How to Change Your Life at Any AgeBy Dena Lefkowitz
The Legal Intelligencer, a journal for lawyers
February 13, 2014
A common refrain from clients is that it's too late to alter the direction of their lives, as though our course is set and deviation simply not possible. This is a usually false premise and the opposite is true—it is not too late to significantly improve your career and life.
Nelson Mandela is a shining inspiration. Released from prison at age 72, he became the first black president of South Africa, won the Nobel Peace Prize, re-married and so much more. There are many examples of second and third chapters in life, including Grandma Moses, who began her painting career in her 70s, and Louise Hay, who started a publishing house at 58.
This concept is not limited to icons. Scores of everyday people, just like you, have accomplished mid-life makeovers by overcoming self-limiting beliefs, devising a strategy and taking steps toward desired outcomes. Here are stories of two lawyers who made it happen.
Rick Linsk was a veteran investigative journalist, part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team and an expert in his field. He began his career as a reporter in 1979, and thought about going to law school on and off over the years. In 1995, Linsk wrote a series on amusement ride accidents and lawyers gave him access to documents in a water slide case. It was "frustrating to be on the outside looking in" and complex litigation seemed like "the next logical step after investigative journalism."
In 2003, the newspaper industry was in trouble and Linsk began to look at life beyond journalism. He describes taking the first "tentative steps." Linsk attended an open house at William Mitchell College of Law and signed up to take the LSAT. He bought a Princeton Review book and started cramming. As a husband and father of two, he was the breadwinner in the family and had to consider options where he could continue to work. There were two law schools in the Twin Cities with evening programs. In 2004, Linsk enrolled at William Mitchell. He made Law Review and graduated in 2008 at age 47. After a clerkship with the Minnesota Supreme Court, he joined a St. Paul firm, Lockridge Grindal Nauen, where he handles ERISA, health care law, employment law and products liability cases.
When asked how he coped with being a beginner in a new field, he said one must be emotionally prepared or it could be an ego blow. It helped that his skills were transferrable to a large degree. As an investigative journalist, he worked frequently with court records, the best source for putting together patterns and trends to report. Linsk tried to be a team player in both careers and bringing that attitude turned him into a resource. He said, "Forcing yourself into an area where you have to learn forces growth, like moving to a new town. Getting lost can lead to discovery and open up a new tableau." Linsk offered these tips for those who want to start a new career while continuing to work:
- Don't lose your edge where you are. Give your best effort at both places. Don't coast or be a seat warmer.
- Consider a less-than-radical shift. Choose a logical progression that gets you back to what you liked when you started your current career. "It will feel more natural and organic," he said.
- Do your homework and be methodical. Similar to a start-up business, ask yourself, "Why am I doing this?" If I stay or leave, what are the pros and cons?"
- Break it down into steps. For Linsk, he asked himself, "Can I pass the LSAT? Which school? Can I afford it? Can I get in? What support can I get?"
- Maintain personal connections and seek out mentors, especially those who have done the same thing before you. For Linsk, these included other journalists who made the jump to law and a lawyer/lobbyist who was finishing law school when he was just starting.
One of the best things he did, Linsk said, was to pay cash for at least one year's tuition, keep working, and not have crushing debt at the end. About switching professions, "It can be frightening, but you get past it." And, there are constants. Linsk said, "Your brand can be excellence, client service, being careful, ethical and good at what you do."
Not all life makeovers occur in the career realm. Certified elder law attorney Linda Anderson, founder of Anderson Elder Law in Media, Pa., has a successful, thriving practice and loves her chosen profession. Always has. For her, it was natural to spend all of her waking hours working, and 14-hour days were the norm, even on weekends. The demands of running a law office are significant and the hours began to take a toll. Around her 50th birthday, health problems began to plague Anderson and she recognized the need to do something different. As many lawyers do, she realized that she was always last on her own priority list. She began what she calls "the rule of threes," which involves identifying three goals, choosing three tasks in furtherance of the goals and three ways in which each task will serve her.
Anderson began with a meditation class at the Penn Program for Mindfulness, modeled on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn writes that, "Mindfulness provides a simple but powerful route for getting ourselves unstuck, back into touch with our own wisdom and vitality. It is a way to take charge of the direction and quality of our own lives." In 2011, Anderson was on a chartered bus with the Chamber of Commerce en route to a Phillies game when she heard that the Boston Bruins were in contention for the Stanley Cup. She grew up in Boston and, in her youth, knew everything about the National Hockey League. Anderson knew nothing about baseball, so she got off the bus and instead watched the Bruins in Game 7. Still, she couldn't stop thinking about work and began to ask herself questions like, "How do I rest? How do I have fun?" She started a quest for fun that began with finding her old-time favorite Bruins, including Al Sims, later a coach of the Fort Wayne Komets. A college friend joined her on a trip to Indiana for a weekend off. She said, "Just being at the game and being invested in the players was like a cork popping and incredible reconnection to enjoying hockey and having fun." It was the gateway to finding a more dimensional and fulfilling life. Most weeks, Anderson attends three hockey games, following the Bruins, Komets and Reading Royals.
Not surprisingly, Anderson's shift had what she describes as "derivative effects." She is closer to her children, knows them better and they know her better. Friendships have developed and Anderson now has close bonds to people in Indiana who share her passion for hockey. When Anderson dove back into the world of hockey, she asked herself, "Do I really let people know that I'm a hockey nut?" The answer was yes, and Facebook became a scrapbook that lets everyone see the full-dimensional Anderson. She commented that "professionals hide their passions" and many have "come out" to her about theirs since she has been sharing hers. Anderson offers some tips for anyone looking to break out of life patterns that aren't working:
- Practice mindfulness: If you rest your mind, "it will relate to every area."
- Understand that if you're intense in your profession, you're intense in other areas, so find something you can love as much as you love your work and throw yourself in.
- If you tend to be a caretaker of others, redirect that lavishing toward yourself.
Linsk and Anderson knew which area of their lives needed revamping and systematically took steps to improve them. Some of my clients are initially unable to identify what they want or need to be different and where to start. Coaches use a variety of tools to help figure this out and devise an action plan with built-in accountability. Here are some strategies:
- Take a look at the "wheel of life": a pie chart that divides life into major areas including: career, money, health, friends/family, romance, personal growth/learning, fun/leisure/recreation and physical environment (home). Rank your satisfaction level in each area and determine if any are flat.
- When you have identified an area you want to improve, visualize and write down, in detail, what it would look like ideally.
- Create a plan. Think strategically as if your life was a project. Where would you start? What is the first step you can take? Data collection can be a good starting point. If you never have free time, for example, carefully observe and write down how you spend time. It might surprise you.
- Build in accountability. Set deadlines for taking those first steps. Keep setting measurable goals and track your progress. Writing down your goals and progress is powerful.
Dena Lefkowitz is a certified professional coach and has been an attorney for 25 years, both in private practice and in-house. She has argued cases before the Pennsylvania Supreme and Commonwealth courts, presented many continuing legal education seminars, and her experience and legal background informs her practice coaching lawyers.
Originally published in "The Legal Intelligencer" here.
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