Scarcity Is a Scam: Many believe that legal career options are scarce but it’s just not true. Lawyers help solve and prevent critical problems — skills that are always in demand. I have a mentor who created a seven-figure law practice when many others were closing their doors because she identified a problem that people needed to solve and communicated a clear message about how she could help. There’s always a market for that.
As a part of my series about “5 things I wish someone told me when I first became an attorney” I had the pleasure of interviewing Charise Naifeh.
Charise Naifeh practiced law for 10 years at a top international firm in Washington D.C. before becoming a Certified Professional Coach and founding Happy Law Mom, a coaching practice dedicated to helping lawyer moms take control of their careers and find meaningful work that fits their motherhood. She now lives in Annapolis, MD with her husband and two young sons.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law?
After I had my second child as a seventh-year associate, I hit a wall. I often found myself working late into the night while everyone else in my household slept. Something had to change but I couldn’t see other options and felt utterly stuck.
I tried a lot of things to figure it out: career books, workshops, personality type testing, strengths testing, different kinds of coaching, you name it. Most of what I tried didn’t work but a few things worked surprisingly well. As I gathered different tools and honed critical skills that they don’t teach in law school, I started to take charge of my life and legal practice in a new way. I was getting better results at work and was also much happier in general.
Once I saw the difference these skills made for me, I knew I had to share them with others, so I became a coach to help other women do the same thing. This journey took me from sleep-deprived and barely surviving to a happy lawyer mom and coach who helps other lawyers get what they want in their careers.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your law career?
It certainly wasn’t funny, but the most interesting moment of my law career happened when I was working on a pro bono case for a young asylum applicant around the time of the 2016 presidential election. Her interview with the asylum officer was just days after the election. She called me on the eve of the interview, terrified, and told me she wanted to skip it, even if that would lead to being deported. Months of work, including extensive preparation for the interview, had gone into getting her to that point. She had a strong asylum case and I didn’t want to see her throw it away because of hateful rhetoric.
I told her that she had a choice at that moment: she could be the person who shows up and speaks her truth or she could be silenced by fear. She realized that she had not come that far to give up and she decided to continue with the interview. She was granted asylum and it changed her life.
It was a pivotal moment in my career because it made me understand the power of perspective. Asylum looked like an unscalable mountain to her, but I knew it was a path and all we had to do was continue on it step by step. The desire to help people gain a new perspective and achieve new results is something that I’ve carried with me from my legal practice into my coaching practice.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
All of my clients have interesting challenges, so it’s not easy to choose. A recent client was working 80+ hours while pregnant. She knew that her demanding job was not going to be a good fit for her anymore, but she didn’t know how to find a way out. She felt utterly trapped when she happened to see my Facebook Ad.
In less than three months of working together, she’s just secured her dream job at her dream company working half as many hours. She’s looking forward to enjoying her weekends for the first time in years and we’re working on a new skill set that will allow her to step into her new role with confidence and ease. That’s a complete 180 from where she was before she started my program. Watching women go from stuck to empowered is exciting and incredibly rewarding.
What are some of the most interesting cases you have been involved in? Without sharing anything confidential can you share any stories?
One of my very first coaching clients was burned out and unhappy working at a large corporation on the West Coast and fretting about her 12-year-old son’s desire to attend a boarding school on the East Coast. What would she do? It turned out that what she really wanted was to keep her family together by moving to New England. There, the idea was to secure a job at the school, where she could do work that she enjoyed at a less demanding pace and set up a home there.
This was a needle-in-a-haystack type of job search. There was zero evidence that this type of opportunity even existed, especially considering that the coming school year was just months away. Once again, this looked like an impossible task. She was far from believing that it could happen. But working together, we developed a precise plan for getting exactly where she wanted to go and we moved step by step, focusing on building her skills whenever she hit a roadblock. Within a few months, she was crossing the country with her family to start the exact job and life that she had envisioned: through her focus and skill, she was able to land an odds-defying job at one of the schools where her son had been accepted.
Why do I bring this up? Because so many people think it’s impossible to get what they want and so they never try. Moms in particular often believe that they have to put their kids first before they can even consider what they want, but it’s not a zero-sum game. There is always a way to a happy ending that’s good for everyone.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
There are so many! Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Gandhi, Viktor Frankl, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, just to name a few. These were people who believed in their vision for something better, even when the external circumstances seemed to prevent it. That’s how the impossible becomes possible: a vision, an unshakable belief, and the power of the human mind used in an intentional way to create extraordinary results.
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in law?
Be prepared to carve your own path. Don’t take your career cues from the masses. Refuse to accept overwhelm, insomnia, and fear as a baseline for a legal career. And look carefully when you change jobs. So many attorneys run away from jobs they don’t like without deciding what they’re going toward. That rarely ends well and it’s not necessary.
For example, one client came to me because she didn’t like her new boss and wanted help finding another job. After we worked together to get clear on her next steps, she realized that she didn’t actually want to leave her current job at all. What she wanted instead was to have a better experience there. We worked on the skills she needed to do that, and she began getting better results at work and feeling happier and more confident. She ended up getting promoted within a few months and is now loving her new role.
If you had the ability to make three reforms in our judicial/legal system, which three would you start with? Why?
1.I would require law students to intern with an attorney for three months before entering law school. Hollywood paints a very unrealistic picture of the practice of law and many young lawyers are surprised to find themselves sitting at a desk all day and not in a courtroom. It doesn’t serve the profession to have large numbers of disillusioned and unhappy lawyers because they didn’t know what they were getting into.
2. Tools for career success are generally not taught in law school. I would change that by adding to the curriculum the career skills that lawyers truly need to flourish, including how to get clients. These skills would dissolve a lot of fear in the profession.
3. Happy lawyers are better lawyers. Currently, the rate of attrition in lawyer moms is distressingly high. There needs to be a massive cultural shift in the legal profession that calls out workaholism for what it is and prioritizes wellness, health, and family. We can’t have long and fruitful careers without also having healthy, balanced lives.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
What I love about my work is that it immediately transforms peoples’ lives. Even before we change their outer circumstances, my clients begin to feel better from Day 1. When lawyer moms feel happier, there’s a chain reaction in their homes and workplaces. It’s a beautiful thing.
I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?
Helping women achieve equality in their workplaces and families is the force that drives me. My mission is to help female attorneys have the career they want AND the life they want. It’s totally possible and I want more women to see that it’s possible for them, too.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Scarcity Is a Scam: Many believe that legal career options are scarce but it’s just not true. Lawyers help solve and prevent critical problems — skills that are always in demand. I have a mentor who created a seven-figure law practice when many others were closing their doors because she identified a problem that people needed to solve and communicated a clear message about how she could help. There’s always a market for that.
2. Lawyers Live in an Echo Chamber: I’ve noticed that lawyers rarely seek advice outside their tribe. This leads to a perpetuation of limiting thoughts that can be fatal to career happiness (and accounts for the field’s high rate of dissatisfaction). For example, there are many groups of lawyers online where people seek advice and are answered with a barrage of limiting and fear-based thoughts that keep people feeling stuck. When asking for advice, choose carefully.
3. Legal Think Is a Career Killer: Our legal training hones our negativity bias, which is useful when representing clients but disastrous when we’re considering what would make us happy in our careers. When I was sleep-deprived and trying to figure out my next move, my negativity bias kept showing me what could go wrong, rather than what could go right. That kept me feeling stuck for years before I finally broke free from it.
4. You Don’t Have to Overwork to Be Successful: Despite what you hear, lawyers can work less than 50-hour weeks and be incredibly successful. For example, a trademark attorney who decided to start her own practice recently told me that she’s working part-time hours for full-time pay. Overwork is overrated.
5. Forging a Personalized Career Path Isn’t on the Syllabus: In law school, we’re never instructed how to monetize our degrees on our own. This critical skill makes all the difference for lawyers wanting to create a tailored career that can evolve as life changes (kids, family, pandemic, etc.). A good friend left Big Law when her children were young at a time when the demanding schedule wasn’t working for her anymore. She reinvented herself by launching her own firm in a new area of law and now she’s got a thriving practice, but she would’ve done it much earlier if she had known how from the outset. These are skills that can be learned, just like any other skills that lawyers use in their practices, and they make all the difference.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Michelle Obama is one of my favorite lawyer moms. She is a beautiful example of someone who embraced motherhood while navigating her own career and the role of First Lady with extraordinary grace. She tapped into her mama bear instinct when raising her daughters to keep her family strong, while also becoming an influential leader in her own right. It would be an honor to meet her.