons. But think about it, you know, you don’t have to have a business degree for somebody to say, “Hey, here’s a business model.” We don’t know when you’re going to get paid, how much you’re gonna get paid, or even if you’re gonna get paid, you have to invest your own money. And it may take 10, 12, 16, 18 months to even see some of it. It’s a horrible business model.
Scott: And if you can’t settle it, you have to go into an arena and then 12 people you don’t know are gonna decide or 6 people you don’t know are gonna decide.
Kathryn: And you don’t have full control of the case. You’ve got a client who can pull the plug at any moment, and you’ve got opposing counsel, an insurance company who, you know, your only alternative and way to hold their feet to the fire, like you said, is going to that arena with 12 people that…I mean, that’s just like going to Walmart and closing your eyes and picking 12 people. That’s your journey.
Scott: Yeah. And by the way, if it’s a really good case, some unscrupulous people may try to take it away from you. So, yeah. So like come do this. It sounds fun, right?
Kathryn: Exactly. Well, that’s why when people always say they won’t get a personal injury, I’m very upfront with them, and I see the market…personal injury has always been saturated, right? I think people think that, oh, it looks, not easy, but like, oh, you can make a lot of money. You can but you also…you know, it’s not guaranteed, and a lot of it like I say in the book is smoke and mirrors. It’s keeping up with appearances just to get to that point where you hopefully can and putting yourself on a hamster wheel, you know, even if you get the multi-million dollar cases, right? I mean, yeah, it’s great to have a trucking case. But to defend or to, you know, pursue a trucking case, you have to have the money to do it. Like you said, it’s not cheap, especially for these injuries where people are paying out millions of dollars for, the insurance company’s not just gonna write you a check for the hell of it. So paying that. Then you start getting more and more cases that are that big. You’ve created this huge monster, and you’ve got to keep feeding it.
Scott: So when you started your practice…I mean, I think the things you did…I think if you did it now anew, it would not be as much of a head-turner maybe as it was just a few years ago. But you decided not to have an office. You decided to mainly work from home. And I think you had some sort of an office arrangement where you had the use of a conference room, and your staff was virtual. You know, again, I think people are more accepting of that now. At the time, I mean, people probably thought that this is all crazy.
Kathryn: Oh, they did, absolutely thought it was crazy. And, you know, some people, not people that I would want to work with or do business with or refer cases, but they’re…you could just see almost like the disdain on their face. It’s just funny to me now because, you know, again, everybody’s keeping up with that status quo of having the marble, you know, conference table, having the dedicated corner office, whatever it is. I mean, even if it’s a small place and, you know, one city, you know, you have your corner office and you have your accolades on the wall and someplace to put it. People can see it and clients can come in and see it. I tell you what, I have never had a client say that they didn’t…you know, they questioned my credibility or credentials.
Scott: Yeah. They didn’t say, “Kathryn, where’s your trophies?”
Kathryn: Right. Where’s your conference room that has marble tables? And that’s the thing. You guys realize who your audience is and who your ideal clients are. They don’t care. They do not care about that. Maybe if you’re representing the Fortune 500 companies, and even then, I would argue that, you know, the people who are really looking for the right attorneys, they’re not going to care, you know, whether you have marble or granite or, you know, some like foreign wood that was imported. You know, it’s whether you can do the job or not, and that’s what it should be based on. But we all know that people, you know, don’t do that always.
Scott: And I think you described you weren’t wearing fancy suits. You were wearing jeans and something nice when you went. And it was never a problem.
Kathryn: No, never a problem. I figured if I was going to go through hell and back and open up my own practice, I was going to wear what I wanted. And also it doesn’t create a divide between you and the client, I think, in such a personal situation where somebody’s been injured and is emotionally hurting, physically hurting, lost, feels slighted by the insurance company because God knows, they’re not your friend. My job isn’t to create a bigger barrier between myself and you. You already know I’m a lawyer. If you’re not going to hire me, you’re not going to hire me. But I don’t need to wear a suit to feel more important about something. That worked for me and, I think, it could work for a lot of people if they’re willing to take a chance.
Now, one of the things you talk about in here…and it’s interesting because you talk about somebody I know who’s a trucking lawyer, Joe Fried, and how he just loves clients and tries to walk in their shoes. And I think maybe he’s gone to the Gerry Spence Trial Lawyers College and all of that. But, you know, it’s interesting, and then the next page in your book, you talk about professional boundaries. Talk a little bit more about boundaries in the practice of law.
Kathryn: Yeah. They’re paramount for your own success as a lawyer and your own success insanity as a person. But the reality is there’s nothing that we do that’s an emergency. They’re just [crosstalk 01:04:21].
Kathryn: Right. In terms of getting a call from a client, there’s nothing that you can do in that moment to change the outcome of everything else. So even, you know, criminal, if you call me when you’re in jail, I can’t do anything for you right then, right? There’s nothing you can do. So picking up the phone in the middle of the night isn’t going to do something. So same thing with personal injury. I’m not going to pick up the phone from one of my clients after hours. There’s just not anything that that is that important. And people, “They’ll find another lawyer or they’ll leave me.” They won’t. They won’t. I mean, it just doesn’t happen. I think we build up these ideas and these, you know, tragic catastrophic things in our mind that are going to happen and then how often do they actually do. And I can tell you, they have never happened. So, it’s about creating boundaries for you to be the best version of yourself. And you are not going to be the best version of yourself as a lawyer if you can’t get work done, if you can’t focus on something for an extended period of time.
Scott: Or if you’re tired. I mean, you’re talking here about sleep a lot, which to me… I listen to Dr. Peter Ortiz [SP] podcast a lot. He goes, kind of, a deep dive into exercise and medicine and things like that. And, you know, he says there’s never been medicine or a drug invented that is as super as sleep is and exercise. And so you talking here about you always try to get seven hours of sleep at least a night.
Kathryn: Definitely. And, I mean, it varies a little bit for each person, but these people that go, “I can sleep when I’m dead.” Okay. You’re speeding that clock up by about 20 years. Yeah. You can’t overcome that, you know, through chemicals or, you know, willpower. It’s just not gonna happen.
Scott: So let me ask you this…and you talk a little bit in here about blocking off your communication time every day. I think after 2 p.m. is the time for talking to clients or answering emails and stuff like that. I’ve had so many great events moments. You know, I’m out to dinner having a great time or I’m at a sporting event or I’m on a hike. I take that glance of my smartphone and I see that email from that angry client or that angry opposing counsel. It just torpedoes whatever it is I’m doing. How do you avoid that little glance at your email or your text that just potentially deflates whatever it is you’re doing?
Kathryn: You know, I think it’s easier for me because of what I’ve been through, right? It puts a lot of things in perspective about what really matters in life when you have…you come face to face with such, you know, insanity like I did. But clearly, my goal with the book and what I do is to keep people from getting to the point where I did before they start doing something. So, if I hadn’t gone through what I’d gone through, I would say this. You have to decide which is more important to you, living your life or living your life to work.
And right now it may seem like a great idea to, you know, spend that time looking at, you know, your emails or things like that because you get the next case because you can make more money and you can do this and you can do that. And you’ve got to be able to retire and you want to pay for kids’ education. Look, I get it. This is not an easy concept, and it’s not an easy thing to overcome. But at the end of the day, none of us know how long we have. It doesn’t matter what you believe about afterlife or anything like that. None of us know how long we have. It could be tomorrow. It could be 10 days from now. It could be 40 years. But do you ever want to look back whenever that is and say, “Wow, I really wish, you know, I’d spent more time working.” Are you going to look back and say, “I really wish I’d spent more time living my life”? Whatever that looks like for you. And every time you say yes to something…this is something I learned from Joe. Every time you say yes to something, you’re saying no to something else. There’s a cost, and it’s just a matter of whether you recognize what that cost is at the moment or not.
Scott: You know, it’s very weird. I just read Erik Larson’s “The splendid and the Vile.” It’s about London during the blitzkrieg in the early 40s, and there’s a lot in there about Winston Churchill. So Winston Churchill, while London is being bombed, while he’s, sort of…before America got into World War II, England is, kind of, isolated. There was real doubt as to whether England was gonna…you know, Great Britain was gonna even survive, whether they were gonna be invaded. And, you know, you had Winston Churchill, who was very much up against it for a very long time, I mean, even after America entered the war.
And if you look at what Winston Churchill’s daily schedule was in the midst of the war, he would literally change into pajamas in the middle of the day. I’m not recommending people do this necessarily. But he would change into pajamas in the middle of the day and get in bed. Like, literally change into pajamas, go upstairs at 10 Downing Street, get under the covers, and take like a long nap. He would get in the bathtub and yell through the door at people…at his staffers and stuff. He was not working 24/7 in the midst of World War II.
And reading a biography right now of Leonardo da Vinci, who…he actually has fewer finished works of art than people think and wasn’t spending all his time working. There are a lot of great people who happen to live before email and before smartphones who manage to do some fairly spectacular things with their lives.
Kathryn: Well, and I think it’s quality over quantity too. And that’s for every minute of your life. And I think that’s just overarching concept. It’s, you know, how much of it is really going to make a difference at the end of the day is you looking…just as an example, you looking at that email from the, you know, mad client or mad opposing counsel going to change the outcome of anything, other than your emotions right then, which is detracting.
Scott: Other than it’s going to ruin the Braves Game I’m presently at when I read it.
Kathryn: Exactly. And, I mean, especially for people who have kids, I think this is a great thing to think about. You know, people I know…I don’t have children myself. I decided not to. But my goddaughters, I’m never going to look back and say, you know, I didn’t work enough and I didn’t spend enough time away from them, right? You always are going to say, “I wish I was there for this moment, or I wish I, you know, could spend more time, you know, doing this with them.”
And I think COVID, for all the bad that came out of it, this is one of the good things. People recognize that time spent in meaningful relationships matters. It just does. That’s, you know, why we get that satisfaction from it. Even for introverts, you know, we get the satisfaction from being in meaningful relationships. And, yes, you work and have relationships with people you work with, but that’s not going to be what’s fulfilling. It’s going to be fulfilling with the people you care about.
Scott: And that’s why so many people are refusing to go back to that now.
Kathryn: Yeah. And good for them.
Scott: Right. Well, tell me a little bit… You know, we, sort of, left the story here off that…at you starting your plaintiff’s practice and how you set it up. But I think you’ve got a new, sort of, frontier in your professional life. And I’d love to talk to you about that for a few minutes.
Kathryn: Sure. Yeah. So I am pivoting to being the happiness lawyer. I want to help lawyers and people who work with lawyers, like I said, go through what I went through but [crosstalk 01:11:54]
Scott: Without the trauma.
Kathryn: Without the trauma, not hitting a rock bottom. And it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of effort, and it takes guidance. But it is possible. And I create an environment that is relatable. I’ve been there, done that literally. I’m a lawyer as well. And it’s confidential, and, I think, that’s the biggest thing for people is it’s fear that keeps you from doing a lot of things. And one of them is being willing to change what isn’t working for you out of the fear of being different or seen as, you know, less than. So, helping other people go through that.
And the whole reason I am moving away from my practice is not because I don’t want to practice law. I do enjoy practicing law. I still love personal injury. But as a practical matter, it is a bad business model like for sustainability without doing a lot of major things. And I see how saturated the market is still getting with lawyers. I see how many people cut corners and, you know, try to undermine each other with the rules in terms of getting cases. And I’m never going to be that person that cuts corners, whether it’s, you know, legally or illegally or, you know, ethically or unethically, I’m never going to be that person. So I’m not going to try to compete with people who are willing to do that. And to me, it’s worth getting out now when I’ve enjoyed what I have and I’m not resentful of everything and going to something else that is more fulfilling for me.
Scott: Let me ask you this. So suppose, let’s just say hypothetically, someone comes to you, and they say, “Oh, my gosh, Kathryn, I’m drowning. I have all these litigation cases. You know, I’ve got the…suddenly, all the judges are wanting me back…like wanting to try everything. I have clients that just seem to hate me. My email inbox is filled up and I can’t possibly answer all this stuff. And I feel like I’m drowning. You know, I don’t have time for my family. Like, I’m drinking, you know, more than I would like. I’m not getting sleep.” What should I do right now like if I had to triage and just, sort of, come up from this? If you had a potential consulting client come to you, what are some just initial things you would say to that person?
Kathryn: The initial thing I would say is, practically speaking, deal with the most immediate crisis you have to like in the next 24 hours is something going to happen, right? If we get past that and, you know, I say just. I understand it’s important but just people being mad or demanding, that can wait. You have to take the time, and it can be over the course of a long period. But take the time to sit with yourself and ask yourself the very real question of, “What do I want? Is this what makes me happy?” And it’s a very big question. It’s loaded and there’s a lot to think about. The reality is you’re gonna keep on that path unless you decide it’s not what you want. And you may not realize it at that point, but it takes conscious effort and thought to recognize where you are and where you want to be. And if you’re not being realistic with yourself or authentic with yourself, you’re never going to be authentic with other people. You’re never going to be authentic with the realities of what you’re doing in your life. So taking that time to answer that question is the absolute root of everything that I do with people.
Scott: And practically, what does that look like? You’re saying like okay. So you’re saying ask yourself these questions. So they’re gonna say, “Kathryn, okay, in the next week, literally, physically, what should I do?”
Kathryn: Yeah. You should sit there…I’m not kidding, sit there and say, “Is there something I have to do in the next 24 hours?” Okay. Get it done. Take the next three, five, however long hours you can for the rest of the day and say, “Does this make me happy?” And people will go, “Well, I’m not happy now.” That’s not what I asked you. Does working in law…
Scott: You do the same thing in the book.
Kathryn: …make you happy?
Scott: You post this question at the beginning of the book and you say, “Don’t answer this right now.” And then you tell your story and then you come back to that question.
Kathryn: Because everybody can come up with things that like, you know, “I’m happy when I do this. I’m happy when I make money. I’m happy when I’m in court. I’m happy here.” Are you really though? Are you really happy? And I think we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that happiness is success, and not even think. I know we have. And so, again, we all have bills to pay. We have to make a living. We don’t know how long we’re going to be here. We have to hedge our bets on that one, right? I recognize that. But we can do it in a way that is healthy and encounters adversity in a way that is fulfilling and sustainable. And if you’re not happy doing what you’re doing, then you have to start recognizing, “What can I do from there? But the first question of all this is are you happy.
Scott: Right. And if you come up with the answer, “No, I’m not. I’m not really happy.” And, you know, looking at the numbers from the beginning of your book, lots of lawyers aren’t happy. You know, like statistically significant is how depressed and anxious people in law are, particularly litigators. You compare it to doctors and nurses. I think maybe we’re a little worse. So, given, kind of, the norm in the law is unhappiness, those lawyers you know and you know are authentic and you know are honest who are happy, what do you think are some things they’re doing that the rest of us aren’t?
Kathryn: I think they’ve stopped caring what people think and they’re not afraid of failure however that’s defined for them. And that’s why you have to answer that question are you happy first because the next step is…okay say you are. Then you’re going to keep doing what you’re doing and that I don’t think people are being honest with themselves when they say that if they’re in that position.
Scott: And if they’re coming to you.
Kathryn: If they’re coming to me, they’re not, which is the first step is accepting that you’re not happy, right? So then you say, “No, I’m not happy.” What do you do then? Okay. I help you figure out what…who you truly are, not who you’ve been playing or who you think you should be but who you truly are, what makes you happy, and how to get you there. And even before you come to me you say, “I’m not happy. Okay. What does make me happy? Okay. Maybe it’s golfing. Maybe it’s hiking. Maybe it’s spending time with your kids. Maybe it’s, you know, being in the courtroom and actually trying the cases, but everything up to that point it’s god-awful for you and you’re miserable. So what changes do you have to make to start making those things possible in your life?
And I know it seems trivial given what you were just describing, a situation, right, where there’s so many things going on. There’s no good time to do it, right? There’s no good time for crisis to happen. Let me tell you, there’s no good time. You can’t prepare for that. You have to be the one that stops everything else and is willing to take the time to answer those basic questions because if…nobody’s going to do it for you. You are going to live the rest of your life on that wheel or until you die quite frankly of something else. And I know that’s raw and brutal but it’s true. And how many people have we seen die prematurely because they haven’t taken care of themselves and having not been happy? But then it’s too late. You have to be the one that stops this cycle and can do it for you.
Scott: And it sounds like with your happiness lawyer clients, you’re…it sounds like you’re not really telling people, “Here’s the five things you ought to do.” You’re literally encouraging them to reflect and ask questions.
Kathryn: I am and I’m that guy for them because I’ve never been somebody, and we talked about this before we started recording, that just rattles off platitudes, right? I mean, clearly, if it was as easy as being happy, we all would have done it. Clearly, if it was as easy as you taking back time and just, you know, not booking yourself so much, you would have already done it. There’s a reason that we don’t and there’s a reason that people are unhappy it’s because they don’t know how to be happy. And happiness is different for everyone.
So, I guide them through the process that I went through to recognize what they want. And if it’s staying in law and keeping practice, that’s totally fine. I’m not suggesting that anybody should get out of law to be happy. What I am suggesting is reevaluating it, making it what you want it to be, and recognizing that what you’re afraid of the most is failure. And failure is not…I just don’t think it’s real. I know that sounds crazy. But we have this idea of what it is and we do everything in our power to avoid it. But it’s really an opportunity for learning. And we’ve just been, you know, taught from an early age, runners and losers, you know, there’s success and there’s failure. And that’s just not the case. We all know as lawyers, there’s a lot of gray area out there.
Scott: A lot of us are living to avoid a thing that we haven’t really even defined.
Kathryn: Yeah. That’s crazy, isn’t it?
Scott: And we’re also living to impress people we don’t particularly like.
Scott: And probably the lawyers that have learned to walk away from all of that, you know, probably the ironic part of it is they’re probably finding financial success the moment they’ve stopped worrying about it.
Kathryn: Yes. You know, it’s hard. I get it. That’s right. It’s the status quo. That’s why I say it’s a socially validated addiction. It turns out we’re all doing it in some capacity or another, you know, not just lawyers, the stay-at-home moms that are keeping up with Pinterest and, you know, gluten-free cupcakes. Like, for God’s sakes, like, it’s insane. But again, people will say, “Yeah, I hear you. That sounds great. I don’t have the time.” And like I said, there’s never a good time. You know, you’re gonna be the one that has to make that decision and say, “Well, if I don’t do this, what’s the worst that happens?” You live an unfulfilling life. And again, what’s the one thing we can’t get any more of? It’s time. And what would you do if you knew when your time was up? You wouldn’t worry about that.
Scott: Yeah, you live a completely different life.
Kathryn: And I’ve read a book. I think it’s “Solving for Happiness,” and it’s a guy. I can’t remember what industry he was in big like corporate investment industry, and he was living in Dubai. And his son like 20-year-old son had to have a routine surgery, and he died on the operating table. And just a freak accident. And he understandably say, “I was crushed and just thinking about, I spent all this time working to buy yachts and, you know, travel and have all this money amassed. And all I want now is to have one more day with my son.”
Scott: And he give up all of that.
Kathryn: Give up everything to have that. And, I mean, that’s extreme, but that’s how you have to think because otherwise, you’re just going to keep deluding yourself into thinking that this is normal and this is what you have to do. Like I said I keep saying because [inaudible 01:23:11]. Nobody is going to do this for you.
Scott: Well, if people want to make these changes, first of all, where can they find your book “Overcoming Addiction to the Status Quo”?
Kathryn: It’s on Amazon. You can also go to my website thehappinesslawyer.com, and it will link you to Amazon, social media, and how to get in touch with me.
Scott: I bought it on Amazon, and it was at my door a day later. It’s a really good…it tells a really good story…a very compelling story, and it’s a very short read. You can knock it out in a couple of days.
Kathryn: Yeah. Thank you.
Scott: Where can people find you? And what kind of services do you offer?
Kathryn: Yeah. So I am right now working on workshops. I do small group workshops quarterly, and then I do individual work with lawyers as well who do what I said, establish who you are, where you want to be, and how to get you there. And the workshops, I just do minuscule parts of that that people can actively participate in and brainstorm off of each other. And they’re very safe, kind of, vetted groups that we all agree on confidentiality. It’s a great environment to really get your feet wet with working for me or with me. So you can go to my website, thehappinesslawyer.com, and it has information on how to contact me about that.
Scott: Well, thanks so much. I’ve taken more of your…I’ve looked at the meter and I took way much more time than I thought it was gonna take. So I really, really appreciate it.
Kathryn: Yeah. No, thank you so much for having me, and it was wonderful.
Scott: Thanks for listening to the “Advocate’s Key.” For more information and content like this, including a transcript of this episode, be sure to visit scottkeylaw.com. And please rate, review, and follow this show wherever you get your audio content.