By Amy Impellizzeri • February 12, 2018•Writers in Residence, Features, Guest Bloggers and Profiles of Women in the Law
Linda Mercurio is the Founder of Transformative Impact, a company providing coaching, training, and consulting services to transitioning attorneys. From 2008-2016, Linda served as the Founding Executive Director of the American University Washington College of Law Lawyer Reentry Program - a program she designed and implemented. I've followed with admiration Linda's career path for some time now, and when I reached out recently to tell her so, she sent back a same time photo of her desk with my book, Lawyer Interrupted, atop her own "To Be Read" pile.
I love when life sends us those moments of impactful connection.
You might even call them transformative!
Read on for some amazing advice from Linda Mercurio:
You started your career as a tax attorney in New York City in the 1990’s. Tell me about that experience. Did you love it? Hate it? Something else?
It was a love/hate relationship from the start. I didn’t even know what a tax attorney did when I began at C&L. I went to law school for one reason—to be an FBI agent. I never imagined myself a practicing lawyer; finding myself at C&L at the start of a legal career was somewhat disorienting.
So how did I wind up there? A little background might help. I came from a family of limited means with very traditional, Italian, Catholic notions of what a girl/woman could and should be. There were four of us—my three brothers and me. No one expected me to complete college (despite having been an honor student in high school). It was expected that I get married, have 5 kids and move next door to my parents. When I applied to law school, my parents were amused; they didn’t take it seriously. When I was accepted and decided to go to Brooklyn Law School and—horror of horrors—move to Brooklyn on my own, my father didn’t speak to me the summer before. (He remembers it differently.) But so much has changed in my parents’ world since then, their views much evolved, their pride immense, that we talk about that time with lots of laughter, love, and lightness!)
Then, to everyone’s surprise, including my own, I did well in law school. (My original goal ((and prayer)) was just to graduate. The FBI required only the degree; your ranking, GPA, law review status, did not mater. You didn’t even need to pass a bar.) I participated in on-campus recruiting and got distracted by what well-meaning faculty, peers, and counselors thought I could/should do upon graduation. I also remember growing increasingly concerned about reported FBI hiring freezes and the fact that there was no guarantee that I’d make it through the entire application process and ultimately graduate from Quantico. (Notwithstanding that I had been training for Quantico for years by then—training for the physical fitness test, taking practice psychological exams, learning to shoot a gun, even going as far as practicing dangerous driving simulations.)
Ultimately, fear won the day (I had big student loans) and I accepted C&L’s offer. Why? Because C&L wasn’t a law firm; it was a public accounting firm, and somehow that felt less intimidating than practicing law with a law firm. Informed decision making, right? J My preparation for being a tax lawyer? 3 law school classes. Not even an undergraduate degree in accounting (my BA was in political science).
Day one, I knew. Big oops. And yet, there were definitely things I loved about the job and the firm. The intellectual challenge was awesome. The assumption that I was intelligent and that my intelligence, though quiet and reserved, was appreciated and valued—that was life-altering. Being around really smart, driven people who worked hard and competed to do their best was inspiring. The learning curve was huge on multiple levels, and I enjoyed growing and evolving. But the work was also really hard. There were times, reading the treasury regulations, that I thought my head would explode. My peers seemed to have an easier time with it; things clicked sooner. Most of them had a basic financial/accounting background that put some of the stuff we were doing into context. I didn’t have that. Every gain for me was excruciatingly hard-earned. Somehow or other though, I did well. I received good evaluations. But something big was missing. I had an urge to teach, mentor, coach. I started doing some of that as new classes of associates arrived, but I wanted more. Using those skills felt natural and I wanted a job where using those skills was central to what I did, not tangential.
So, to make a long story longer, I sought out and received an adjunct teaching position. And, in my infinite lack of wisdom, decided to quit my full-time paying job to take a job where I taught once a week and would make less than 2% of what I earned at C&L. I handed in my resignation. Managers, partners, and peers tried to get me to reconsider. I wouldn’t.
Then, one day, I heard a senior partner I had done some work for, but whose team I was not on, yelling for me down the hall. I went to see him. He shut the door and told me I had options. (Okay, he told me I had options after yelling at me for being foolish.) He asked me what I needed to remain at the firm AND start a teaching career as an adjunct. I told him the only way I could make it work was if I worked part-time. This was 1992—not even women 9 months pregnant worked part-time. (And, by the way, my reference here to pregnant women is to the few pregnant women I saw working on the audit side of the firm, there were NONE in the tax consulting practice--no women managers or partners, and only two female senior tax associates. There were probably about 200 lawyers in total in the practice then.) The senior partner said, “okay, write a proposal.” I did. And, it was ridiculous because I NEVER thought it would be accepted and/or approved by the firm. But it was. A few days later, I started working exclusively for this partner, 3 days a week in the office, with full benefits, vacation etc. All these years later, it still stuns and overwhelms to reflect on what this man did for me--long before concepts like flextime, part-time, work/life balance were even heard of. But more than just accommodating my interest in teaching, this man helped me learn to believe in myself and my abilities. He told me once that he knew I had the skill, I just needed the confidence. No one had ever believed in me like that before. He has long since passed away. And, while I did thank him while I was at the firm and then again when I left, now with the perspective of age and distance, I wish I could tell him again how much it all truly meant to me.
What was the catalyst to leave?
I ultimately left the firm (after going back to full-time status for a year or so) for a full-time teaching position at William Paterson University’s College of Business where, I taught tax and law courses to undergraduate students. I loved that job and have had other faculty positions since, that I’ve loved just as much. But it was at William Paterson University, in the College of Business, that I began to see how central teaching and coaching were to who I am as a human being. It is my natural. It is where I find my flow. Gains are no longer excruciatingly hard (though due to pace, decision making by consensus, and some might say the low stakes involved, gains in higher education can be excruciatingly slow and annoying. J)
Tell me how you came to develop the innovative American University Washington College of Law Lawyer Reentry Program.
It was personal and professional. In 2006, I became a first-time mother (at 41) after relocating to Maryland for my now former husband’s job. I wasn’t licensed in Maryland, and I had given up my teaching job in New Jersey (and my small low bono legal practice) to move. New home, new mother, husband traveling a lot for work, no close friends or family nearby, and for the first time in my life, without a professional identity. I hated it! The disorientation I felt at the start of my career paled in comparison to this-this was earth-shaking, “Will I ever recover from this?” disorientation. So, I did the only thing I could with a baby that never slept—I held her and read and held her and researched—searching for some indication in the literature out there that I wasn’t alone, that my life would right itself again, and that I would have a professional identity again. I came upon the work of Sylvia Ann Hewlett, particularly her book Off Ramps and On Ramps. I was already thinking about relaunching and founded Transformative Impact in January 2008 at the urging of some former students who had gone on to have outstanding careers in public accounting and law, and who often came back to me for career coaching and/or advancement issues etc. They were the ones who told me about the world of “coaching” and encouraged me to start charging for my advice!
In January of 2008, I saw a job posting in the Chronicle of Higher Education. AUWCL was looking for a consultant to design a lawyer reentry program. It was to be a 3 or 4-month gig. I had already done so much research and had thought long and hard about this issue that I went to the interview with a PowerPoint presentation outlining ideas for course content and structure. I got the gig. I was down on my knees grateful. And, I hoped that down the road, if and when the course was implemented, that I might get an opportunity to teach a segment or two. I submitted the final program/course proposal in April or May and waited. Nothing. Then, sometime in early August, I received a phone call from the Dean of the law school. He wanted to know when I would be leading the course. I was confused. In a way that only he could do, he had me signed on as the program’s executive director and agreeing to have the course run for the first time that fall. It was exciting, frightening, and fun. And, with a team of dedicated and committed faculty and staff, we did it and it received excellent evaluations! And, I learned from the many mistakes I made along the way, leading the program for the next seven years and successfully converting it to an online platform.
What were some of the lessons learned from working with the transitioning lawyers who came to you via the Lawyer Reentry Program?
There have been so many lessons learned. Here are a few:
Law Schools do a horrible job of preparing us for life as lawyers. They do little or nothing to cultivate the practices of reflection and self-awareness that are critical to the successful management of one’s career. They also do nothing to prepare us for the Lawyer Interrupted phase—which happens to most, if not all, lawyers at some point, nowadays. Your book should be required reading! (In fact, I have a list of books that should be required reading for all law school students! None of them currently on any syllabus I know of.)
That navigating a career transition, relaunch, pause, or interruption can be overwhelmingly isolating and sometimes shameful (though that shame is unearned). It is critically important to find support in the process—even if that support comes in the form of reading a book by someone who has experienced something similar!
We are all fragile, complicated human beings. A Harvard law degree does not make one automatically confident OR employable upon a relaunch or transition. And those so credentialed can feel an even greater sense of shame around their interruption or transition.
Putting structure to the process of relaunching/transitioning helps a lot. Yes, motivation is important. Inspiration is important. But action is what gets you where you want to go. And, most of us need some structure to act.
Self-assessment is foundational. Many of us want to rush through it and get to the more concrete stuff—like revising our resumes and updating our LinkedIn Profile. But you can’t short cut the process. If you don’t do the self-assessment, it shows on your resume, your cover letter, in all your marketing materials, and it shows while networking.
Self-assessment and reflection are critical, but at some point, you have to move out of that phase and take action, even if you don’t know what you want to do. You’re not going to figure it out in your head, where a lot of us lawyers live. You have to talk to people. A lot of people. Yes, you have to put on your suit and go out. You have to remember you are a lawyer and act like one out in the world.
Mindset and mindful communication are also key. The negative tapes running through our heads can be exhausting and downright debilitating. I try to teach my clients to become gently aware of what they are saying to themselves about themselves and their options and then to talk back to those thoughts. So many of my program participants deal with the imposter syndrome. My work in this area is very influenced by the research/work that comes out of The Stone Center at Wellesley College.
What were some of the hurdles? (Have some of those hurdles been addressed through your new online model with Transformative Impact?)
One of the challenges in running a relaunching/transitioning lawyer course is that participants come to it from different starting points. I feel like I am still searching for the right balance in terms of which content and how much, and timing of delivery, while also keeping it manageable for me! I strongly believe that the one-on-one coaching is critical to sustainability. This is a process. It takes time, and coaching helps keep the momentum going. Individual feedback is also very important. Participants in the program received fully revised resumes, hands-on help in crafting their cover letters, thank you letters, etc.--often in real time as they apply for jobs—and help in working and building out their networks. When they receive interviews, we schedule mock sessions to practice. This is labor intensive work. I’m just not sure it is scalable—at least not in the way that transforms and has an impact.
Tell me about the impetus for starting Transformative Impact.
As I mentioned above, it was former students (from my very early days of teaching) who introduced me to the concept of coaching. At first, I resisted. It seemed too gushy, not enough gravitas or something. But eventually, I realized that coaching was exactly what I was doing and that one could actually make a living doing it. So, I read everything I could find about coaching, studied, practiced, and put structure and concepts to what came naturally, but still needed some shine and polish. And, I’m still working on that! The business part of the practice comes much less naturally to me but is equally as important. My practice has grown since 2008. I now coach participants through the Relaunching Attorney Platform course, one-on-one in private coaching sessions, and via firm sponsored coaching. I LOVE the firm sponsored coaching because its more focused on enhancing leadership capacities and it directly supports the advancement of women in the profession. When the time is right, I’d like to grow that aspect of the practice, but for now, as a divorced, single mom (my daughter’s father has since returned to live in New York State) my focus is on managed growth so that I can strike the right work/life balance.
You are also teaching several courses at William Paterson, including Women & the Law and Women & Political Leadership. Any aspiring lawyers in your classes? What’s your best advice for them?
Yes, every semester there are exceptional students who aspire to be lawyers. I encourage, support, and write letters or recommendations for them. To me, the law is still the noblest and best profession in the world. I am also always on the look-out for the student who doesn’t yet know that she or he is gifted with a beautiful analytical mind and outstanding research and writing skills. It is one of my greatest joys and privileges as an instructor, to hold up the mirror allowing students to see, often for the first time, their natural abilities and talents, and to encourage them to reach for more than they ever thought possible.
And, I want them to be realistic--to go to law school with eyes wide open. To understand the financial commitment and the dedication and hard work it requires to succeed. I also encourage them to see and assess the profession—flaws and all—appreciating that there may be barriers and obstacles to overcome. I want them to be aware of both internal barriers and institutional or systemic outer barriers. We talk about the gender wage gap; we talk about implicit bias, we talk about sexual harassment. Not to gripe, not to discourage, but to arm with knowledge and create a strategy for work arounds when the time comes.
What’s in a name? I absolutely love the name of your company. How did that come about?
Thank you so much. The name evolved out of comments received from students on the course and instructor evaluations. I still tear up after all these years when a student writes that they have been transformed or that a course or a coaching session had a tremendous impact. Having impact—however quiet and small—has been a lifelong driver for me.
For more information about Transformative Impact and the next Relaunching Attorney Platform, go to transformativeimpact.com.