From Litigator to Legal Project Management with Rachael Philbin
Rachael Philbin is a legal project manager and former lawyer, who shows us that we don’t have to stray too far from the law if we’re ready to stop being a lawyer. There are many lawyer-adjacent roles that exist in the legal industry.
In this episode, Rachael shares with us how she went from litigator to a legal project manager and what to consider if you are thinking the same. She did this recently inside a legal project management panel we had in The Collaborative, she shared more about her experiences and how she decided this was the right career move for her.
I always say it’s important to hear from others who have made a change you may be considering. This could be in the form of a panel discussion or informational interview, whatever it may be, it’s important to hear their experience and ask questions before making the jump.
It’s also important to consider what the day to day will look like and if that fits what you are looking for, your personality, your skillset, what you like to do, etc.
The Lawyer-Adjacent Option: Legal Project Management
Rachael’s story is a perfect example of choosing to change careers from a lawyer and litigator to something still related to the law – legal project management.
She shares that prior to her career shift, she hadn’t thought about her career in this way, she bought into the idea that if she worked hard enough, it would all pay off one day. She missed vacations, family time, dug in and felt that the more she dedicated herself, the more it would be worth it.
Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case. The more she pushed, the more she felt off. The good news is that she did love aspects of being a litigator, she knew there were aspects from her pro bono and litigation work that she enjoyed. So as she found herself questioning her career path, she was intentional about leaning into the aspects she did enjoy. She exposed herself more to the business of law and new opportunities related to this arena, which led to finding a personality and skill set match for her in legal project management.
Legal Project Management and the Business of Law
It’s common for lawyers, especially those at the junior level, to be separated from the business side of the law. This is a disservice to you and the business, many of us really have the skills, motivation, and personality to balance the business and the law sides, just as Rachael found out for herself.
In fact, as Rachael shares in this episode, many of us think, “I’ve chosen this career path, I must be a fit for it” when in reality, what we want may change and our personalities and interests may be a fit for another area, like legal project management or another legal-adjacent area.
Legal project management may be a fit for you, as it is for Rachael, if you like discreet projects that have a beginning, middle and end. It may also be for you if you enjoy planning, strategizing, and being creative and a problem solver. This may be something that changes over time as well, we all evolve and mature, what you may have an interest in or are a fit for can evolve too.
Transferable Skills for Legal Project Management
It may feel that you do not have transferable skills as a lawyer, but Rachael’s story is proof that we all do. It’s just a matter of recognizing what they are and figuring out how to articulate them. For example, don’t discount the fact that you can communicate complex concepts clearly and effectively or can write well, these are assets in the business world as well.
You don’t have to be a math whiz or into science – can you communicate well? Connect with people? Break down problems and creatively solve them? Identify risks? Write persuasively? These are all aspects of litigation, for example, but also key skills in business.
The fact is, you can still use your law degree in business or another legal-adjacent area. Perhaps it’s in legal project management as Rachael did, if that sounds interesting, she breaks down what that work really looks like in this episode as well.
The key is really reflecting on your personality, your skillset, your interests, and what you want your day to look like, and listening to/speaking with others in roles that you believe fit those.
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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 Rachael Philbin. Rachael practiced as a litigator, then she moved into ediscovery and now, she works as a legal project manager. There are so many good things in this conversation. There are several things that we touch on that I think are really important to highlight. The first is that we talk quite a bit about how you don't necessarily need to go that far from what you're doing, you don't necessarily need to go outside of the legal industry in order to find something that's a good fit for you.
As I mentioned, Rachael is a legal project manager but there are all kinds of lawyer-adjacent roles that exist in the legal industry. We've had some panels recently in the Collaborative in the last couple of months. For example, we had a legal project management panel, which Rachael and some others sat on and talked about their experiences. We've also had a compliance panel, we've had a legal operations panel, and we have, coming up, two legal tech panels. I just say that to say, sometimes people feel like if they don't want to practice law, that they have to go really far afield and the reality is that there may be something much closer than you realize. That part of our conversation is really helpful.
The other piece of it that I think is so good, Rachael talks about how, when you're thinking about making a change, you really need to think about what do you want your day to day to look like, and we're talking about what fits with your personality, what fits with what you like to do and your skill set, and what you want your day or your week to look like. She talks about the way to get clarity on that is talking with people who are doing the work that you might be interested in doing, which I loved of course, because as you know, that's exactly why I created The Former Lawyer Collaborative. That's why we have things like these career panels where we have former lawyers come in and talk about what they're doing in other roles, so that the clients in my program can get a sense of, “Is this actually something that I would want to do every workday?”
Obviously, you don't need to be in the Collaborative in order to get that information. You can get that through informational interviews with people who you know in your circle or even finding people on LinkedIn in a particular role and reaching out to them. But I really encourage you to do that because as Rachael shares, it is incredibly important and will really help you figure out more clearly what it is that you want to do next. Of course, if you are interested in getting the help that we provide inside The Former Lawyer Collaborative with our career panels and everything else that we offer, you can go to formerlawyer.com/collab and all the information is there.
But right now, let's get to my conversation with Rachael.
Hey Rachael, welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.
Rachael Philbin: Hi Sarah, how are you?
Sarah Cottrell: I am good. I'm excited to talk about your story. We've talked before, so I know a little bit of your background but can you introduce yourself to the listeners?
Rachael Philbin: Sure. My name is Rachael Philbin and I am a legal project manager at Proskauer Rose. Prior to that, I was an attorney. I litigated for about six years, then I worked in a council position in the ediscovery realm for another 10 before transitioning into LPM.
Sarah Cottrell: Okay. As you know, on this podcast, we typically go all the way back and we talk about what made you decide to go to law school in the first place.
Rachael Philbin: It's interesting. We just talked about this at work a little bit. When I was in college, I had studied social work and I was really interested in more of the policy side of it, and I didn't really know what I wanted to do after college. I thought maybe I would go teach English abroad somewhere. It was actually the initial plan with a friend of mine but then it was suggested to me that I should look at law school if I was really interested in policy work. I had never really even considered law school. I didn't know a lot of lawyers growing up. I knew what they did, what you saw on television. My parents had lawyers to do work for them but I didn't really understand the whole breadth of the legal industry. But it was explained to me that if you want to be a lobbyist and you want to work in policy and in Washington, understanding the laws could be very helpful.
I wasn't even sure I could get into law school, frankly. I took the LSAT, I applied to schools that I thought would fit the type of environment I wanted to be in, and I ended up getting in. That brought me into law school and I thought, “Okay, this sounds interesting.” The more I research law school, the more interesting it sounded. It was an exciting new chapter in my life.
I think when I went in initially, it was on the social justice front and policy and that's where I started. That was the focus that I had. In fact, my first summer after my first year of law school, I actually worked in a clinic for victims of domestic violence, which was the area that I focused on when I was studying social work in college. That was where it started. That's what got me going. It's not exactly the route that I ended up taking because that happens but yeah, initially, that was the impetus behind it.
Sarah Cottrell: I was going to say I think that is a common story for many of us who go to law school, that there's some justice or just an academic interest in the law, policy, and its implications, or like you said, someone coming from a background like social work or something like that, then people get into law school and it often turns out that they don't end up going in the direction that they expected. When you got to law school, I guess one of my questions is, did you feel like there was an abrupt moment where you decided like, “Oh, I'm actually going to go in this other direction. I'm not going to go towards lobbying,” for example, or was it gradual?
Rachael Philbin: That's a funny question because there was a moment I can look back at and say there was a moment, I don't think I realized at the time that it was happening because my trajectory had always been public policy and working with people who really needed help.
Law school, especially your first year, focuses you on getting really into the work and you spend a lot of time just doing the work, so it's hard to think about other things like, “Where is my career going to go after this and when it's happening?” Like I said, I did an internship in a clinic and started out my second year, and all of these people around me—friends and other classmates—kept talking about this on-campus interviewing. I had no idea what they were talking about because I wasn't focused on business law, I wasn't focused on corporate law, and I think some of my friends were more sophisticated than I was and had this sense of what law school was going to look like. Maybe they attended an information session that I didn't think was relevant to me at the time because I was so focused on public policy that they said, “Well, you should do it.” I said, “What is it?” They explained what OCI was, then I said, “Well, why would I want to do that?” They said, “Well, these jobs pay really well.”
It's a big factor when you're a law student if you aren't paying for it yourself or have help paying for it, you're taking on a lot of student debt. I also was told these were great training grounds to learn the law and legal practice, so I could go to one of these firms for a short period of time, make some good money, pay off my debt, and get really good training for the next stage of my career. So I said, “Well, okay, I'll try that.” I did it and I ended up getting one of these jobs. I say it like that because I look back on it and think about my interviews, and realize that I really didn't know what these firms did and I didn't really understand it. I could read about it but I had no sense of what the work was going to be like.
Once that happens, once you get the offer and you accept it, and you start going down that path, it becomes like a wave that you end up riding. I can say at that moment, when I decided to do on-campus interviewing, it switched. I don't think I realized it at that moment though when it happened.
Sarah Cottrell: It's so interesting because people who I've interviewed for the podcast, there are so many similar stories. I know that I've shared on the podcast before, which looking back, I just think how is this possible but when I went to law school, I didn't even know what Biglaw was. I had no idea what salaries people were making coming out of law school. Now, I think that seems like basic information I should have been informed about but it was like, “Oh, there's this thing that we do and this is how you get jobs. The pay is really good and you're going to have student loans.” So like, “Sure.”
To your point about not even knowing what the work looks like—and I know you ended up in litigation, I did as well—and I think there were two reasons for that, I've talked about these before, one was I liked research and writing, so it seemed like that was the path to go down if I liked research and writing. Then two, at least I had some concept of what litigation was. I had been in international studies and leadership studies, double major, so no real experience with legal practice. I didn't really know any lawyers, so it was just like, “Well, I understand what a lawsuit is and what a court is.” Whereas the corporate side of things for me was very opaque. That's pretty much how it happened. That story, I've heard a variation of your story and my story over and over, I think it's very common.
Rachael Philbin: Yeah. I think that, not so much these days, but when I was practicing early on, I volunteered with my law school to be one of these people that law students and future law students could call to talk about being a lawyer. They would ask about your job and they want an informational interview. One thing I would say to them is, “Make sure that you spend some time thinking about what it is in the law that you want to do and do research about the practice areas, what does the day-to-day look like.” Because the one thing I realized over time was that you really have to be the captain of your career and if not, you can get taken on a title. I don't think I realized it at the time but looking back, you have to take ownership of your career because you can get on this title wave that just pushes you forward and the next thing you know, you look back and say, “Okay how did that happen? How did I go from wanting to do this to ending up being here and not necessarily feeling like I made purposeful choices along the way?”
I think once I went into the corporate law environment, I started looking at tax because I liked my tax class, and I was fortunate I did have a law firm that allowed you to try out different areas before you had to pick just one to focus on but it also became, “Who did you have relationships with? Who did you work well with? What work were you getting?” I was getting a lot of litigation work and I wasn't at a firm. This is how little I knew about these firms. I wasn't at a firm that did a lot of tax work. So I was interested in tax but there wasn't a huge tax department. I didn't know that there were firms that did have huge tax departments. That's how naive I was coming into it.
I ended up in litigation probably for the same reason you're saying. It was familiar. I understood what that looked like. There was a lot of research and writing, and it was interesting. I liked law school and a lot of the work I was doing right off the bat as a young associate was reading cases. That was what we did in law school. I could do that and I know I could do that well. I think that it's not surprising that a lot of people have had this experience. I think I've heard it a lot too. I look back now and say, “Oh, I didn't make a lot of choices where I sat down like, “What do I like and what I am interested in?” It was like once I was on the wave, it was very hard for me to get off but it does catch up with you after a while.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Let's talk about that. You started in litigation—and we've already talked about your plan going into law school, which was different from what happened coming out of law school—when you started practicing and litigation, at that point, were you thinking like, “Okay, this is it, I'm on this path,” or were you thinking like, “Oh, I'll do this for X number of years, then I'll do something else”? Did you have a sense that maybe, it might not be for you in the long term? Where was your head at that point?
Rachael Philbin: Yeah. I think there was always a sense in the back of my head that I wasn't going to do it long term although I didn't know that I was necessarily going to parlay it into anything else. I got a sense early on like, “This isn't necessarily the place that I belong.” But with that said, as one of these Type A people, I was going to try my damndest to belong.
When I started practicing, the way I felt was that I was carrying a weight on my shoulder that was being pushed and that I had this belief that if I worked hard enough, I worked long enough, and put in the time and did what I had to do, that one day, it would snap my fingers and suddenly, I would be a lawyer. I would just know how to be a lawyer, I would know how to be a good litigator, that weight would lift off my shoulders, and it would all have been worth it.
What I found though over time was that weight didn't really ever leave—and this is when I was litigating—I didn't really feel like I was getting a mastery. Because you are working such long hours, day in and day out, it's really hard to make space to take that step back, look, and say, “What's happening here?” You're just in it. I find lawyers who work in Biglaw, they're very dedicated to their jobs to the point where—including myself—where you give up vacation, you give up family time, you give up spending time with friends and creating space for things outside of your job. I was definitely one of those people.
I didn't take a lot of time to think about my career in that way. I really did just buy into, “I can do this and if I keep working hard enough, it's going to pay off.” Even though I had that mentality, the whole time, I just kept feeling like I wasn't happy and I wasn't enjoying what I was doing but I kept doubling down thinking like the more I put into it, the more I dedicate myself to it. I will at some point like, “It's going to pay off. I am going to be happy and I am going to be glad that I did this.” Unfortunately, it just didn't really happen.
I think that looking back on it, I could say, “Yeah, I probably didn't belong there to begin with and it wasn't the right direction for me to go in as far as being a lawyer.” But that's not to say that I regret actually making the decision because I don't think I would be where I am now doing what I do now, which I really do enjoy had I not gone through that experience. It's one of those catch-22s.
Sarah Cottrell: I think that's such an important observation for people to hear because I find that a lot of people, when you talk publicly about making a change or doing something else, there is this question that they have of like, “Oh well, do you regret everything you ever did?” I think two things can be true, which I think I've mentioned on the podcast before, it's a phrase that we use with our kids sometimes, “two things can be true,” you can be unhappy about something, you can be unhappy that it's bedtime and also, it's bedtime. It's the example that I would use.
Rachael Philbin: That’s great. I'm going to use that one.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, I think it's like two things can be true. You can realize, like you said, maybe, the path that you ended up on was never really the path that was going to be a great fit for you and also, ultimately not regret that path, which I think for some lawyers, because we're so trained to think in very stark terms, I think there's a sense of like, “Either I need to be wildly happy with all of my choices and I can't let myself feel any dissatisfaction, and everything has to be great,” or “This was a horrible mistake and I regret everything. I can't acknowledge that anything good came from it.”
Those are not actually our two options but I feel having that idea of this very stark, like “it's either this or that” can keep people from admitting to themselves that, “Hey, maybe, where I am right now is not the best place for me to be,” because they feel like they have to choose between all good or all bad.
Rachael Philbin: Yeah. I think that's definitely true. I can say I didn't love being a litigator and I didn't love necessarily being a lawyer but I can say some of my best moments were being a lawyer too. I was able to do pro bono work and some of my pro bono work was really significant to me, and I hope to the people I represented. It was work that I was very proud of and it was work I put a lot of time into. I wouldn't have gotten those opportunities had I not gone through law school, obviously, became a lawyer and worked at the firms that I worked at who allowed me to do that pro bono work, which was really satisfying.
Then also, I think my path is a little bit different maybe than some of the folks that you work with because I didn't go from being a lawyer to doing something radically different because I still work at a law firm. But my path was more of an evolution through working at law firms. After I stopped litigating—I stopped for a couple of years, I took some time off. I did some things that I thought were fun and interesting. I had my daughter—I wanted to get back to work. When I really sat down and thought about it, I started applying to different law jobs, legal jobs, attorney jobs, I had applied to a couple of litigation positions, but when I was really thinking about it, when I started practicing—and I'm going to age myself a bit here—it's when ediscovery first really started taking off and I had worked on some matters where I had implemented using these radically new document databases. I gave a couple of presentations at the firm I was working at about them and I really liked the technology part of it.
When I was looking for a job, eight years later, I really thought about, “What if I just focused on that one part of what I was doing as a litigator in the ediscovery space and see what's available in that space?” In addition to applying for jobs as a litigator, I applied for a job in an ediscovery department at a big law firm. I got offered the litigation positions and I turned them down because I decided I wanted to try something different and really focus on the thing that I did enjoy about being a litigator or the parts of it that I really found intellectually interesting. That brought me into that ediscovery world. I was there for 10 years.
That really exposed me to a lot more about the business of law. While I was advising clients and working with clients, a lot of what I was doing was project management and development, budgeting, and managing groups of attorneys. Then I went from one position in ediscovery to another position. This firm had an existing ediscovery group but they wanted to expand it to a more of a profit center, so I helped with expanding that. That brought me into the operation side, and exposure to a lot more of the operation side of Biglaw.
While I was also representing clients and doing work in that regard, I was also helping them build out, say for instance, document review centers, which was finding the space, buying the hardware and the software, putting together HR policies and benefits packages, and working with all the business services people on that side, then hiring people, training them, and doing their annual reviews. All of a sudden, I was seeing what I'd like to call behind-the-curtain at a law firm.
A lot of lawyers don't get a lot of access to that because they're so busy working and they frankly have other gatekeepers between them because they don't need to. They have an assistant who will help work with the finance team if they need help with that until you start becoming closer to a partner when you start engaging more with the business services people. But as junior associates, you aren't really engaging with the business services as much, so you don't even know what’s going on behind the background of the law firm whereas yes, the business is the professional services but it's also a business.
When I started doing more work in that area, I really felt like I found my space. It wasn't in policy and it wasn't social justice work, it’s something that's still close to my heart and it's important to me personally but in my work life, I really found that I like the business of law much more than the practice of law, so I moved from that pseudo-attorney operations position over to legal project management, which is at my firm and the finance department. That's where I felt I found my footing. I think it's because it aligns with my personality better than being an attorney did for me.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. I think there are so many good points. One, your point about the fact that, especially as a junior lawyer at a larger firm, you're very siloed off from any of the business side things and in certain ways, even once you reach partnership, you're still only touching the pieces that you have to touch for your individual practice and book of business. It is this completely separate realm and skill set that I think lawyers sometimes don't necessarily think about because it just happens, like you said, behind the scenes and often, there are several layers of people between the individual practicing associate and the business side of things.
The other thing that you said that I think is really, really important—and it's something that we talk about in the Collaborative a lot—is the personality fit. I think often—and I know this is something I say a lot, so I'm sure people are like, “Oh my goodness”—but it's not just a question of “What skills do you have?” and “What can you do?” Because when you're a lawyer, you are going to be able to do multiple types of jobs, so it's not enough if you're looking for something new, to just be like, “Well, what am I capable of doing?” You also need to ask things like, “What is a good fit for my personality?” Rachael, I really relate to what you said because my personality was a terrible fit for litigation. I am very conflict diverse and just the angst that is involved in litigation was super draining for me.
I think that as lawyers, we think that things about us as humans that make us unique, like our personality, shouldn't factor in necessarily. We think we should just be able to say, “I'm going to do the following job. The end,” but it really is more complex than that and your story shows, like you said, that your personality fits better on the business side as opposed to the practicing side. Can you talk a little bit more about what that looks like, what you mean when you say that?
Rachael Philbin: Sure. I think that—and I didn't know this, I can't say, “Oh, this is the kind of personality that's going to be successful as a litigator and this is the kind of personality that won't be,” or “This is the kind of a person that should be a tax attorney.” Because I don't think it's that black and white—but what I do know is that the things that are important to me or the things that I am happiest doing is being with people, communicating, and connecting people. That’s where I derive enjoyment when I'm working.
I also love projects, putting pieces together, and solving discrete problems. As a litigator, one thing that people don't really know—in Biglaw, I can't talk about what it's like to be a prosecutor or someone who's in court every day in their practice—but in Biglaw, you're rarely actually in court and when you're junior, you spend a lot of time researching and writing. While I like researching, I didn't love writing all the time but I also didn't like being alone in my office all the time either. I would spend hours just working, working, working. In my office, I could close the door for hours at a time and work. I was not really interacting a lot with other attorneys and I think that was not a good fit for me at all. I really need that human connection at work and working with people.
The other thing is that like I said, I like discreet projects where there's a beginning, a middle, and an end where you can plan, strategize, and be creative. Biglaw litigations are long, they're not beginning, middle, and end. They can go on for years and years and years. I can think of matters that I started in my second year that I was still working on when I left the law firm six years later. That doesn't fit with my personality. That's why project management, even longer term projects, I'm okay with because I'm part of structuring, taking, the 10,000 foot view, then putting the component parts together, collaborating, communicating, and connecting resources. That to me is exciting. That to me is fun.
Then when problems coming up, like finding creative solutions, and I think there are some lawyers out there who can be so creative with the law—and I don't think that I practiced long enough to get to that point, so I'm certainly saying I couldn't do it—but I feel like in the business side of things, I can be a lot more creative than I could have been when I was practicing. I'm not saying you can't be creative as an attorney but I wasn't feeling like I was being creative as an attorney. You're confined into the boundaries of the law, regulations, and common law. I don't think that you get to be creative all that often. At least, that was my experience.
In this, I get to be more creative, I get to solve problems, so that fits my personality better. I can tell the difference because I can finish a day and have a hard day, and feel good about my day even though it was hard. When I was practicing, I didn't feel that way. I felt like it was a hard day and it felt like it was just going to be a hard day tomorrow. I think it's because it wasn't that the work was terrible, it wasn't the right fit for me. The only “regret” that I have—we were talking about regret earlier—was that I didn't realize this earlier, I mean that's just it. It was just that it took me a long time. But again, you gotta have to make that full circle, which is the time that it took me, it got me to where I am today. The experiences that I had, somehow, 10 years into my career, helped shape where I am now. I don't regret it. I just wish it had been at a shorter timeline maybe.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. That is very understandable. I definitely have had other people say similar things. You mentioned creativity, and I totally agree with you that in legal practice, to a certain extent, it makes sense, creativity is not necessarily encouraged for rational reasons. On the litigation side, it's like you're thinking about precedent, you're thinking about previous decisions, you're trying not to deviate too far from what was previously done because you want to try to ensure a certain outcome. On the more corporate side, similar thing, again, part of the job is to try to deliver a certain result for your client and there's a little bit of if it isn't broken, don't fix it or it might be broken but it's a broken that we understand, so we're just going to roll with it.
Rachael Philbin: Two things, especially if you go to law school without having worked before, so you're on the younger side and you don't have a lot of “real life experience,” a real world experience. I think that one, it takes time to get to know yourself. That's working against you when you're just right out of college and right out of a law school, then you're starting a career. It takes time to get to know yourself, know what your personality is, and know what your likes, and dislikes are in the working world and in your professional world because you haven't had a profession before, you haven't been out in the working world long enough to know that.
I also think that as an attorney, it takes years and years and years of practice, experience, and knowledge to start being able to be creative. It is one of those things where if you like creativity and you want something that's a good personality fit for you, you have to have that. It's easy for me to look back and say this, it's harder when you're in that position and you can't really figure that out yet. But I do think that when going into ediscovery—it wasn't just the technology because I don't like to call myself a techie because there are people who know a lot about technology. I know a lot about legal technology and I'm pretty well versed in certain technologies, but I wouldn't consider myself a techie—but what I loved about ediscovery was that it was problem solving and it was discrete problems, and we could be creative. Like what technologies, what processes and workflows can we put together to make this cost effective for the client? We have this amount of data and we need to get through it for this litigation but this is our budget, how do we do that?
It did allow me to start doing those more creative types of problem solving that I enjoy. I was able to do that within the confines of litigation but it wasn't really the law and it wasn't creative legal writing or creative legal arguments. It was something different. I think the thing that's funny though is that I can look back, undergraduate, if you had said to me that you're going to really love working in business operations, I would have laughed at you. I could have thought that’s something that’s the opposite of who I was. That's what I thought at the time. If you had said, “Oh, you should take a business course,” I would have been like, “Why would I do that? That does not sound interesting to me at all.”
There also comes an evolution through your experience and also an evolution in your personality, and as you mature, things that start to interest you, they change over time. Sometimes I think growing up, I got a lot of messages that I wasn't business or science, math because I wasn't the strongest math student, they weren't really in my wheelhouse of things I could do. I never even considered them and I never explored them because I was told like, “You're not good at this part of it, this math part of it, so you're not going to be able to do these things” so I took a different course. I was great at writing, so I went down a different track.
But what I found was that business is so much more than doing math. Maybe, not business school but business is so much more than doing math and the things that I'm good at—communicating, connecting, and problem solving—those are things that they need in business. One of the things that I think for a lawyer is they don't necessarily put a lot of stock in their training, their ability to write and write persuasively, and write well. In the business world, that is a skill and it's one that differentiates you. I think that being able to write well, I think to be able to problem solve, being able to take a problem and break it down, its component parts, these are all the types of things that you do in litigation. You take it down to its component parts, then come up with a solution, then explain why that solution is going to work and show what the data is.
It's the same thing that you do in a legal argument or if you're writing a brief or a motion but it's just a different topic and you're doing it for different reasons. I think that one of the things that people don't really understand is that there is actually a big connection. That ability to communicate well, I think it's a really undervalued skill that lawyers should look at and be able to say, “Well, wait a second, I have really good training in communication.” That was one of the things that I took away from my legal training. I think that's one of the things that it gave me, that I can say like, “That is something that I can do. I can do that well based on what I was taught and how I was taught to do it as a lawyer.”
Sarah Cottrell: I think that's so helpful because one of the things I hear the most—and I know this was something that I felt when I was realizing like, “Oh, this is not for me”—was I hear lawyers feel like, “I don't have any transferable skills.” If I'm a litigator and I do a certain type of litigation, then the only things that I bring to the table are the very specific things that I do in that niche litigation practice.
Rachael Philbin: Right. No one's going to ask me to write interrogatories at some business.
Sarah Cottrell: Right. One of the biggest hurdles that people have to do is to get over and one of the things that we work on in my program is you do actually have lots of transferable skills. It's just a matter of recognizing what they are and figuring out how to articulate them. I think what you just described in terms of writing on the business side is a perfect example of that where I think a lot of lawyers completely discount like, “Oh, I can communicate complex concepts,” “Oh, I can write well,” because they're just like, “Well, that's just part of my job.” They don't think of it as an asset.
Rachael Philbin: I think they assume that everyone else can do that too. I think that one of the things that they don't understand is that not all graduate programs require a ton of writing or undergraduate programs require a lot of writing. Legal training does. It's a skill that lawyers have that I think they can demonstrate—you can't necessarily say, “I'm a really good writer,” on your resume—but you can demonstrate it in the way that you communicate when you're interviewing for jobs, when you are writing your cover letters, when you are discussing or putting it on your resume, writing a good resume, and why it's persuasive.
All of those things are things that you can demonstrate. I think that was one of the things that I didn't realize. I just assumed everyone, they say this in law school. I don't know if they said it to you but they said it to us like, “We're going to rewire your brain.” I think if they do, they rewire all the law students' brains and we all think that people think like us but they really don't.
Another thing that I think lawyers are really good at doing is issue spotting and finding risks, be those legal risks or be other types of risks. Issue spotting is a really helpful skill set. When you're talking about a project or you're talking about some business endeavor, you want the person to raise their hand and say, “Well, okay, but did you think about this?” Not because you want to necessarily create an obstacle but because you want to make sure that you've identified your pitfalls are going to come down, so you have solutions ready. That's another area where I feel my legal training really helped me be able to identify issues and risks associated with any project or endeavor that comes up.
Like I said, I see my career more like an evolution. I didn't do a drastic change. I didn't say, “I hate being a lawyer, I'm going to just stop, and I'm going to go and do something entirely different.” It's a little bit different than some people, I mean some people just really don't want anything to do with the law, but I did find that if you open up your eyes to what the legal industry has to offer, there's a lot of places to go within the legal industry where you don't have to practice law.
In one way, when people say, “Oh, I can't use my skill, they're not transferable,” being a lawyer in the legal industry is very helpful. You can be a really dynamite legal project manager without being a lawyer. I'm certainly not saying you need one to do the other but it definitely helps. I feel like it helps me when I do my work, that I understand the lawyers I'm working with, I understand where they're coming from, I understand what their day-to-day work is. When we're talking about a problem that they want to solve, I understand what their goals are and I understand how it's going to impact their day to day.
That is only from my experience as being an attorney myself. While you know it's not a prerequisite, it certainly doesn't hurt to have been practicing for a while in doing an LPM, but there's legal technology, there's operations, then obviously, there are in-house positions which are still practicing, but there are in-house operations positions too, not just operations at a law firm but legal operations within a corporation. There are a lot of places you can go. If you're interested in tech, there's a huge legal tech community and tons of companies out there. They’re doing really interesting, fascinating things.
Once I stepped back and said, “Do I have to practice law to be happy or to feel like this was a worthwhile endeavor?” I realized, “No.” But I'm still using my legal degree. I'm still using my training. I'm still relying on it in a way but I'm just doing it differently and doing it in a way that makes me happy.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Let's talk a little bit about what legal project management is for a lawyer who's listening. I think all of us understand the words and the concept of managing a project but can you help people who are listening understand a little bit more about how that fits into the law firm, and into the different pieces that might be a big litigation or some deal or something like that?
Rachael Philbin: Yeah, sure. I think we've talked about this before but legal project management can mean different things at different firms. There is a classical legal project management which is really the scoping and budgeting for matters. I always think of when you sell your services and you sell your time, everything's about opportunity cost. If you are selling your services for a certain amount, that's the way that the industry is going. The legal industry is going in a way where we're doing more of what they call alternative fee arrangements. Since 2008, when you had the crash--
Sarah Cottrell: The year I graduated law school as I like to think of it.
Rachael Philbin: I worked with a number of people where that happened, it was a really unfortunate for a lot of students coming out of the time but what you saw, the lack of hiring, was because all of a sudden, all the clients had to buckle down and one place that they can buckle down is in legal spend because it doesn't really make them money unless you're going to recoup insurance proceeds. Unless you're the plaintiff in an action, you're not recouping money, you're spending it on legal lawsuits, etc. When they don't need as much legal services, then the law firms can't hire. That's really what you saw.
As a result of 2008 and what happened, in-house lawyers became a lot more savvy about their budgets and they had a much harder demand from the business people about monitoring their budgets for the legal spend. One way that law firms met that is to start looking into alternative fee arrangements and in doing so, that was the burgeoning of LPM because “Okay, if we are going to do this work for a set amount of money,” because normally, lawyers bill by the hour but if they decide, “We're going to do it for a set amount of money,” then essentially, you're getting that money and you're working towards that money almost like a retainer.
If you start working past the amount that you set the cap at, you're starting to lose money and it's also an opportunity cost to do other work for other clients. That was the impetus behind LPM. One of the things that legal project managers and classical legal project management do is a lot of sitting down with attorneys, talking about their matters, and scoping out, “Okay, what's in scope for this matter?” When we said, “This is how much this matter is going to cost,” and we gave them a budget, what did we include? What were our assumptions in that? We put out scoping statements, we talk that through with the lawyers, and we draft the scoping statements, then we also put budgets together and work with the lawyers about their assumptions about how many hours is this going to take, who are we going to staff on it, and what should the leverage be between partners and associates so that we're making this as cost efficient as possible. What can we do about ediscovery? Then you partner with ediscovery folks to figure that part out. What are we doing about disbursements and costs? How are we approaching that? Are there workflows that we can put into place that will make this more efficient and more cost effective? Then a lot of tracking and monitoring once the matter starts, so that you are updating the lawyers about where you're at within the budget so that they can update the client, so that the client is not surprised at the end when they get the bill.
That is classical LPM work. Then there's another area where LPMs are going into and a lot of work that I'm doing recently is with innovation. There's a demand in the legal industry to use technology, workflow, processes, and alternative staffing in order to bring costs down, make work more efficient, or make it more pleasurable. When I say pleasurable, I mean like a better user experience for whoever is doing the work. As a legal project manager, one of the things I do is I do a lot of project management around these innovation projects and that's where the crossover between LPM, the ediscovery, and legal tech customer come together for me. Not all LPMs do innovation work but you do start seeing a lot more of them going into that sphere. LPM and innovation are often talked about together.
Innovation has been the hot word in the legal industry for the last couple of years. But I think the legal industry has been innovative for a really long time and ediscovery is one of the shining examples of that. But the fact that they have legal project management is another example of that, that law firms became savvy enough to understand that their clients are really concerned about budgets and so bringing on people who have those skills to help those lawyers manage the budget so the lawyers can focus on what they're supposed to be doing, which is the legal work. That's what I do as an LPM.
Sarah Cottrell: I think that's super helpful for people who are thinking, “Okay, this sounds interesting. But what are we talking about in the nuts and bolts?” I think too, a really important piece to highlight is—like I said, I graduated from law school in 2008, so the time where I was at a firm, it was the big more cutting edge thing that was more ascendant or evident at that point—more the ediscovery piece. As you said, the growth in project management was spurred by everything that happened with the economy in that 2008, 2009, 2010 time frame.
I think as lawyers, we often have this very fixed idea of, “There are a fixed number and type of jobs and that is what I have to choose from. The end.” I just think it's important to highlight the fact that things are always changing. For someone in my position, if they were to be thinking about “What could I be moving towards?” it's important to have conversations, talk with people, learn about what's going on because there may be things developing or that have developed that aren't necessarily super familiar with but that could be a really good fit.
Rachael, do you have any advice for people who have heard you talk about legal project management and they're like, “This actually sounds really interesting. I think this might be a good fit for my personality,” what would you suggest to those people?
Rachael Philbin: Yeah I think it's really important to talk to people who are doing the work, like myself, and find out what it's like day to day to see, “Does that actually fit with my personality? Will I enjoy going to work every day?” I think there's a ton of training that you can get out there in project management. The PMP certification, you have to have project management experience to do it, but that's a very broad term, project management, I mean a lot of I would say senior associates and junior partners are managing math cases that have aspects to them that really are very much project management. But there are a lot of courses that you can take on project management. There are courses you can take in legal project management. I think that's another way to learn more about it or to start getting some of the hard skills underneath it.
If you're interested in legal project management, starting to maybe ask questions in your current job like, “How does billing work at a firm?” Because a lot of associates don't ever see what bills look like. How does the billing process work? How does the finance system work? What does HR do here? Talk to the people who are working on the business services side and I will tell you that you will find a lot of former lawyers working in business services at your law firm if you're in Biglaw. I'm not talking just in LPM, they're in finance, they're in HR, they're in Knowledge Management. Most people I know in Knowledge Management are former lawyers. You will meet a lot of people on the business services side who are former lawyers and they've been able to take their experience.
I think talking to them as well and saying, maybe it's LPM but maybe, it's some other part of legal operations that you're interested in. But I think talking to people and finding out what it is that they're doing every day, then getting some of the hard skills by doing it, volunteer if you're an attorney working on a litigation and they have to put a budget together, volunteer to do the budget, volunteer to help with the budget, and start figuring out how you do that. If you have LPMs that you work with at your firm, volunteer to be the point of contact for the case team with the LPM and learn about what they do.
I think just generally, take a little bit of time and figure out like, “What do I want my day to look like every day? How do I want to spend my time?” Not specifically with a type of task or deliverable at the end of it but, “How do I want to be spending it? Do I like to be alone? Do I like to be working with people? When I'm happy at work, what are the things that are making me happy about what I'm doing?” Like I said, I like discreet projects that I can see a beginning, middle, and end too. Working something that goes on and just keeps going on, that's not for me.
It's really figuring those things out, then you'll find jobs that will fit into that and allow you to do those things. I think that's really important because subject matter-wise, fortunately, for a lot of lawyers, they're smart people, they can learn pretty much anything if you give them the time and the resources to do it. It's finding out what it is that you are going to enjoy every day and how you spend your time. That to me, I didn't realize how much I liked working on problem solving in that space and doing that work until I actually started doing it, then I realized like, “Wow, this is something that I really have a lot of enjoyment doing and look forward to doing as part of these projects that I'm working on.” Talk to as many people as you can.
Sarah Cottrell: I think that is all such good advice and yes, I was like, “All the praise hands over here.” Rachael, is there anything else that you would like to share that we haven't talked about yet?
Rachael Philbin: I don't think so. I think that one of the things I would say is try not to be too hard on yourself. It is really, when you commit to doing something, particularly at a young age or an early stage in your career, you don't have all the information, you don't know yourself as well. As time goes on and you learn more about yourself, the things that you like doing, and the things that motivate you, maybe, the decisions you made earlier turn out to not be the right ones but it's not necessarily a failure. It's just part of the process of evolving into the person you're supposed to be. So I try and say try not to be too hard on yourself about it because people who have gone to law school and people who have worked in as attorneys, they have a lot to offer in any role that they go into. They really actually are starting off a step ahead. They just sometimes can't see it right away.
Sarah Cottrell: I think that's so good. If you're someone who struggles with that, which let's be real, it's probably most lawyers, a couple months ago, I just scrolled back in the podcast app, I released an episode and I think the title is something like the one thing that you need if you want to leave the law and in that episode, I talk about self-compassion and why I think having compassion for yourself is essential to actually be able to make a good decision about your career and your future, so yeah, I literally could not agree more with what you said about not being too hard on yourself. Rachael, if people want to connect with you, where can they find you online?
Rachael Philbin: I'm on LinkedIn. You can definitely find me on LinkedIn. My email is posted there and I'm happy to chat with anyone who wants to talk about LPM or talk about making the transition out of practicing because I've definitely been there and had those days where I didn't know where I was going, what I was doing, and what was going to make me happy. I am certainly always willing and ready to talk about this process because I can look back and say it worked out but when you're in it, it's a little bit harder to see that but it does work out.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes, so true. Thank you so much, Rachael, for sharing your story. It was really good to talk to you today.
Rachael Philbin: Thank you, Sarah. It was nice chatting with you too. I'll talk to you soon.
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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