Designing Your Life and Human-Centered Design in Law with Katherine Porter

Katherine Porter is a former lawyer turned consultant at her firm The Resource Woman, who now helps law firms cultivate a culture that attracts people and invites them to actually want to stay. 

On this episode of the podcast, Katherine shares how the idea of Designing Your Life and human-centered design changed her career trajectory and is now changing the culture of firms that are forward thinking. 

“Katherine Porter, For All Your Learning Needs”

Katherine was actually an elementary school teacher at the time of deciding maybe law school would be fun. She decided to take the LSAT and if she did well enough to get into a good law school, said she would go. The rest is history. 

She wasn’t someone who dreamed of being a lawyer her whole life and to be honest, she didn’t even think about it all that much, she went to law school for the academic experience of it – and to be around more people of her own age (the colleagues at her elementary school were much older). 

This theme rings true for many of us, we get into law school and think about what all that entails, we enjoy academia and learning, but thinking about what it really means to be a lawyer doesn’t happen. 

One Thing Led To Another

Katherine’s career steps after law school were practical. In fact, they basically just happened. She held a summer associate position and felt it was a great practice, great pay, great experience, and hoped to stay there for a few years to pay off her student loans. That plan came to fruition when she was offered a full-time position after the summer. 

She ended up staying in this position for much longer than she had anticipated. One of the reasons she was able to stay so long was because she began her family while there and they were very accommodating. 

Nonexistent Maternity Leave

Katherine was lucky in that her firm, although they had no official maternity leave during her first pregnancy, allowed her to take extended leave. A woman before her had set the precedent and she was able to follow, take time away, and ramp back up nicely. 

By her second pregnancy, the firm did have a policy in place, and although she was allowed to take extended leave, this time Katherine felt differently. She missed her children. They were being raised by their father, who was staying home with them, so she felt confident in their childcare, but she wanted to be present. 

She worked out a deal with her firm to reduce her time, eventually reducing it to just contractual work after a series of layoffs. They moved in with her parents so they could live off her husband’s salary as a teacher and life continued this way for a bit. 

I Can Ramp Up Now

As Katherine’s daughters grew up, she began to see space where she could ramp up her time at the firm from the few hours a month she currently worked. 

She was ready to go back full force, as a partner. Katherine spoke with her colleagues and a partner friend about the possibility. After discussions among the partners, they acknowledged that she was great to work with, a great lawyer, but they just didn’t see her as a partner. 

Katherine decided it was time to separate and look for her next move. 

Support In The Law Firm World

Before Katherine separated from her firm, as mentioned, she did receive support that helped her stay as long as she did. 

For example, during her maternity leave, she was told she didn’t need to worry about her hours. She was able to get her work done without worrying about hitting certain hours or numbers each month. 

Beyond her maternity leaves, her firm was flexible with her during some times when personally she was going through challenging experiences. They allowed her to work less or on simpler projects, something that allowed her to stay on in the capacity she was able to at the time. 

One Model Of Success

One theme Katherine noticed while working at her firm was that there seemed to be one model of success. It seemed that those that were moved up into management positions were those that billed the most hours or brought in the most clients, not those that had the skills to manage. 

And then you see that when you’re putting people in positions to be making decisions based on skills that are not really relevant to those decisions, lo and behold, they are not particularly well-equipped to be making good, healthful decisions for the organization or for the people in it.

What was valued was billing hours and bringing in lots of money. Katherine felt frustrated and concerned by this trend, often wondering, because she was a litigator, “Why can’t I do what I’m good at? Which is the writing and the analysis and even the presentation, creating the presentation for trials.” She realized that different partners had different skills, for selling, for presenting, for the analysis. Katherine wondered if everyone had to force themselves to be good at everything, as opposed to working in their strengths. 

The Artificial Ideal

Katherine’s firm was not unique in its inability to think about the future or create a system that valued more than just billable hours. That’s the issue with something that’s so easily measurable, once you start measuring it, it’s easy to use it as a metric for everything. That is a mistake, there is so much more to be brought to work than the billable hours. 

But as many firms do, they set up the “ideal” number of hours, and those that have interests outside of being a lawyer – who want to show up for their families, for example – feel forced to make a challenging choice between their company and everything else about themselves. 

Katherine was always met with “It’s only when you hit X hundred hours that the firm starts making money on you.” She always saw this as short-sighted. Either they should charge more or look at if that is really true, what other things was she bringing in beyond that? For example, she was president of a chapter or a professional organization that brought recognition to the firm, helping to build its reputation, but none of that counted towards “making money.” 

Finding Her Own Ideal

Once Katherine knew she was ready to look elsewhere, she thought her ideal job would be to work for the court of appeal and be a research attorney. She had worked on a few appeals and found them interesting and loved working more with the legal issues than the facts. 

She began looking for those jobs, was close to joining another agency, but it fell through due to a, mostly made-up, conflict issue. When they didn’t work out,  she kept looking and a new type of opportunity fell into her lap. 

As president of the local chapter of the organization she mentioned earlier, Katherine attended the national conference, where she met a woman who owned a consulting firm. They got to talking and when Katherine mentioned she was looking, one thing led to another and she was hired on. 

This new job at the consulting firm well for a while, but a few years ago she was laid off and went back to looking for a job in law. She believes this was mostly due to just needing a job, she had 2 daughters around college age and was focused on, so she went to a small law firm, despite what her gut was telling her. 

Something Different

After a relatively short, but challenging time at the small law firm, lockdown due to COVID-19 happened, work dried up, and Katherine began to think more seriously about doing something new. 

She had been listening to podcasts and learning about side hustles, and knew she wanted something different, she just didn’t know what. The time home in lockdown gave her the space to figure out what it was. 

This came with a lot of pressure, a pressure many of us face, that perhaps we only get one chance to try something new. There is a pressure to make the “right” choice, even though it is much more flexible than that. 

Designing Your Life

One thing Katherine learned in her journey into entrepreneurship was the idea of design thinking. That whole way of thinking about things is all about prototyping and trying stuff and quote “failing fast,” which is hard for lawyers. But, when you approach your life and your career that way, it’s really helpful because then you don’t berate yourself if something doesn’t work out. Instead, you can feel empowered to move, try something different, when things aren’t working. 

So Katherine began thinking about how she could design her life, how she could try things, see if it works, and try something new if it doesn’t. She was able to break the binary thinking that we tend to hold to as lawyers and think of things as an experiment. 

Human-centered Design

Katherine has now come full circle with law, she works as a consultant with firms helping them challenge the whole notion that there is one model of success and one metric of success. 

Instead, she helps them focus on human-centered design, which focuses first on the fact that we are all human – our clients, our colleagues, our partners, and we solve human problems.  

One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been that more people are thinking this way. They are more open to human-centered design that puts the humans right at the front of everything you do. It makes you think of the customer journey, the hiring process, how you assign work, everything from a new lens. 

She got into this idea through her partner who was getting certified in it. This led to her getting certified, going to a conference around Designing Your Life for Women, and running with this idea of iteration and non-binary thinking. 

Start Small

Katherine recognizes that this change from black and white thinking to accepting iteration is hard for most people, especially lawyers. Lawyers can be especially resistant to change because we like our precedents. We like to gather all the information before we make a decision. It’s a form of perfectionism, wanting to make sure you don’t make a wrong move, you don’t go forward unless you know you’ve got the best argument or you’ve got the best situation. That’s one of the reasons why we’re afraid to change and iterate. 

She suggests we all start small. You don’t have to try iteration by trying a new job. You can pick something small, gather information, and move through different processes. 

This process is an ongoing thing, something that can be challenging at first when you are used to starts and finishes and measured success. She gives the example of Apple to help understand that we are never finished, a product is never done, “success” is never reached, Apple has many new iterations of their products, just as we can in our lives. 

Where Is Your Energy?

Katherine’s last piece of advice for us is that if you are thinking about leaving law or are not sure what you want to do, take time to think about where your energy lies, what your strengths are, and then move around in those areas. 

This isn’t the same as following your passion. Sometimes your passion doesn’t stay your passion when it’s something you have to do for money. Instead, focus on a roadmap of your interests, your values, your strengths, and see what might work for you. 

With this, don’t be afraid to experiment. You can gather information in different ways, reach out to people on LinkedIn, talk to new people, but start with yourself and be honest about what you really want. 

Lastly, find a mentor. This wasn’t something Katherine really had in her time at the firm, but something that she feels helps us tremendously in navigating challenging situations. In the end, don’t be afraid to ask for a little bit of help or to get information from other people. 

Connect With Katherine 

Mentioned In This Episode: 

Sarah Cottrell:

Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I’m your host, Sarah Cottrell. On this show, I interview former lawyers to hear their inspiring stories about how they left law behind to find careers and lives that they love. Let’s get right to the show.

Hello, everyone. This week on the podcast, I’m sharing my conversation with Katherine Porter. Katherine worked in a big law firm for quite some time. She took some time off. She went back. You’ll hear all about the details. One of the things that became very apparent to her during that time was that law firms were just not very good at innovation. We’ve talked about that a lot on this podcast. And, the whole structure of how we practice law, when it comes to law firms, especially large law firms, is not very focused on the long term. 

So, what Katherine does now is she focuses on human-centered design, and she helps firms cultivate culture that attracts people and invites them to actually want to stay. I realize, for many of us, that sounds like potentially an impossible task. But, I think the work that she’s doing is really interesting and important. Certainly, I think we can all agree it is sorely, sorely needed. Here’s my conversation with Katherine Porter.

Hey, Katherine. Welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. 

Katherine Porter:

Thanks, Sarah. 

Sarah Cottrell:

I’m really excited to hear your story. Let’s start with you introducing yourself to the listeners. 

Katherine Porter:

Okay. My name’s Katherine. I’ve been an attorney for a little over 20 years now. Or, I graduated from law school about 20 years ago. I always knew I wanted to do something different, so I started my own consulting firm. Now I work with law firms and do consulting that way. I live here in California with my two amazing teenagers. And, I actually do mean that. That’s not sarcastic. Most people think it is, but it’s not. It’s a beautiful sunny day here, and it’s all good here. 

Sarah Cottrell:

That’s lovely. You talked about forming your own consulting company, but I know that you practiced law for a number of years. I would love to talk about some of your observations from that time. But, of course, we always go way back to the beginning on this podcast and start with what made you decide to go to law school.

Katherine Porter:

Okay. Well, a lot of people call themselves lifelong learners. But, how many people actually have a slogan for that? I was like, “Katherine Porter, for all your learning needs.” So, I think I was actually teaching elementary school at the time, and a friend of mine went to law school. I’m like, “Huh. Kind of sounds like it might be fun.” And so, I took the LSAT with the attitude of if I do well enough to get into a good law school, I’ll go. So, I did, and I got into a good law school. So, I went. 

I didn’t really give a lot of thought about whether I wanted to be a lawyer or not. I really went for the academic experience, which I did enjoy, because before that, when I was in teaching, it was a time here in California, there were not a lot of teaching jobs, and most teachers of the staff was older. So, it was kind of social as well. I missed being around people my own age. So, that was my attitude of going to law school, and I really did enjoy it. I love reading and writing and all that stuff. So, it was a good fit for me. I probably should’ve given a little more thought to actually being a lawyer, but I didn’t. 

Sarah Cottrell:

I think that’s a really common story, though, because a lot of people who end up going to law school are people who just like learning or like school or even … I don’t know … think they like school because they did well in school, kind of. There isn’t a lot of thought given to what is the life of a lawyer actually like. It sounds like you went for that learning and educational piece. But, at some point, presumably, you realized, like, okay, when I graduate from this, I’m going to do something. How did you come to decide what that was going to be? 

Katherine Porter:

It was practical. I thought … Well, I did a summer associate position, and I’m like, “This is a great experience, great firm. Pays great. So, maybe I’ll just do this for a few years, pay off student loans, and then go do whatever else I want to do.” So, I ended up doing the on-campus interview and then got the summer position and then did get an offer, but only because the firm I was at, they hadn’t had a summer program in a long time. So, they didn’t really have … they weren’t planning on making offers at the end of the summer. It was kind of funny. But, they did, and it all ended up working out. I got an offer to come down to the Orange County office in California. And so, it was just like, okay. Well, one thing led to another, and then I was there, and the pay was good. And then, I started my family, and it was good. They were very accommodating. So, I just ended up staying longer than I think I ever thought I would. 

Sarah Cottrell:

I think that particular story is so common. It’s come up just on the podcast over and over, where people are almost ambivalent about the options, and their school has OCI. They get a job through that. They go, and then it’s many years down the road and they’re like, “Wait. Did I actually choose? Did I just end up here? What’s going on?” What type of law did you practice at the firm? 

Katherine Porter:

Yeah. When I first started at the firm, this was before practice groups were really a thing. So, you were either in litigation or transactional. For me, it’s always been about who I work with. I was doing litigation with these two … a partner and a senior associate at the time. We made this great team. They happened to be eminent domain lawyers. So, when the case, which actually was not an eminent domain case, was over, they went back to their eminent domain practice, and I just went along because that was the people I liked to work with. And so, I practiced eminent domain for a long time. 

Sarah Cottrell:

It sounds like you got into that practice area, as a lot of people do, which is just you work with people and it just works to some extent. And then, there you are. So, talk to me a little bit about that process. You mentioned especially the experience of starting your family and how that impacted whether you stayed or left. I’d love for you to talk about that a little bit because I know that piece of things is something that comes up for a lot of people, that really influences either their decision to maybe try to get out, or, alternatively, a decision to just stick it out. It can go in different directions, but I’d love to hear what your experience was with that. 

Katherine Porter:

Yeah. It was funny. At that time, at that firm, they did not have a maternity leave policy. There was a woman, an associate who just had had her first baby the year before. Then I came along and had my first one, so there was a little bit of a precedent there. But, there was still no actual policy for it, so it was kind of funny. I was able to take off a really long maternity leave, and they were really supportive. I came back, and I just ramped right back up, and it was no problem. 

Then, when I had my second baby, they had a maternity leave policy, finally. But, I still took an extended leave, and they were, again, supportive. I came back, and I tried to get back into the jive of it, but I just missed my babies. I felt like I wasn’t showing up for them the way I wanted to as a mom. And so, even though my, well, now ex-husband was home … He was a stay-at-home dad, so they were still getting that individual care that I really valued. But, I still missed it. I wanted to be there. 

And so, the firm was, again, really supportive. They worked with me to come up with an alternative. I think I was at 80% or some percentage like that. I was working part-time, and that seemed good. But, there was just something in there. I just didn’t feel it. I still really just wanted to be home. So, their dad and I decided to switch. He’s a teacher. So, he went back to school, and we did … or not … well, back to teaching … school as a teacher. We ended up moving back up into my parents’ home so that we could afford to live on a teacher’s salary.

But, I was still working a few hours a month for the firm. I still kept that connection there until, finally, I think it was 2010, 2011, something like that. I was in Costco shopping for my daughter’s birthday, and the managing partner calls and is like, “Oh, I have some unfortunate news.” They were officially laying off a bunch of people. And so, I was like, “Well, okay. It doesn’t really affect me because I wasn’t working that much anymore.” But, it was just kind of funny. I still kept my hand in it. There was a professional organization for eminent domain public acquisitions. I was in that organization, and I kept going to the meetings and things. 

And so, then, at one of the meetings I was talking to one of the partners in the group, and he’s like, “Well, we’re getting more work if you want to come back.” I’m like, “Okay.” So, I came back, but I was just on a contract. That was fine. And then, once my girls got a little bit older, I thought, oh, okay. Well, I can ramp up now. I really do enjoy this. I think, at first, when I first started, I was kind of intimidated, like, oh, I don’t want to be a partner. I don’t know. It seemed really intimidating to me. But then, I think when I came back, I was like, “No, I can do this. There’s no magic or mystery about it now. I know what to do. I know I can do it.” But, I was met with a lot of resistance at that point. 

The firm had been super supportive of me, and this was 12, 13, 14 years later. But, then, when I was like, “Well, I want to go forward,” I was hitting that glass ceiling, I guess. It was really frustrating. I even had a friend of mine who’s a partner. He was a practice group leader in a different practice group. He and I were talking. I’m like, “Well, could I join your practice group? I don’t mind if I go down to being a fourth year or something.” Whatever would be right, because it was a new area. And, he was like, “Okay. Well, let me talk to the other partners in my practice group and see what’s what.” 

And so, he did, and he came back to me, and he was like, “Yeah, everybody likes you. Everybody thinks you’re a great lawyer. But, they just don’t see you as a partner.” He was really frustrated, and I was really frustrated. He was like, “Yeah. It’s time. You need to go.” I’m like, “Okay.” So, that’s when I started looking for something else. 

Sarah Cottrell:

I was just going to say it’s interesting because, like you said, your firm, when you had your first child, didn’t even have maternity leave policy. But, they were very supportive. You mentioned, and I think this is an experience that many women lawyers have, especially in big law firms where there’s a certain level of institutional support for certain things, like, I think now, for the most part, most firms have good maternity leave policies, for example. But, there’s still, in the legal profession generally, but especially in law firms, there’s still this sense of there’s a certain way of doing things and a certain order. The path needs to look a certain way. And, if it doesn’t look that way, then people sort of just assume, like, oh, well, you don’t really … Your path doesn’t look exactly like quote-unquote “the path,” whatever “the path” is, and, therefore, it’s almost like trying to sort, like, okay, who belongs in what bucket, right? 

Katherine Porter:

Mm-hmm. Yeah. 

Sarah Cottrell:

I think some of the dynamics that you’re describing really explain why so many people end up leaving the profession, because we talk on this podcast all the time about the fact that it’s like we’re all human beings. That sounds so obvious, right? 

Katherine Porter:

Right. 

Sarah Cottrell:

But, we’re all human beings, and things are going to happen in our lives that make not every single person’s path look exactly the same. Defining the successful path or what the successful person looks like in a super narrow way just doesn’t allow for people to be human. That’s really, really problematic for a lot of reasons, obviously. I also think that … And, I don’t know what your experience was. But, I’d love to know if it seemed like there was a shift over time, because I think … Did you say it was 12 or 14 years from the time you started there until … when you- 

Katherine Porter:

Yeah. 

Sarah Cottrell:

Was that when you went back, or was that when- 

Katherine Porter:

Let’s see. I went back in … I was laid off in … I think it was 2010. And then, I came back about a year and a half later, very end of 2011. And then, I was happy because I was working part-time. I was only in the office a couple days a week, and that was fine because my girls were still small. But, then, as they got older, I just found I just wanted to work more. I wanted to lean in a little bit more. So, that was probably 2015. I tried to stick it out, and I stayed for a long time. And then, I just had some personal issues that came up, the end of the marriage, stuff surrounding that. So, then, I was just happy to have a job. And, again, the firm was super supportive because it was very traumatic. I was barely functioning for a while. And, they were very like, well, here, let’s give you this. You can review docs. I’m like, “That’s perfect.” They were very, very supportive and very kind. I think that’s one of the reasons why I stayed so long at that firm, is because the people there were just super nice and caring, and it was very comfortable that way, from a personal point of view. 

Sarah Cottrell:

One of the things I was curious about is whether you think the path to partnership, when you first started, and who would be considered for partner, was different than where it was at the 15 or-do you know what I mean? 

Katherine Porter:

Yeah. 

Sarah Cottrell:

Because I know there’s been a lot of talk about the shift in the way law firms operate from, say, the early ’90s until today, the last 30 or so years.

Katherine Porter:

Yeah. The impression I got when I first started was that it wasn’t just like total kill … bazillion hours kind of a firm. That was definitely more of the tenor of it when I started. I think there was a shift towards more focus, like that you were talking about the one model of success, to be a successful person here, you need to build a bunch of hours and bring in a bunch of business. I think, at first, when I first started in the early 2000s, it was less that way. It was more of a recognition of we’re here, we do our work, but our work is our work, and then we do have outside interests. At least, that’s what it seemed like to me.

Again, they were so supportive, and so, I’m like, “Okay. Well, if you can make your hours, that’s fine.” Then, I think it was actually right before I came back from my first maternity leave. Everyone had said, “Oh, don’t worry about your hours when you’re pregnant, at the end of your pregnancy.” They were cool about it. Don’t worry. So, I didn’t. I did the work that I needed to do, but I didn’t stress about making my hours or hitting a certain number each month. Then, when I came back in the fall, while I was gone, they had instituted a policy that actually penalized associates for not making their hours. 

Sarah Cottrell:

Oh, my goodness. 

Katherine Porter:

I was like, “Oh, my gosh.” So, I was way behind. I mean, obviously, not on whole maternity leave. But, the first couple months of the year, when I hadn’t been at full capacity. So, I had to make up all that. But, luckily, there was a partner in the office who was just like, “Yeah, that’s ridiculous.” He had a different model for his clients, so it didn’t really matter how many hours he put. So, he’s like, “Well, how close are you?” I think I had gotten within like 20 or something. And so, he’s like, “Yeah, just put down on this matter.” I’m like, “Okay.” So, it was really cool. That was nice. But, they got rid of that policy pretty quickly. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” 

Sarah Cottrell:

I mean, honestly. It’s like when you put people in positions of management who get there basically because they bill a lot of hours and bring in a lot of money, and not because they have any sort of management skills or any sort of organizational … shockingly, it doesn’t always end well. I know that’s something that you are really interested in, so we’ll talk about that more in a little bit. But, it’s just this classic issue of … I don’t know. When you’re putting people in positions to be making decisions based on skills that are not really relevant to those decisions, lo and behold, they are not particularly well-equipped to be making good, healthful decisions for the organization or for the people in it. Yeah. It’s just I continually still marvel sometimes that there’s so much shock. It’s like why? Why is this so terrible? Oh, it’s because no one actually is promoted based on really having the skills that are needed to do this. 

Katherine Porter:

Yeah. I mean, when it came time to go, that’s what I really felt, was that there was one model of success and that I was only valuable to the firm if I billed a lot of hours and brought in a lot of money. That was frustrating because I was a litigator, but I’m not like … I’m sure I’m perfectly capable of being a first chair trial attorney, but it just was not my thing. I’m like, “Why can’t I do what I’m good at?” Which is the writing and the analysis and even the presentation, creating the presentation for trials or whatever. And then, there was one partner who was excellent at thinking on his feet. He was a great trial litigator, but he was a terrible procrastinator. He was a good writer, but he would just delay and delay. So, I’m like, “Well, let me do that part of it. He can do the trial stuff.”

And then, there was another partner who was really good at bringing in business. It was like … I don’t know. He had a lightning rod for it or something. So, like, well, he can go get it, and then this other guy can try the cases, and I’ll do all the other stuff that I like to do. But, it was like, no, you have to be able to do all those things to be successful, to be of value. I felt like after 17 years, I left, and they lost their investment in me. It was an investment to keep me on for so long. By blocking any path forward, they just wrote off that whole investment that they’d made in me. And so, I was like, “That just doesn’t make any sense.” 

Sarah Cottrell:

Yes. It’s interesting because it’s this institutionalized failure to be able to look beyond the present moment, right? 

Katherine Porter:

Mm-hmm.

Sarah Cottrell:

Where it’s not even necessarily one particular individual who is just being obtuse or whatever. It’s like there’s this inherent … through the priorities of the organization, this inherent just inability to look to the past and look to the future and see what might be the best longterm thing here. There’s a surprising amount of very short-term thinking, I think, institutionally, in many law firms. And, I think part of what drives that was the rise of having the Am Law 100 and profits per partner, and that trickles down even to firms that are not necessarily that size, but this just greater and greater and greater emphasis on the reputation of the firm being based on the amount of money that’s being brought in. It’s a very straightforward sort of incentive situation. It just does not create great incentives. 

Katherine Porter:

Yeah. I think once you start measuring something, because I think about this, too, in terms of billable hours. It’s like once you start measuring it, then that’s going to be used, because it’s somewhat of a fixed mark. You either made it, or you didn’t. And so, I think that’s one of the problems, is that once you have that metric out there and being recorded, it’s just natural to use that for everything. I think that’s a mistake. I think there are so many attorneys who add value in different ways to a law firm. Like I said, for me, it wasn’t just the research and writing, but I think I brought other things just for the whole team. I mean, not to toot my own horn, but just that there were things that I was doing just naturally, and I’ve seen it with other attorneys. There’s just so much more that they bring besides their billable hours. And, that’s just discounted. It doesn’t count. 

Sarah Cottrell:

Yeah. I think another piece of it that your story touches on is just this experience of … I think there are a lot of lawyers, especially lawyers who are at firms where there’s a significant amount of billing required, who maybe don’t necessarily want to completely step out of the profession. But, especially if they have children or just other family to care for or other outside interests, outside of being a lawyer, where there’s this interest, this desire to be able to still practice, but not have it be so all-consuming. I think we see it particularly with parents of young kids. There’s just very little space made for that, I think. 

What you described about your experience is probably a little bit abnormal, just in terms of the willingness of the firm to continue to have you doing part-time work. I don’t know what your perspective is, but, to me, it seems like you are creating a situation where, like you said, people who you’ve invested in, who could be a great asset to your company, basically feel forced to make a choice between the company and everything else about themselves. I think that is really problematic, and, in certain ways, it uniquely impacts the legal profession. What are your thoughts about that? 

Katherine Porter:

No, I agree. I think that we set up this artificial ideal, and it’s just not true. It doesn’t have to be that way, and I think that from my experience, I think it was unusual that they did create that room and that space for me to work on a different alternative. But, then, when the rubber hit the road, it was like, no, you’re going to be measured against the same benchmarks as everybody else. It doesn’t really matter that everybody likes you and thinks you’re a great lawyer. Those things don’t matter. It was only the value of the billable hour. I just feel like billable hour requirements in general are just, to me … I don’t know. I’m not explaining this well, but it gets frustrating to me to see so many people that are left out by this whole groupthink. 

And, it’s funny. I was always met with, well, it’s only when you hit X hundred hours that the firm starts making money on you. And, I was always like, “Really? That doesn’t seem right.” I’m like, “Well, then, you should charge more. Raise your rates. Not raise the billable requirements, whatever it is.” I’ve always been really curious about that in terms of whether that’s really true, and what would be the best way to challenge that and get the information you could use to challenge that whole idea. And, again, that’s short-term thinking, right? Maybe that year you don’t make money on me if I don’t bill X number of hours. But, over time, I’m bringing other things. That one professional organization, I became the president of the chapter. That was a nice thing for the firm. I brought recognition, and was super involved in there. That was creating a lot of goodwill. No, I couldn’t link it directly to a client that we brought in, but I know clients had … They thought, oh, yeah, they’re an eminent domain group. They’re just really well-staffed, and they’re great lawyers. It was part of the reputation building, so that was valuable, right? But, it’s like, no, if you don’t make your hours, then you’re not making money for us. 

Sarah Cottrell:

Hey, it’s Sarah. I’m popping in here to remind you that I have created a free guide, First Steps to Leaving the Law, for anyone out there who is just like, “Ugh. This job is the worst. I need out. Where do I start?” Which, that is exactly where I was when I realized that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. So, you can go to FormerLawyer.com/guide and sign up, and get the guide in your inbox today. When you grab that guide, you get on my email list, which is the way I keep everyone the most up-to-date about everything that’s happening with Former Lawyer. It’s also the best way to get in contact with me, because I read and respond to every email. So, if you are ready to figure out what’s next for you, go to FormerLawyer.com/guide, download the free guide, First Steps to Leaving the Law, and get started today. 

Okay. Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about that moment where you realized, like, there is no path forward for me here, even though I am interested in it. There’s just not very forward thinking. It’s a very restricted view of what would be beneficial for the firm. So, at that point, what were you thinking about, like what you might do next? 

Katherine Porter:

Well, actually, my ideal job, at least, at the time, was I wanted to go work for the court of appeal and be a research attorney because that’s just what I really enjoyed. I’ve worked on a few appeals, and I just find it really interesting because it’s more about the legal issues, I think, than the facts. So, I think at that time I was looking for those jobs, but they’re really hard to get. I had actually talked to another friend at another firm that also did eminent domain and public agency work, and got really, really close to joining them, like so close I told my practice group leader that I think I’m going to go to this firm and work with these people. And then, it was kind of a made-up conflict issue, I would say. So, it just ended up not working out, which was super frustrating. 

But, again, the firm, there was no repercussion to me for like, oh, you’re looking. I mean, the practice group leader was like, “That conflict issue does not make any sense. We’d totally work around that.” Anyway, so I ended up not working out. And then, actually, because I was the president of this local chapter, I went to the national conference, and I was there, and I ran into this woman who owns this consulting firm in a similar field. She and I were talking, and I just mentioned, like, “Yeah, I’m looking for something else.” She’s like, “Oh, we should talk.” So, it was just a coincidence. I didn’t think, oh, yeah, I want to join a right-of-way company. It just ended up being … It seemed like a really good fit at the time. It didn’t end up working out very well, but that’s … Things happen. It’s no big deal. But, at the time, it was like, “Oh, yeah. This would be really cool.” Everybody was excited, and it was great. And so, that was a really good opportunity to capitalize on all my past experience but in a different way. So, that was the default. It just sort of fell in my lap, I guess. Well, I mean, I guess I created the circumstances to allow it to fall into my lap. But, it did fall into my lap. 

Then, when that didn’t work out, I was laid off. That was about a year ago, or, no, two years ago. And so, I interviewed. I went back to law because I think it was a lack of creativity like I need a job. I need it now. I’ve got one daughter … At the time, she wasn’t in college yet, but she was heading there. And, the other one’s right behind. I was like, “I just need a job.” 

So, I took a job at a law firm, a small firm. Horrible commute. My gut was telling me not to take it, and I don’t know why. But, I was like, “I should’ve listened,” because even though it was a small firm, it was very similar. It was very short-sighted. She was always like, “You didn’t have a lot of clients.” And so, we’d get a client, and then we’d all work on it, so they’d get this huge bill, and then they’d leave. It was things like that. It was just frustrating. I just could see the writing on the wall. I’m like, “You’ve got to do something different.” But, she didn’t want to hear it from me. With the lockdown, the work dried up anyways. It was already lean anyways, so then it just dried up even more, and it was the perfect time to separate. 

Meanwhile, the last year before that, I had been listening to a lot of podcasts, actually, about entrepreneurship and side hustles. I knew I wanted to do something different, but I wasn’t really sure what it looked like. So, then, when I was able to be home all the time and I wasn’t working, I was able to figure out what that would look like. That’s how’s I got to where I am. 

Sarah Cottrell:

Yeah. I think something that you said about that experience is really helpful for people to hear, which is … Okay. So, actually, two pieces. One piece was you said you went back to law because you weren’t that creative, or just it was the easy thing. And, I think there is an element of that for people sometimes. But, then, the other piece of it, which you mentioned, was just like but you were also just like, “I just need to find something.” That was something that fit your skills, and you went there. You got into the situation. It wasn’t the best. And, you’re not in that situation anymore. 

But, I feel like people put a lot of pressure on themselves, like, okay, I know I don’t want to do this, or I’ve tried something and it didn’t work out. So, now just I need to pick this thing, and it’s going to be the thing that I do forever. Or, I need to just go back to practicing law, and I can never try again because I’ve tried once, and that was my one chance. There’s a lot of thinking, I’ve found, and I completely understand where it comes from, because I feel like my brain is also trained this way as a lawyer. But, there’s this way of thinking about well, maybe I have one chance. I have one chance to try something different, and if I screw it up, then, oh, well. No more chances for the rest of time. My fate is sealed. 

I don’t know how it is for people in other professions, but my sense, just from talking with other people in other careers, there isn’t that same … People don’t put that same level of pressure on themselves. Even to say, “Oh, I went and got this type of job.” Potentially, maybe that wasn’t super creative. I think that sometimes lawyers just put excessive amounts of pressure on themselves to make the quote-unquote “right” career choice or “right” job choice at any given point in their story. And, again, I completely understand it because it’s exactly where my brain was. But, I think your story illustrates you don’t need to be that rigid with yourself. It does not need to be like you’ve done the wrong thing or you’ve done the right thing, and now you need to make it work. It can be so much more flexible than that. 

Katherine Porter:

Definitely. I think that, as attorneys, we do get into that all or nothing and that black and white thinking, and, really, the whole … Like, in litigation, you either won or you lost. There’s no in-between. And so, that’s just how I think we were trained to think. It’s either you are all in, or you’re not. There’s no middle ground there. No gray area. 

But, it’s funny what you think about being rigid. That’s one of the things that I learned. That’s how I got into design thinking, which I think I mentioned in my email to you. That whole way of thinking about things is all about prototyping and trying stuff and quote “failing fast,” which is hard for lawyers, right? But, when you approach your life and your career that way, it’s really helpful because then you don’t berate yourself if something doesn’t work out. And, you also feel empowered to move, try something different, when things aren’t working. 

I think that was part of my shift as well, is that I was like, “Okay. I can design my life. There’s actually a book, Design Your Life, and it talks about that. But, that really was a change for me, too, that mindset of, hey, I’m just going to try it. Let’s see if it works. And, if it doesn’t work, I know I can try something else because I’ve got these skills that can transfer. But, it’s really hard to get there as a lawyer, I think, to just be like, “Well, I’m a lawyer. That’s what I do. I have to find another legal job because that’s what I do.” It’s hard to get around that binary thinking. 

Sarah Cottrell:

I think that’s so true. I’ve had several conversations with members in the collaborative in the last couple of months about this idea of taking a different type of job whether it’s outside the law, or maybe it’s still inside the law, and trying to figure out, do I actually not want to be practicing law? I have encouraged them to think of it like an experiment. It’s an information-gathering exercise. I think that thinking of it as an information-gathering exercise can take off a lot of the pressure because there tends to be this I have succeeded if everything about it is great, and I failed if it’s not perfect kind of idea, as opposed to what information can I glean from this experience? 

For me, for example, you mentioned being interested in appellate court work. The last six years that I was practicing law, I was a staff attorney at a state appellate court. In many ways, it was like the dream law career. It truly was. I honestly feel like there’s probably no better lawyer career, in my personal opinion. But, even so, I ultimately was like, “This is not what I want to be doing forever.” And so, I don’t view that as like, oh, this was a failure because ultimately I decided it wasn’t the right fit for me. It was actually very helpful because it was a situation where it was like, well, if this doesn’t work for me, then I can be quite confident that this whole deal, the whole legal practice deal, is not for me. Let’s talk a little bit more about the human design that you’re talking about and just what you are building now.

Katherine Porter:

Yeah. So, I think, in a way, I’ve come full circle back to law but in a totally different way, more as a consultant and really to challenge that whole notion of the one model of success and the one metric of success, and to say, “Hey, we are humans, and our clients are humans, our partners are.” Everybody’s a human, right? And, we still, ultimately, solve human problems. I think that there has to be a recognition of that. 

One of the, I guess, silver linings for me with the pandemic is I think there’s more of an appetite for people to think that way. And so, human-centered design is exactly that. It puts the humans right at the front of what everything you do. So, if it’s a client journey or customer journey, think about all the different ways they interact with your firm. You want to think about what their experience is, and part of their experience is also your employees’ experience. So, you want to design the processes and get the right people in the right places and support those people in a way so that they can help you serve your clients better. And so, it all ties in, and it’s all about that human center. It starts with empathy, the whole process of learning what do people really need? Where do they need it? When do they need it? And, what is the most effective way to get that? 

In service design, the analogy is that it often is the stage. So, the clients are in the front, in the audience. And then, everybody else, accounting department, billing department, whoever else, is all in the back of the house, or backstage, I guess. And, if they don’t do their part, then the front stage experience isn’t going to be that great. I mean, imagine if you went to a theater and every scene change took a half an hour. Yeah. Okay. At the end of the day, you’d see the whole show, but it wouldn’t be a good experience. And, yeah, at the end of the day, the manager might say, “Hey, you got what you paid for. You paid to see the show. You got to see the show.” But, if it took six hours, that’s not a good experience because of the backstage processes. 

So, that’s service design, which is part of design thinking, human-centered design and when you’re talking about services. But, I think it’s really interesting to focus more on the backstage and supporting the employees. It leads to better client service, but it also just leads to more productivity in general and engagement across roles and responsibilities. So, I feel like it’s like why not? I think with the appetite now for supporting caregivers and supporting different ways of working, I’m hoping that will trickle down to law firms and that they will begin to recognize that we need to support these people. The mental health and the physical wellbeing of our employees matters. It matters to our bottom line. So, that’s the space I’m trying to get into, to really help law firms do that better. 

Sarah Cottrell:

Well, they certainly could use the help. Tell me a little bit more about how you … So, you mentioned the book, Designing Your Life, which I know has … I don’t know if it’s come up on the podcast before, but I’m familiar with it because it comes up a lot in these sorts of spaces. Is that where you got started in terms of thinking about this? How did you come to know and learn more about the discipline?

Katherine Porter:

Yeah. It was actually through my partner. He was into it, and he got into it. His company was paying for him to get training in it. They used this approach for a project that they had. So, he introduced me to it. I went to a conference with him and helped him. I mean I backstage helped him with his presentation, so I got to know a little bit. He had to write a paper. So, I got curious about it.

Then I was actually talking on a call with another woman, and she was telling me. She’s the one that told me about the book. So, I read the book. I actually went to the Designing Your Life for Women in-person workshop in January 2020. That was really helpful. Really changed my perspective on what … It opens that door because you adopt that designer’s mindset. It’s like what you said. You don’t think that, oh, okay, well, if this doesn’t work out, it’s wrong. It’s like, no, this is information. Now I know this doesn’t suit me, and this doesn’t suit me. You just gather that information, and it’s that shift in your mindset, away from failure and success to information and iteration and getting back, trying something different. 

So, that’s actually how I came to it, was from my partner. He got a certificate in it, and I’m like, “Well, I want a certificate in it.” So, I did. I got one. And, I just read, and I think about it all the time. And, it came out of … from product design. IDEO is the company that’s really super well-known for design thinking and bringing it out to different areas. But, it started with products like iPhones and cars and whatever. But, people are starting to shift it now towards service design, and I’m trying to shift it more … It’s similar to service design, but more on the internal piece of it. How do you leverage the talent, the potential of your employees?

I think by supporting them and working with them and figuring out what they really truly need, then you’re going to get the most out of your employees, and it’s going to make everybody’s pockets bigger. So, that’s how I got into it, was actually just through him. And, it’s interesting that he … I was thinking about it earlier when you were talking about the job shift. You never know, because he was at IBM, which is really rigid and one narrow thing, and now he works for a healthcare company. He’s still doing design type work, but it’s just completely different than it was at IBM. So, you can move away, and he didn’t fail as an IBM consultant, right? Just it was time to move into something different.

Sarah Cottrell:

I was just going to say that reminds me. I was going to circle back to something that you mentioned earlier, which is you talked about how this whole idea of Designing Your Life or being iterative doesn’t necessarily come naturally to lawyers. I’d love for you to talk briefly about why you think that is. 

Katherine Porter:

Well, I think it has to do with what we talked about earlier, where there’s this whole either you succeed or you fail. Change is hard for everybody. It’s not just lawyers, although I think lawyers can be especially resistant to change. We like our precedents. We like to gather that all the information before we make a decision. It’s a form of perfectionism, that wanting to make sure you don’t make a wrong move, you don’t go forward unless you know you’ve got the best argument or you’ve got the best situation. And so, I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re afraid to change and iterate, even though it’s … just those can be something small. It doesn’t have to be a whole new way of working. It can be just small things to start with. And, you learn and you move and you go through different processes. You gather information. You build on that for the next iteration and that. So, I think that ongoing thinking is really hard for lawyers. We like to have a start and a finish and measure success at the end, and there really is no final design. 

I actually gave a talk to a bunch of … I think it was a mix of people that were pre-law, law students, and then young attorneys. I was talking about designing your career the way Apple designs iPhones, because the Apple’s known for design thinking for products. My thinking was like you can do that with your own career. One of the participants on the call was like, “Well, how do you know when your design is final?” 

I was like, “Well, you don’t. You’re always iterating.” I mean, think of Apple. Think of the iPod. That was really the precursor to the iPhone, right? And, they didn’t just stop with the iPod. They iterated and came up with new designs. And, now, of course, what iPhone version are we on? The gazillion? Because they’re constantly iterating and adding new features. And so, when you think about your career, your firm, in that same kind of mindset, where you’re always a work in progress, but that’s hard, because we want to be done. We want to be like, “Yes, I made it,” put my flag in the sand and say, “Yes, I am here. I have arrived.” And so, it’s hard, maybe, for some people to say, “You know what? I’m good right now. But, who knows? Things might shift, but I know I’ll be okay because I know what I want to do. I know my values. I know my interests and where I get my energy, and I know that’s my roadmap for what I’ll choose next, if I need to.” But, that’s really different than the linear lawyer brain. 

Sarah Cottrell:

That is so true. I think that’s so true, and it’s really helpful. Okay, Katherine. As we’re getting towards the end of our conversation, is there anything that you would like to talk about that we haven’t had a chance to touch on yet? 

Katherine Porter:

I guess for people that are thinking about leaving law or are not sure what they want to do, we’ve touched on it, but think it really makes sense to take a little bit of time and think about where your energy lies and what your strengths are, and then move around that. Sometimes I think people, when they think of career change, as you get a lot of advice to follow your passion, I always push back a little bit on that because sometimes your passion doesn’t stay your passion when it suddenly becomes something you have to do for money. And, there’s so many other things about whatever it is you’re passionate about that aren’t doing your passion. So, I think that it’s important to just have that roadmap of your interests and your strengths and your values, and see what might work for you. 

And then, just don’t be afraid to experiment a little bit. That could be doing research. It could be following up with someone on LinkedIn or having a conversation with somebody. Try different ways to gather that information. But, I think you have to start with yourself and really be firm on what you want. That was one thing I felt like I didn’t do well enough. Like I said at the beginning, I went to a law firm. I was like, “Oh, well, it’s good money. But, I think in my heart of hearts, I always knew that wasn’t really what I wanted to do.

But, I also think it was mentorship. Sorry. I’m babbling. I was going to say I also feel like it was lack of mentorship. Not only did I not have a maternity leave policy, there was no one in the Orange County office that had had a baby recently. I’m not even sure there were any women partners in the Orange County office at the time. And so, there was no one … I couldn’t look to anybody and say, “Hey, how do I navigate this?” I was just on my own. What would it have been like if I had had someone come to me and say, “Hey, you seem like you’re struggling with this and trying to figure out how it all fits together. How can we support you, or what do you need?” Or, “Maybe you might find it helpful to talk to So-and-so in the San Francisco office.” I would not have known them because I was not in that office. And so, just that whole thing, too, is really paying attention to what you want and what you need. Don’t be afraid to ask for a little bit of help or to get information from other people. 

Sarah Cottrell:

I think that’s really helpful advice. Katherine, if people want to connect with you, where can they find you online? 

Katherine Porter:

Sure. My company page is TheResourceWoman.com. And, I’m also on LinkedIn. KPorterJD is my LinkedIn username, because there’s a lot of Katherine Porters out there. There’s even a Congresswoman who’s from Orange County whose name is Katie Porter. I do get mistaken for her every once in a while, not visually, but on email. It’s kind of funny. 

Sarah Cottrell:

Oh, my goodness. 

Katherine Porter:

So, I’m the blonde. I’m the blonde in Orange County, The Resource Woman. Yeah. 

Sarah Cottrell:

I will drop those links in the show notes, too, so people can just go there, and the links will be there so that they can make sure that they’re finding the right Katherine. Thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate you sharing your story with us. 

Katherine Porter:

Yeah. Thanks, Sarah. This was a great conversation. I really enjoyed it. 

Sarah Cottrell:

Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven’t yet, I invite you to download my free guide, First Steps to Leaving the Law, at FormerLawyer.com/first. Until next time, have a great week. 

 

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