rightbrainlawyer

Dispatches from the Y Chromosome - Dispatch #2: “The Poster Child for the Wacky Path”

Sara Lingafelter is the Director of Social Media at Portent, Inc., a digital marketing agency based in Seattle, WA. She also teaches social media and content strategy for the University of Washington Advanced Online Marketing certificate program. In all honestly, I’ve been trying to get Sara’s attention for a long time and I was very excited when she agreed to sit down and tell me about her career path. Sara has, among other things, climbed internationally and blogged about it, worked in outdoor industry sales, worked at a big law firm, worked at a small law firm, worked as a solo attorney, worked in policy for a state government entity, and done her own social media consulting. Through it all she’s driven by a quest for mastery. I’ll let her pick it up there.

Let’s start by talking about law school.

SL: I was not a typical law student. I didn’t look at my grades until my 2L year. I only learned about them then because I participated in on-campus interviews. I had applied to a couple of small firms and someone at career services asked me: “Why aren’t you applying to big law firms?” And I said: “Because I don’t want to work for big firms.” And they said “You have to apply to big firms.” And I said, “No, I don’t.” That was when they let me know that I had done well my first year of law school. Otherwise, I would have had no idea.

I did the on-campus interview process with big firms and wound up at Preston, Gates, and Ellis “PG&E” [Ed. Now K&L Gates]. It was really a fascinating experience for a girl from Port Townsend, WA.

I worked with a supervising attorney that did ecommerce and privacy work and absolutely loved what I was doing. And I loved her. To this day it was the most intellectually challenging and stimulating work that I’ve ever done. But the big-firm lifestyle was not sustainable for my marriage at the time, so I opted out.

During my 6th or 7th month of my first year of practice I went to human resources at the firm and said “I just don’t think that this is for me.” My marriage didn’t make it, and I’m a “no regrets” gal, but I’ll admit I’ve had pangs of wondering over the years if I made the right decision when I left PG&E.

I took a couple of months to figure out what was next. I tried small firm practice and then started my own practice. I was really happy in my solo practice, but when an opportunity came my way to work with in environmental policy I couldn’t pass it up.

That was a step away from law and then the steps away from law continued after that. It wasn’t really an intentional move away from law. I just haven’t come back yet.

Tell me how you got from policy to marketing.

SL: I was working a half-time contract with a state agency on environmental policy. I worked half-time and climbed and wrote about climbing half-time. It was a pretty sweet arrangement. It might have ruined me for life, since making a good living for half-time work gave me so much freedom to pursue projects (and life) with the other half of my time.

As my state agency contract came to an end I had an invitation from an apparel company to do an expedition in Nepal for one month and to write about it, all expenses paid.

It is not in my nature to say “no” to something like that.

So, I agreed to go to Nepal, and came home afterward to an entry-level sales job in the outdoor industry. I did that job for a year and a half, travelling nearly full-time for work. I’d been connected to the industry for a few years as a writer, but I hadn’t yet worked in the industry, so it was a great way to get a foot in the door and build relationships.

Next, I worked at REI in their corporate social division and at a public relations agency after that, then went freelance for a time and landed at Portent last summer (and love it). At no point have my transitions made much sense. Every job decision I make, people think I’m crazy. It all makes sense to me, though, and each thing leads to the next. Also, it all seems to make sense in the end. I’m the poster-child for the wacky path.

I’m interested in your statement that you don’t have any grand forward-looking plan but it all makes sense looking back.

SL: It’s gotten a lot easier to define. Now I know that mastery drives me. So, it’s less about “what do I want my job title to be or what building do I want to work in or how much money do I want to make?” It’s more: “Am I making progress on the handful of things that are important for me to feel like I’m capable of pursuing mastery in?” If the work is letting me do that, then it’s work worth doing.

I started my professional career working for a website development company and got a totally random offer from people I met commuting to go to work for a software development company as a writer. I have been a writer my whole life. I’ve always loved to write and never thought about pursuing writing as a career. Given the opportunity to do so, the only answer was “yes.” Being a writer was awesome but then they needed a manager, and then a program manager. I ended up straying from the thing that brought me in, the reason that I was there and wanted to be there.

Since then I’ve been a more careful when choosing each step. Advancement and growth doesn’t always mean management. When I was at REI I was focusing on the craft of social media so I didn’t pursue management opportunities. Now, I’m focused on the craft of leadership and management in addition to my areas of specialty, and I’m enjoying being somewhere that lets me practice those newer skills.

When I left BigLaw for a small practice I went from making more than six figures to less than a starting school teacher. After the small practice I went to my own practice at slightly more than a starting school teacher. I figured out in my legal career and through climbing that I need very little to be very happy – even with my student loans – and that frees me up to make career decisions based on my energy and interests and choices to pursue mastery as opposed to a salary. I feel very happy that that’s how I’ve crafted my life.

As a side note, BigLaw was the first time I had ever had pay parity, the first time that men and women were paid the same for doing the same work. This was unbelievable to me after working in software where I literally made $0.68 on the $1.00 to my male colleagues. At the time that was the statistic, but it was also the truth for me specifically.

So is law something that you’d like to have as an aspect of your future professional activities?

SL: Yes. I still think like a lawyer. I still work like a lawyer. I still issue-spot. I work in marketing now and I have an incredible staff that I work with, and I train my team like baby lawyers. They learn IRAC because that’s the way my brain works.

While there’s no grand plan to return to practice, I worked too hard to pass that stupid bar exam and I don’t want to let it go, so I’m currently trying to craft a creative plan for achieving my CLE requirements without breaking the bank.

What skills do you think you pursued to “mastery?”

SL: It’s funny that I was a marketer before law practice. Then, through the practice of law, I was a good lawyer but I was a really good marketer. Even when I was practicing I taught CLEs on marketing for lawyers. I used to say “online marketing” but my energy now is oriented toward user experience, customer experience, content strategy and how content can affect behavior and change the world for the better (but that’s the more aspirational side).

It’s interesting because, as far as you’ve strayed from the law, you’re not the person who has left the law and says: “Good riddance!”

SL: No. For an accidental lawyer I’m really proud of being a lawyer. I don’t take my responsibility to make positive change lightly.

About positive change: I think some lawyers who want to leave the law are afraid that there’s no room for truly helping people in other professions the way that there is in law. What do you think about that?

SL: I used to feel that I needed to be in public interest or public policy or a non-profit to help people. That has shifted now that I’m teaching. I get to teach my students and my colleagues. I may not be changing the world in a political way but I’m making a difference for people one-on-one.

Let’s go back to pay disparity. So, my first question is this: When you were paid a little more than half of what your male colleagues were being paid, how does that work? Were you doing the same work? Of course, I assume that you were but is it that coming in the door you were making less?

SL: It might have been that I came in as a writer and that salary was based upon increases and not upon change in role or on the specific work that you’re doing in a given moment. But, that was one thing that I appreciated about BigLaw: salary transparency. In a big firm the career path and expectations are clear. They may be crazy but they’re clear.

Now, I’m in a hiring and executive role at Portent. It’s really hard to think about how to shift an organization toward transparency. Now, I see both sides. I know the good that comes from it but I also know the challenges it can bring.

What are your thoughts about pay parity now, looking at the industries in which you’ve worked and work as well as more generally?

SL: We have a great balance of men and women in leadership at my current agency. We have a strong technical emphasis and soft-skill emphasis and those competencies cross gender lines. So, I feel like I have a pretty gender-blind workplace. I’ve come to assume that that’s the way it should be.

The hardest situation was my introduction to the outdoor industry. I was a lawyer and a mid-career professional working a nearly entry-level job. For a mid-career professional who wants a reset, I highly recommend an experience like that. No one knew my story. No one knew I was a lawyer or that I was 30-something, not 20-something. There were people that treated me extremely well who didn’t need to and people who treated me extremely poorly who should have known better. It was a great experience to remember what it’s like to be the one carrying the box of shoes into the conference hall, to remind me that everyone deserves respect and good treatment, not just because we owe that to each other as human beings, but also because you never know where that person might end up.

Let’s say a young woman a little like you, who wants to go law school for reasons besides wanting to be a lawyer, came to you and said “Hey, I’m thinking about law school.” What would you tell them?

SL: I never dissuade people from going to law school. I wouldn’t trade the training for anything. Some people from non-traditional backgrounds, maybe some women, may be discouraged by others from law school for various reasons. But no one has any right to predict someone else’s likelihood of success in law school or practice. The cost of law school is daunting but so is the cost of all higher education.

The advice that I would give is that you don’t have to do law school the way that everyone else does it. I made great friends in law school. Some of my friends cared about their grades and some of my friends didn’t. I made rules for myself around not caring about my grades. Once I knew I was doing well, it was hard because I started feeling some pressure. But until I knew that I was doing well, I just worked my ass off and figured someone would tell me if I wasn’t keeping up.

Being tuned in to yourself and trying to resist being caught up in the law school “thing” was important for me. It’s really hard to do that during law school but it is good practice for your law “practice.”

Parting thoughts?

SL: If anyone tells you you’re crazy you might be on the right path. I seek opinions from others. I ask my mentors what they think. I let friends and colleagues in on career decision making. But my course gets plotted based upon my internal compass even when that course contradicts everyone else’s ideas and advice.

2 Comments

biancajgay

There are so many gems of wisdom in this post! Thanks for choosing to interview her.  As a fellow traveller on the “wacky path,” her journey to get to where she is now makes me feel better about my own.

rightbrainlawyer

Bianca - I’m so sorry for the late reply. I’m so glad that you liked this post. In all honesty, I was pretty honored that Sarah took the time to share her thoughts with me. I think we’re all on our own wacky path (particularly in light of the current state of the legal industry). I agree that it feels wonderful to have fellow travelers. Happy trails!

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