Moving From Legal Grounds To Solid Ground

Sep 29, 2021

When I was in my early 30s–– a lawyer living in Los Angeles––my professional life took an abrupt turn. I had great communities of friends, was making a good living, and had a clear career path and a successful financial future laid out ahead of me. But I wasn’t happy. This wasn’t the path I’d imagined for the rest of my career.

My story of purpose relates to moving from a “traditional” job to something much more fulfilling for me. It’s a story of learning from experience and discovering what has meaning to me. I hope to provide some encouragement and inspiration to those who might be feeling the inner “pull” toward a new, more satisfying direction, as well as to identify some key self-awareness-producing experiences that helped me along my path and might support others as well.

I always wanted to be a lawyer. My dad was a lawyer, as was my uncle. I grew up very interested in the law, specifically how the law works to keep things structured and fair between people, businesses, and nations. The fact that I wanted to go to law school and practice law was not a surprise to people who knew me. In fact, it was a fairly common career choice for young people where I grew up near New York City, so I never gave it a second thought.

After law school, I joined a law firm specializing in litigation. I defended companies from lawsuits relating to negligent construction, product liability, and other accidents and breaches of contract. For a while, I really enjoyed the work. I particularly enjoyed helping clients navigate the litigation process. I would receive feedback about how helpful I was in setting their expectations, formulating useful budgets and anticipating the next steps in the often stressful and lengthy litigation process. I felt particularly capable writing; I was always much more interested in writing reports to clients– helping them understand what was happening and outlining a strategy– than I was in writing argumentative legal briefs. I was focused on resolution, on learning from experience, and on building relationships that would enhance business and partnership.

I remember an important experience at a deposition. The legal case concerned property damage resulting from negligent construction. Homeowners in a condominium development were being questioned about the extent of the damage to their homes and the impact of that damage. The seven lawyers around the table questioned them intensively about exactly when the damage occurred and how much they were inconvenienced, focusing in on exactly who may have been responsible for the damage. I’ll never forget a particular discussion among the lawyers. The group of lawyers, including me, represented various contractors who worked on the construction of the development within which these people lived. Given our role in the proceedings, it’s not surprising that the conversation was focused on the economics of repairing the damage in the future and on assigning responsibility for it. We were also focused on determining when the damage occurred so the proper contractor (typically through its liability insurance carrier) could pay its share of the repair costs and other damages.

No one saw these homeowners as people, nor considered the harm that they experienced as a result of this problematic construction. Their lives were seriously disrupted, but the job we were doing as lawyers did not seem to have any place for compassion or caring. We were there to measure the damage and assess the financial cost of remediation, and to assign blame and responsibility. My role was clear, and for the first time I knew that I was not happy in that role.

Litigation is about winning. It’s about getting the best result possible for your client. It’s full of strict rules and procedural deadlines and limitations. It encourages thinking strategically about different tactics that might be taken in order to get the best result, which typically means getting the best short-term financial result. In my experience, this system can bring out the worst in people; specifically, it encourages people (particularly lawyers) to be aggressive, hyper-focused on results, and even manipulative in order to win. There were times I felt a strong temptation to take advantage of an adversary’s procedural error, for example, conceal important facts, or pay less than an appropriate amount to resolve a dispute because my opponent was uninformed. This would all be “legal,” and my client might want me to do it to achieve a “better” result. But it didn’t align with my values. I didn’t want to contribute to this system.

I learned over time that the integrity of the legal system depends upon the integrity of the players in that system. And some of the players lack integrity. This is not a criticism of the American legal system or any other model, but rather a recognition that different professions can bring out different parts of our personalities. Perhaps those professions attract certain personality types. In any case, over time, I came to realize that these were not the parts of myself that I wanted to nourish and develop to be of service in the world.

My interests were always focused on people, the interaction of people, the interaction of cultures, and international business. When I was a lawyer, I gravitated toward developing relationships with clients; that’s the part of practice I liked the most. My firm appreciated how I helped bring in repeat business with clients and had good relationships with all the support functions in our practice. I partnered well and enjoyed working on teams. I liked the “people part” of the business, where some of my colleagues would’ve preferred not to interact with people at all, rather be uniquely focused on issues and on money.

I was successfully climbing the ladder, but it was not the right ladder for me. So, I needed to make an important shift in my work. And in order to do that I needed some clarity about my skills, values, and motivators.

Being a lawyer provided me with the opportunity to participate in many rich and fulfilling personal experiences. These included assisting and facilitating Insight Transformational Seminars near my home in Los Angeles, as well in Russia and Bulgaria. These were workshops focused on awakening emotional awareness and purpose; they were (and still are) very powerful opportunities to experience deep growth and connection to others. In fact, I believe some of what I learned in these seminars helped me become a better lawyer, more able to manage my own emotions, be more focused and listen more effectively. After all, if I couldn’t resolve the conflicts within myself, how could I possibly be effective at resolving disagreements between others?

These learning experiences awakened a deeper spirit of service within me and helped me recognize some of the ways that I wanted to work in the world, including helping people learn, gain clarity and move through challenges, and apply that learning to the most important circumstances in their lives. I also learned through this experience about the commonality of human beings across the world. Although I had studied international relations at university, it was not until I lived in France as a college student and did personal development volunteer work in Russia and Bulgaria that I came to understand that people typically want the same things and deal with the same challenges.

There were other important learning experiences that helped me clarify my purpose. After five years of law practice, I took the opportunity to participate in a master’s degree program at the University of Santa Monica (USM), near my (then) home in Southern California. This was a two-year program in Spiritual Psychology. People are often curious or confused about this term; it refers to a curriculum of counseling skills with an overlay of universal spiritual principles, including acceptance, peace, forgiveness and loving. The best way to learn about counseling skills is to practice them; I was able to surface and address personal issues, including emotional disconnection and mental judgments I had been carrying.

During my studies at USM, I also began to consider more deeply what type of work I wanted to do, as it was becoming clear to me that I desired a career change. I used the second-year curriculum as a framework for exploring a career in consulting, so part of my curriculum involved research and interviews. At the same time, I continued to use my new counseling skills (and those of my cohort) to clarify my direction and resolve inner blocks related to moving forward. The USM experience was invaluable for me.

I came to realize that I had more choices than I previously thought. I suspect that’s true for most of us. As I started to think about transitioning into another type of work, not surprisingly I became very afraid of giving up the security and certainty of my chosen profession. Why would I want to walk away from a lucrative profession? I had worked hard to become successful as an attorney, but it was becoming clearer to me that this work was unsatisfying and not aligned with my mission in the world. And the clear messages about this came from a variety of voices. For example, I remember my chiropractor told me that my nagging neck pain could be the result of a disconnect between my head and my heart. I know that was true when I heard her say it.

Another important experience that helped me clarify my purpose was the New Warrior Training Adventure, a highly experiential weekend retreat for men. This was a challenging and provocative experience. It made me look in the mirror about the extent to which I was living my values and pushed me to step forward toward more of what I am called to do in my life. It also taught me new ways to ask for help and to offer support to other people. And it helped me learn how to be more of a  leader in a community.

The “Warrior Weekend”, as it’s often called, teaches the archetype of a mission-driven modern warrior. Not focused on defeating others or acting violently, but rather clarifying what’s most important and managing the behaviors and shadow parts of ourselves that might get in the way of that. As USM did, the Warrior Weekend taught me ways to express all of my feelings in a healthy way and to accept all parts of myself more openly. (This work continues for me to this day.)

If my USM experience helped me clarify my purpose, the Warrior Weekend helped light an internal fire to pursue it.

One other very personal experience that was pivotal for me in building my self- awareness was my work with a coach, which I did when I transitioned out of my law practice. My coach provided me with valuable tools, including a number of personality and style assessments, some of which I now use with my own coaching clients. One particular assessment she provided suggested specific careers for which I would be well suited. I answered the questions on the assessment, and she gave me the results, a list of professions.  At the top of the list was “clergy”. That resonated for me when I heard it over 20 years ago, and it still does. In my work now, I provide counseling, support, guidance, and perspective for my clients. I help them through challenging transitions. I sometimes think of it as  operating like a minister or rabbi in a business setting.

In my studies in spiritual psychology, I had an opportunity to do some deep work in which I identified and confronted fears, limiting beliefs, and a number of previously-unrecognized blind spots. In addition to identifying some parts of myself that I’m not proud of, I also identified some “gold”. I began to recognize some of the personal qualities I wanted to make part of my daily work. I began to nurture some abilities and aspirations that could be a part of my next career.

I was introduced to a wonderful little book that provided me with some great directions. It’s called How to Find Your Mission in Life by Richard Nelson Bolles. Mr. Bolles is best known for his hugely successful book What Color is Your Parachute. The Mission book is a little gem, and is focused on identifying our individual missions at a very deep level. Bolles writes that each one of us has three purposes. The first two purposes are shared with everyone else, although we might manifest these differently. The third is more unique and more about understanding exactly how and where each of us can best serve and find lasting happiness.

Written through the lens of his personal Christian beliefs, he writes that our first mission is to be as fully aware as possible of the conscious presence of God (however we may define that). I believe that each person may do this in his or her own way, at his or her own pace. In my experience and observation, this is what drives people to places of worship, yoga studios, meditation retreats, mindfulness apps, and the like. I consider the first mission in Bolles’ model to be a universal spiritual direction or path. On some level, we all are in the process of recognizing the presence of the divine in whatever ways we might relate to that.

Our second mission, according to Bolles, is to do the best we can every day to make the world a better place, following the guidance of spirit . Although this mission is shared with others, each person experiences it differently. I imagine this is a purpose that most people would agree is worthwhile. I certainly do, and it has become a north star for me over the years. Indeed, at times when I feel stuck, confused or overwhelmed, I will often take a deep breath and access my spiritual core for direction and clarify, and then ask myself, “what next steps might I take to improve this situation?”

The second mission is a criterion we can all use to evaluate our work in the world and, in fact, any action we might consider taking: “does this help make the world a better place?”. If not, look for another action or another direction. I believe this is foundational for success and living a purpose-driven life, one that helps us feel motivated to move out into the world every day.

Our third mission is to use the talents we believe we came to earth to use. These are our greatest gifts and those skills and attributes that we are most rewarding to share. Moreover, our mission is to use these gifts in those places which are most appealing to us, and for those purposes the world needs most. (Of course, this is open to a range of interpretations. But when it comes to purpose, isn’t that always the case?) It is the third mission that relates to our individual work in the world. For me, as I reflect on this model and the experiences that I’ve had which have brought my values and passions into greater clarity, I recognize that the skills I want to bring to my work relate to aligning people and teams; teaching; and helping people solve the professional problems and personal challenges they face. The arena that appeals to me most is the business world; I believe that the workplace is where people face fears and obstacles and are challenged to bring their best and make a positive difference to others and to the world. And from my vantage point, the business world in particular needs ambassadors of positive focus and optimism who see the opportunity to use the commercial world as a force for good.  

I’ve talked about these ideas with clients and colleagues who have very limited spiritual inclination. But the principles are transferable to the secular. The first principle refers to gratitude; How can I be grateful for my situations and my gifts? The second principle refers to making the world a better place, the essence of servant leadership and service consciousness. The third principle is about tuning in to where good work needs to be done.

From my experience, I believe that understanding one’s purpose is all about self- awareness. Our purpose becomes clearer as we clarify what brings us joy, what we value most and what we want our legacy to be. We discover this; we don’t create it. The opportunity is to listen within, beyond voices of self-doubt and habitual programming, and be courageous enough to follow the deeper and more meaningful voice within us. As these critical personal motivators become clear to us, our purpose comes into view more clearly, and we can take steps (however big or small) to act in alignment with that purpose. We can move to more solid ground.

All of my learning experiences, models and coaching support helped me realize that in order for me to be fulfilled in my work, I needed to contribute to personal development in the context of business. I needed to help others solve challenging problems in their work and develop the inner awareness and resources to address these challenges. And I needed to contribute to greater balance and clarity in the often highly complex and challenging business world. The purpose of my work was calling me in that direction. That clarity helped provide me with the courage to move in this new and as-yet-undefined direction.

My work now is squarely focused on helping leaders and teams solve their personal, interpersonal and organizational challenges. This includes leadership training and individual and group coaching, experiential learning, and meeting facilitation. I am using the skills that are most fulfilling for me in those places that I believe need caring and focused support. I work as a coach, counselor, trusted advisor and facilitator, often serving as a sort of corporate clergy (although I would rarely label it in those terms).

And I’d like to offer one other observation that I’ve found very helpful in terms of evaluating potential work opportunities.

I have had the privilege of having many learning experiences that illuminated my path forward, moving from a traditional career to much more meaningful and rewarding work. My focus on leadership and team development now supports others in clarifying and walking their own paths. My hope is that my experience can be of service to others, contributing to a world with more purpose-driven and fulfilled people.

Andrew Cohn

Leadership Companion, USA

President Lighthouse Consulting. Counselor and consultant to leaders and business organizations. Andrew Cohn works globally as a facilitator, consultant, counselor, and coach for businesses and individuals. His work improves his clients’ business results and culture and enhances individual performance and satisfaction. Andrew’s professional purpose is to support leaders to solve their most important challenges with wisdom and love.

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