Change Is Easy, Leaving Is Hard: My Journey from Big Law (A Special Guest Post by Stephen Embry)

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Sometimes I get nervous
When I see an open door
Close your eyes
Clear your heart
Cut the cord

-The Killers: Human

They say change is hard. I’m not sure I agree. Leaving one thing for another is hard. The process and decision of leaving something and somewhere are gut-wrenching. It’s difficult. It takes time and patience. Changing at the end of that process when you see the better path is easy. For me, this process meant deciding to leave my law firm, Frost Brown Todd, where I have been for most of my career. and the full-time legal practice.

I have spent almost my entire working life under the Frost roof. I essentially grew up under that roof, raised children while there and moved from associate to equity partner with all that that entails. I laughed, cried, sweated and rejoiced under that roof. Its been a rewarding place and took me places and let me do things that I never thought I would do when I graduated law school. It was safe and secure. It’s been great and I value it all.

Leaving it all to pursue my passion was hard.

So Why Change, Particularly Now?

Most of my partners were supportive, albeit a bit incredulous, about my decision. (One of my partners sent me a one-word email which said “Dude?”). Why would someone leave the security of a large firm and what he had done his entire career to set out on a new endeavor, particularly at this stage when most are cutting back and reaping the benefits of years of experience.

Stephen Embry

First and foremost, my decision had nothing to do with the firm or my colleagues. I hold both in the utmost and highest regard. But like so many things in life and with your career, doors and the path forward have a way of opening for you when you don’t expect it.

For several years, as many may know, I have been writing and presenting in the legal space. At first, I did this as a potential way to get business, focusing on the law and new developments in my areas, mass tort, class action, data breach, etc.  Gradually, though, I found myself writing and doing less concerning the substantive law — the nuts and bolts — and more on how the practice of law itself is changing, where it is going and how that direction is being impacted and shaped by technology and innovation. How efficiencies that could be brought on by better processes and different billing options could open new doors and ways of practice.

And along the way, I began meeting some fascinating and smart people who I came to respect and admire. People like Casey Flaherty, Jim Beckett, Aaron Street, Bob Ambrogi and Keven O’Keefe among others. People who were disruptors, movers, and shakers.

And I as is spent more time in this space, I also became fascinated with the entrepreneurs developing legal technology. How and what they were selling. Their passion, their enthusiasm, their willingness to fail from time to time. People like Ed Walters of Fastcase, Andrew Arruda of ROSS, Nicole Bradick of Theory and Principle.

To a person, all these people were encouraging and supportive but also pushed me to take my talents, skills, and experience in the direction of my newfound interests. That’s what disruptors do. That’s what entrepreneurs do.

I started attending new and different conferences. Conferences like the ABA TechShow. CLOC. I even branched out and went to things like the Consumer Electronics Show, South by Southwest, and other conferences where disruptors and innovators from all sorts of disciplines come together.

And I found, possibly because of my exposure to all these new ideas, my interest in the actual practice of law itself was also shifting. I became less interested in the actual handling of a case — the nuts and bolts — and much more interested in formulating overall strategies. Determining the risks and possible outcomes based on those risks and finding solutions using new and different tools to minimize risks and, just as importantly, reducing the overall transactional and disruptive costs — both financial and human. Using technology in case management and budgeting and in the courtroom. I even taught a group of trial lawyers how to better use trial presentation technology in the courtroom. How cool was that?

Because of all this exposure, this pushing and perhaps because, quite honestly, I have always been a nontraditional thinker in life and law, working with innovation and technology became the thing I found I enjoyed. This was the work I wanted to spend my time doing. While I hesitate to use an overworked phrase, this became my passion. When I found myself waking up in the morning eager to get to work on my passion instead of the traditional practice of law, I began to think it was time to get serious about a fundamental change.

What Is It About Leaving?

But that change didn’t happen overnight. It took me a long time to finally see and admit what I liked and what I wanted to do. It took awhile for me to define and figure it all out.

But the change process required a final difficult step: I had to decide exactly how I was going to do what I wanted to do. I tried out all sorts of strategies in my head to not leave the safe and secure place where I was. How I might devote time and energy to my passion but still practice traditional law. Maybe I could reduce my billable hours. Maybe become of counsel. I even thought I might pursue my calling as a skunkworks. (Yeah, I know, not a chance.)

Each time, I wasn’t satisfied with the solution and, more importantly, where it led. Each time, it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right I suppose because I was hedging my bets. I wasn’t leaving for my passion, I was compromising it. When the idea finally hit me that maybe it was time to cut the cord and just fly, I quickly rejected it. Out of the question. Too risky. Scary.

But each time I went through the analysis I ended up back to this same place. The more I wrapped my head around it, the more it made sense. And how, even though I didn’t necessarily want to admit it, it felt exactly right. Once I got over this hump, the process was complete. It was time to leave.

And so, as of May 31, I will leave the safety and security of the big firm and set sail on my own.

So What Will I Be Doing?

Three things. First, I plan to devote more energies to my blog (if you’re interested, here’s a link), to writing and to speaking. Focusing on how the practice of law can infuse technology, process, and innovation and be better. Not just for a few but for many.

Second, coaching. Helping lawyers, law firms, and in-house counsel see where the practice is going and how the delivery of legal services can be improved based on technology, innovation, and process. Helping lawyers use technology and innovative tools to better their practice and be better lawyers and people. And coaching startups and entrepreneurs in the legal space to make products that lawyers will actually want and use. Coaching entrepreneurs how to navigate and sell to law firms and legal departments.

These two legs of the stool were obvious. The final one took some time to tumble to, but once I did, it made my decision so much clearer.

Some of the best advice I ever got was from Bob Ambrogi, who told me to write about something I knew about. And so it is with my new adventure. Several weeks ago, I had coffee with Pat Lamb at CLOC to congratulate him on his new partnership with Elevate. As I was describing what I wanted to do, I casually added he was doing similar things but still liked to practice and offer legal advice at very high levels from time to time. And so, it hit me that, in addition to writing and speaking and coaching, I also still have something to offer as a practicing lawyer.

In talking with Pat, it dawned on me that I could use what I was learning about technology, innovation and process management to help companies in the mass tort and complex case arena, the areas where I have some expertise. To supply strategic case assistance and management help. To advise clients how to analyze the risk and exposure of these cases and then how to manage through those risks. How to put teams together to do work, how to define the best possible results for the client and how to use new and different billing strategies and analytics to get there. In fact, with Elevate and Dan Linna, I was already working doing just this sort of thing: developing on new billing and organization processes for mass tort cases.

This became the third leg of the stool. Once I figured this part out, my path became very clear. And my decision easy. So what will I be doing?  Writing, coaching, and, yes, still practicing. A three-legged stool.

My new career. I’m really excited about it.

Leaving is Hard, Change Easy

So to anyone going through the “leave or change” process or thinking about it, it’s easy to say follow your passion. But like most people, I wondered what that means. Is it just some platitude we mouth and repeat so often it is often devoid of any meaning?

I do know now that it’s not easy to figure out what your passion is and how to follow it once you know. It’s not always self-evident. It takes some patience, some work, some hard thinking to figure out.

And the whole concept of leaving gets in the way and makes it hard. Leaving entails saying goodbye to valued colleagues. To the safe and secure. To something you know and feel comfortable with.

Following your passion at the very least then has to mean doing the hard work to really find a passion that lets you overcome the reluctance to leave. It means listening instead of talking. Listening to your head and often your heart. Seeking out and listening to others about what you want to do, even when they say things you don’t want to hear.

And sometimes in these days of big data and hard analytics, it means that in matters of love and passion, you sometimes just have to go with your gut. And when you do, you have to have the courage to recognize when something feels right.

It’s from passion that you get the courage to do what’s hard. To leave the nest. To cut the cord. It’s passion that makes change come easy. I know now that that’s what finding your passion is. That’s all it is.

Starting June 1, I will be pursuing full-time writing and coaching through TechLaw Crossroads and my blog; and a legal practice outlined and defined by my passion as a solo through EmbryLaw LLC.

Change is easy. Leaving is hard. Close your eyes. Clear your heart. Cut the cord.


Stephen Embry is author of the blog TechLaw Crossroads and is on Twitter at @stephenembryjd.

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