Episode 23: Nicole Abboud - The Gen Y Lawyer Podcast

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Nicole Abboud, host of The Gen Y Lawyer podcast, joins host Eddie Newland. After five years of practicing law, Nicole launched her own business, Abboud Media. Her podcast has been recognized by the ABA Journal as one of the top legal podcasts for its ability to deliver quality content relevant to young lawyers. She discusses her path from lawyer to consultant, her insights on changes to marketing within the legal profession, and advice for new lawyers looking to establish their brand.


TRANSCRIPT

S1: 00:01

Well, Nicole, thank you so much for joining us on the ThinkSet Podcast today. How are you?

S2: 00:05

Hi, Eddie. I'm doing well. How are you?

S1: 00:07

I'm doing really well. So this is a first for us here on ThinkSet. We finally have somebody else from the podcasting world. You have your own podcast, The Gen Y Lawyer podcast, with a friend that you've been hosting yourself, but then also with a co-host for a little bit.

S2: 00:21

Mm-hmm. Yes. Yeah, The Gen Y Lawyer. We've been going at it for about four years now actually.

S1: 00:26

So that makes you almost an OG in the podcasting world at this point.

S2: 00:29

At least in the legal podcasting world. Yeah.

S1: 00:33

Well, we're going to try and keep up with you here, episodes wise at least. And I want to dive in or start just talking about your career path. As you mentioned, now you do a podcast. You are a lawyer by education. How did you go from law school to becoming a millennial leadership speaker and now podcaster?

S2: 00:52

Right. So it's a winding path. I haven't really been on this earth for that long. So I'm surprised it's been so windy. Growing up, I always want to be a lawyer. It's all I ever worked toward. And after many years in school, I became a lawyer. And it wasn't until I started practicing that I quickly realized the law is not for me. And it's not something I see myself doing for a very long time, much less the rest of my life.

So after many years of self-discovery and experimenting with what else I can do, I actually started a business where I didn't go too far. I started working with lawyers and helping them with their content marketing. I thought it was really interesting how certain lawyers present themselves online through their content, through their social media, how they establish influence. And I really wanted to be that person to help them amplify it. So this marketing company began. And it kind of slowly transitioned into a consulting agency, where now I work with law firm leaders helping them amplify their leadership.

S1: 01:51

Jumping back just a little bit. When it came to law, what area of practice did you get into when you came out of school? And did you try big firm, small firm? What was it that you tried before you decided to pivot toward the marketing and now leadership speaking?

S2: 02:07

I did try a few different practice areas. And so I initially started off as a family law attorney. And I was working with another attorney. So I worked at a firm. It was a small firm. And I did family law for about three, four years. And within those four years, I also tried out estate planning—didn't like that. I definitely didn't like family law.

The last two years of my practice I actually opened my own practice—my own law practice. And I was able to focus it on business and intellectual property, because I wanted to do more transactional work, not litigation. And that was a little bit better than doing the family law—than practicing family law. But it was still not fulfilling. It still didn't sit right.

So from there, I shut down the practice and then opened my business. But within that span of five years, I feel like I tried out transactional, litigation, different practice areas. I worked for a firm. I worked for myself. So I gave it a good shot. I didn't work at a big law firm. That's the only thing I didn't do.

S1: 02:59

Okay. So looking at it then—and I'm sure you have classmates who are either in a similar situation or they're still at a big law firm or maybe set up their own shingle—are we witnessing a higher level of burnout in the litigation profession than with other generations? If so, given the consulting that you're doing now, do you think that you see a particular cause for people that are leaving?

S2: 03:22

So that's a topic that I recently covered on my podcast with my co-host, Karima. We stumbled upon this article that was written by an author for BuzzFeed. And it was about millennials being the burnout generation. And we just thought it was such an interesting topic, because we know that that's something that's happening within our generation, especially among lawyers. But we didn't really know what was the cause. So I'll talk a little bit about what the author talks about in her article, and then I'll share my experience.

The author, her name is Ann Peterson. And she talks about millennials being the burnout generation in the sense that we have so much on our plates these days that even the smallest of errands, the smallest tasks, seem insurmountable. Like we can't even go to the post office. We can't sharpen our knives. I mean, I don't know who's out there sharpening knives. But I guess that's something that she does.

And she kind of dives into the reasoning or the why behind this paralysis—this errands’ paralysis. And she says that growing up, we were all sort of overachievers essentially, right? Our parents encouraged us to do well in school, to participate in extracurricular activities, to kind of load up on our agenda and just be the best we can be. And now, as adults, we've kind of carried that perfectionism into adulthood, into our careers, into the work that we're doing. So at work, we are just giving 110 percent. But by the time we get home, we're just so—I mean, I guess we're just exhausted. And the thing is, work goes home with you now, these days, with technology. So it's almost like there's no room to just relax. And this perfectionism just pushes millennials to do more, to be their best. And I guess that's leading to a higher rate of burnout among this generation.

S1: 05:03

Do you agree with that? I think in certain folks I've seen that personally, whether it's lawyers or other professions. Friends that have gotten into one industry and then, the next thing you know, I see that they're doing something completely different. And they just burned out on it. People that are successful at certain things, too, it's not just folks that are not able to climb the ladder. People that are doing better than a lot of folks [are] choosing to pivot because they've burned out on whatever it might be. Have you seen that anecdotally?

S2: 05:32

Yeah. So to be honest, I've never really been a fan of, I guess, stereotypes that we assigned to different generations. I tend to think if anyone is working way too hard, working way more hours than they should, they're going to burn out. Personally, I've experienced burnout. But it's not because—I mean, I wouldn't attribute it to being a millennial. For me, it was just being a business owner and pushing myself too hard to a point where I had to stop and reevaluate what I was doing and how I was spending my time.

But I will share some stories of just conversations I've had with other millennial lawyers in the profession and their experiences with burnout, and how they're pivoting or what they're doing. I'll just preface all this by saying I really don't consider myself to be a millennial expert. I just think that I've had the privilege of having many conversations with millennial lawyers. So I collect stories.

S1: 06:16

Absolutely. You're in a unique spot.

S2: 06:20

I guess so, right? It's like a researcher, I suppose. But yeah, so I think that a lot—I think a lot is changing in the legal profession just in general. And it's affecting lawyers of any generation, of all ages. And I think that a lot of the structures in law firms that used to exit, the hierarchy, the climbing the ladder to become partner, the partner track, all those things, the long hours, the hard work, I think that's changing. I think it's finally settling in.

And I think lawyers are finally wizening up to the fact that it doesn't have to be this way. You don't have to work so many hours just to produce a few billable hours to bill the client. You don't have to follow a certain track to become a leader in your law firm. I feel like because of technology, because of just the changing nature of clients and how they find lawyers and how they retain lawyers, I think a lot of things are changing in the profession.

So that's leading a lot of young lawyers, at least the ones who are entering the profession, to realize that there are different paths they can take. There isn't just one set path like we were told in law school. They can do different things with their degrees. They can craft whatever career they want. And I think if they're dissatisfied, if they are burnt out, if they are unhappy, unfulfilled, they can either pivot within the profession or just leave altogether. And that's okay.

I think in the past, something that kept a lot of—well, a few things that kept a lot of lawyers in the profession [were] the beliefs that they're not going to make as much money elsewhere because it's so lucrative being a lawyer. And of course, there's the whole pride and ego. There's a certain amount of pride that comes along with saying you are a lawyer. So if you're not a lawyer anymore, what are you? But I think, like I said, there are so many options these days out there for people to craft any kind of career and be successful. It's no longer a hindrance.

S1: 08:06

So when you're working with your clients that are younger lawyers that are looking to create their brand or their online presence to represent the work that they're doing right now within, say, a big law environment, what are the challenges that your clients face in that arena? I mean, as you mentioned, big law is changing quite a bit, law as a profession in general. I think a lot of professional services—I work at a fairly large consulting firm. And they've had to adjust things just to allow for folks to be able to work from home or have a different individual contributor career path as opposed to a goal of trying to be part of upper management, the way most law firms and consulting firms were in the past.

So if you're a lawyer in particular now, and you want to, say, just focus on a certain type of law, and you don't have an interest in a partnership track, does that lead to a different way that you should advertise or put yourself out online? How have you helped clients with that today?

S2: 09:07

It is difficult for lawyers within a law firm to fully brand themselves the way that a solo practitioner can, right? Those are just the limitations of that law firm or what the law firm places upon them. So now the challenge becomes, can we get those law firms to encourage their lawyers to become more entrepreneurial within the law firm and be able to brand themselves how they want? So assuming we're working with a law firm that encourages that and is open to that, I usually encourage the law firm leaders to allow these lawyers that work for them to build a name for themselves. Even though they work for the firm, but still establish their own brand.

And it's not because these lawyers are eventually going to leave them—they might, they might not. But it's because clients nowadays want to actually—when they hire someone, they're not really going for the big-name firms anymore, at least not in my experience or the conversations I've had. They're really connecting to one of the lawyers within that firm. And they just want that lawyer to solve their problems; doesn't matter what the name on the building is.

So as law firm leaders, I highly encourage them to in turn encourage their own lawyers to build a brand, go out there, develop business, make a name for themselves. And hopefully, that lawyer's values are aligned with the law firm's values so that lawyer stays there. They're contributing to the overall organization.

Deloitte comes out with an annual millennial survey every single year. So for 2018, I was just reading up on some of the stats. And so they survey millennials and Generation Z members or employees all over the world. And they found that one of the biggest drivers of what keeps them at a firm or at a company is flexibility, flexibility in their schedule. That's something they look for. That's something they want from their employers. And if they get it, then they're willing to give loyalty—they're willing to give their loyalty. So I think for law firm leaders, organization leaders, if they want these lawyers to stay at the firm to contribute, to develop business, to bring in—just to be contributing members of this firm, they really should offer flexibility, but also encourage them to go out there and build a name for themselves.

S1: 11:03

Yeah. One thing that you mentioned in there, right before you talked about the Deloitte survey—and I know I've run into quite a bit just doing research with our HR consulting branch. But folks that stay at a company now in our generation and the one slightly above us—we're both technically, I think, millennials or right on the border—is an alignment of personal values with the values of a company.

So my firm, BRG, one of our big company values is entrepreneurial. I have a podcast here at the company because that aligned with my desire to go out and do something a little bit different, to start something that didn't already exist. And they encourage that, and that's part of why I love working at BRG.

I think some larger law firms have adapted to that. I'd push back a little bit on the—just in my experience in the law realm right now, that some firms do get work just by the name of the firm. The white-shoe firms in New York still, obviously, exist. And they still do a lot of the big law.

But I think you're very right when it comes to local companies and corporations. If you are the national leader in a labor practice, you're no longer necessarily the first law firm that somebody will call if they have. Say out in California where you are, you have an issue. You might be more open to looking at a small shop or just an individual that you know is really talented, because the relationship might be more important now, today, on an individual basis than company to company used to exist, say, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years ago.

S2: 12:37

Yeah. I mean, I would say that's fairly accurate. I'd like to think that it's going to change in the future. So certainly the bigger organizations, they know the big law firms because of their name, because of that brand awareness. But I tend to think that's still going to come down to one of those lawyers within that firm or some connection they have to one lawyer within a firm. And they see the name, and they think that lawyer has all the resources behind them. But I agree with you for the most part. The big name law firms still have some pull.

S1: 13:06

Yeah. And I think too, the individual relationships change, because now, in this slightly younger generation, there are more law schools. There's more talent going to different schools, because as we've been told over and over, in just about every circumstance now there's a war for talent. And that trickles down all the way to universities, where if they want to get the top players, the top students, to attend their law school or their undergraduate, scholarship offers matter a lot.

So somebody that might have been willing, in the past, to be the last person admitted into a tier-one firm or a tier-one school now gets a full scholarship to a slightly below tier. They matriculate out from that, and all of a sudden, it's somebody from a nontraditional law firm working at a big firm. And then they have different relationships than somebody that went through a more traditional track for some of these big firms. So you end up having folks that are from different law schools at a lot more places than you would have seen twenty years ago, where they really only hired from three or four or five law schools to fill out their associate classes.

S2: 14:11

Yeah. I mean, I think there's talent everywhere at every law school. And you're right. Now, maybe it's being distributed a little bit more evenly or a little bit more so. But I've always believed that there's talent everywhere. It's really up to the employers who are out there seeking to look beyond just the resume or the stats that seem appealing. But that's just my opinion.

S1: 14:30

Yeah. Absolutely. Well, I agree with you wholeheartedly on that. And I think more, younger hiring managers are starting to take that approach. And I'm a bit skewed in that I spent a big portion of my professional career in San Francisco and in Washington, DC, which are two more progressive cities in that way, where you can find people from all walks of life that are doing phenomenal things, because people are looking more at the individual than the on-paper resume. But I think that general attitude is certainly changing.

One thing I did want to chat with you about today, though, because we do have you and your expertise in consulting with younger lawyers: what problem do you see now that will be, in the next five to ten years, something that comes to the forefront, that if you're getting ahead of the game as a young lawyer, you're taking care of it today as opposed to waiting [for] it to become a bigger issue?

S2: 15:23

I think one thing—and maybe because this is fresh on my mind. I just had a conversation with another big law escapee who opened his own firm. But something that I see a lot of younger lawyers wanting to do is become experts in their own field. So, become the go-to in their practice, so then they're not kind of at the mercy of the firm if they work for one. Or if they're solos or small firm attorneys, they're kind of big fish in a small pond, essentially. So there's no doubt in a client's mind that they're the go to. So I think for a lot of young lawyers, seeking out that expertise, becoming subject-matter experts or industry experts, just kind of diving in and immersing themselves in a certain industry, especially the ones that are currently emerging like cryptocurrency, cannabis. Those are kind of big ones or ripe for the picking. But lawyers who really establish a name for themselves and become experts in their fields I think set themselves up for success for the long term because, again, they're just kind of generating clientele and business in that industry. And that's probably true for most industries. If you become an expert, you're really setting yourself up for success.

So that's one thing that I see happening. I think within firms, some good advice for young lawyers is always seeking leadership roles. So always just continually developing themselves or seeking opportunities for personal development, business development, growth, whether the firm itself offers it to them or they go outside to other CLEs and conferences to get it. But always working on developing yourself and developing your leadership skills will also help you survive any kind of changes that come in the profession.

S1: 17:03

If you were sitting with the chief marketing officer or chief of operations or strategy for any-sized law firm, and you were giving them consulting advice on how to best encourage their young lawyers to do what you just described or to find their expert niche and to dive into it, what is it that they should be looking to provide to those folks? Is it opportunities to go out and do CLE in those areas, being willing to send them back to school so they can study it, or giving them a month to just dive in and learn as much as they can by reading industry journals and going out and meeting folks? What would you think is the most effective way to accomplish that?

S2: 17:36

So all of those, to be honest. I think any CMO or any organizational leader who can create the space that allows the young lawyers—or just any of their employees, really—their lawyers to want to go out and learn more and feel like they're encouraged to develop their own skills and come back and contribute to the law firm. Whether that is going—I don't know, going back to school or taking a part-time course somewhere, encouraging them to attend conferences and giving them the time to actually go and do that, rewarding them somehow for going to networking events, because right now that's not really something you can bill for. So a lot of law firms don't value that, but there's so much value in that. So anything that the law firm can do to create the space to allow these lawyers to thrive and develop themselves personally while recognizing that it is going to help the firm overall. Anything they can do to encourage that is something that I would tell them. And of course, it'll look different for every firm. That's what I would say.

S1: 18:33

Great. Well, we'll get you out of here on this. What do you have coming up here next on The Gen Y Lawyer podcast? And what is next for you, yourself, with the speaking engagements or perhaps consulting things that you're doing?

S2: 18:46

So The Gen Y Lawyer podcast, we are just still having great conversations with fellow millennial lawyers about matters that are important to us, like home ownership and student loan repayments and building families or growing families; and also just more business development and building our law practices and meaningful careers, really. And then in terms of work—or speaking, I am always out there seeking opportunities to teach from the stage. I love it. I love speaking. And I usually speak at legal conferences. And I talk about leadership. I talk about millennial issues. But any opportunities out there from your listeners, please reach out. But that's what's on the horizon.

S1: 19:29

Perfect. Well, Nicole Abboud, thank you so much for joining us today on the ThinkSet Podcast! We look forward to touching base with you sometime in the future.

S2: 19:36

I hope so. And thank you for having me.

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