My story: Charlotte Smith, Life Design Coach for Lawyers
Helping clients who have to work at 3am, coaching on a private jet and negotiating with elves in Lapland.
Former travel industry lawyer Charlotte Smith discusses her new career in San Francisco and reminisces about life in the UK.
“I had a meeting with a lawyer from a big legal firm in Palo Alto, California. She was struggling with the pressure of her job.
“I discovered that in her contract of employment, it stated that if a client rang at any time, day or night, they had to respond within five minutes.
“So, literally, if the phone rang at 3am or some other time in the early hours, which wasn’t unusual, she had to get back within five minutes.
“It was in her contract and if she didn’t, she could be sacked. And the scary thing is that it’s not that uncommon.”
San Francisco-based Charlotte Smith, 35, is telling me about one of her clients.
She describes herself as a Life Design Coach for Lawyers. In layman’s terms, she an Executive Coach that helps busy lawyers make sense of their stressed lives and decide how they want to live in the future.
Once, Smith was one of those stressed out lawyers herself.
As Head of Employment Law at Leeds-based Travlaw, she was named in trade magazine TTG as one of ‘Tomorrow’s Travel Leaders’, a group of 30 under 30 years of age.
She's quick to point out that Travlaw was nothing like the Palo Alto firm and, despite long hours, has fond memories of working at the company.
But days after being offered a partnership in 2014, her husband Matt, an accountant, received a job opportunity in San Francisco and they decided to leave the country.
Smith has completed an extensive 500-hour executive coaching course in the US.
She believes that as both a qualified lawyer and coach, she is in a unique position to help lawyers. And, in the US, it seems that many of them need it.
“American Bar Association research shows that around 30% of lawyers suffer anxiety and depression. It’s similar in the UK as well and plagues the profession globally. There’s also a huge suicide rate among lawyers.”
Ultimately her Palo Alto client had to leave the role she was in and take up a position at another company to make her happy.
“It was a toxic culture and she wasn’t in a position to change that. So, we figured out what she wanted and explored other career opportunities.”
She moved to a different industry, became an in-house lawyer and is now much happier.
“It’s not about saying everyone should quit their job and go and sit on a beach in Bali. Clearly that won’t work for everyone or even most people.
“But it’s about showing them that they’ve got choices and they can decide to live their life differently – if they want to. It has to be their decision and it doesn’t always mean taking a step down or a reduced salary.
“Life Design is about getting clear on what’s important to you and deciding what is right, then making it happen.
“When you’re young, you may want to work every hour in the day to secure that dream position and when you’re more seasoned in your career your priorities might change.
“That’s a generalisation but most people don’t really stop to think about what they want, they just carry on doing what they’ve always done. This is where burnout happens.
“People think they have no alternative – they have no choice and have to suck it up and stay in an unhappy career. That’s not always the case.”
As well as the 1:1 coaching, Smith runs half-day workshops, full-day workshops and longer programmes for Silicon Valley legal professionals.
She works with all age groups, but her typical client is a 35-50-year-old lawyer, male or female, who wants to see their kids grow up before it’s too late.
I ask if she meets resistance from firms who demand a huge amount from their lawyers and don’t want to see anyone taking their foot off the gas?
“Companies have been very receptive. They know that they have a duty of care to their employees. It’s not always about working less, it’s often about working smarter or in a different way. And it’s generally accepted that a happy workforce is a productive workforce.”
Smith has had her fair share of unusual requests since becoming a coach.
“There was a client who said: ‘come and meet me, but we’ll have to have a conversation while we’re travelling’. I said ‘ok’.
“Then suddenly we’re having a coaching session on her jet down to Los Angeles.
“Nothing surprises you over here. The Bay Area is unbelievably affluent, with many of the major tech companies based here, so when companies go public people become millionaires overnight. And the issue of burnout is real, regardless of how much money you’ve got.”
Smith is very active on LinkedIn, often posting videos that highlight her own vulnerability and, at times, her struggle to cope with the different demands in her life.
In our many conversations on the subject, I question this tactic because I feel that clients want to see a strong person who can solve their problems. But in her line of work, it seems to pay dividends.
“I know your views and I do take your points! But I think my clients appreciate that I am vulnerable and sometimes overwhelmed. I’m human, too.
“I recently got let down by a babysitter and, to cut a long story short, had no choice but to take my daughter to a workshop that I was running. I did a LinkedIn post on the issue of being a working mother and the challenges which arise when childcare falls through. It went well and struck a chord.”
Smith is honest enough to admit that having an English accent has helped her in the US.
She feels the country still has work to do when it comes to parental rights and accommodating those with young families.
“Over here women still have a hard time. The US does not have maternity and paternity provisions which are comparable with the UK and Europe and a lot of mothers return to work after around three months.
“Part of the reason I run my own business is because I don’t want to be limited to having 10 days’ holiday, which is fairly standard over here.
“And, is a female president electable? It’s a debate that is often had over here. America still has some way to go.”
After graduating in Leeds and attending Law School in York, Smith arrived at Travlaw following a spell travelling and various internships.
“I was at Travlaw for seven years and it was a really fun company and a really nice team.
“I quickly rose up the ranks. I’m not sure if the 30 under 30 thing helped me but a few weeks later I was offered a partnership. I was making an impact.”
Travlaw has a reputation for hiring bright, young lawyers with plenty of personality.
“I think they were really clever in their hiring policy, ahead of the game. They hired people who weren’t always the most academically brilliant, say from Oxford or Cambridge, but people who had soft skills who could get on with people and bring in the business. They were very clever with that strategy.
“Of course, the work needs to be of a high standard, that’s a given. But in the legal field you get a lot of intelligent people who aren’t always good at dealing with people.
“Right from the beginning, when you are applying for jobs, Travlaw was different. Usually law firms give you long, boring applications, but there was none of that. They asked really interesting and different questions, such as how you felt about a country joining the EU or whether you thought cannabis should be legalised.
“You just got the feeling it would be a great place to work. When you were there, the dress code was relaxed and of course they are specialists in travel, so I got to travel to places like Barbados.”
A trip to Lapland sticks in the memory.
“This was definitely a highlight of working at Travlaw. I think I was a newly-qualified solicitor at the time and I was called on December 26th to go to Lapland because one of our clients was facing some difficulties in that all of their team had gone on strike.
“They provided those fancy holidays to Lapland to meet Father Christmas. So, my job was to fly to Lapland and to get the rebellious elves back to work and to mitigate any damage that was caused in terms of claims from consumers and so on.
“I got to Lapland after going on flights through Sweden and Iceland, I think, and lo and behold, who was there to pick me up at the airport? Santa Claus, off duty in his joggers and t-shirt.”
It sounded like a dream job, but as the years rolled by, Smith began to question whether this life was for her.
“The reality is that being a lawyer is not always fun. You are dealing with people in stressful situations, as they are getting sued or dealing with litigation. They might be going through a corporate transaction and the stakes are high.
“When people are paying high fees for your time, there’s extra pressure.
“I was young and hadn’t had a family and my work was everything. It was all-consuming.
“I started thinking ahead to what I wanted to do in the future. I excelled in bringing in new work, but drafting contracts of employment didn’t set my world on fire. When you are on your umpteenth contract, it starts to grate.
“I was offered the partnership and I could envisage myself in 10 years’ time living and working in Horsforth. I decided I wanted to see more of the world. When we had the chance to go to San Francisco, I knew it was the right thing to do.”
Early days in the US
Once in the US, Smith was determined not to just replicate her life in the UK.
“I’d decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer any more. While at Travlaw, I’d also been doing a food blog. I’d learnt about web development, design and social media, just self-taught. So the plan was to do business development and marketing.”
It was by no means a disaster – Smith had some UK and US clients – but becoming pregnant with her daughter Camille, now aged 3, brought some more soul searching.
“I was making money but I felt a degree of failure. In my mind, I thought I would build a team, move back and forth from the UK to the US, which was really a bit of a pipe dream rather than reality. Then suddenly I became pregnant and as a mother you get pulled in a million and one directions.
“I got a coach to find out what I was good at. I realised I’m good at listening to people. I also had the skills for running my own business, such as contracting, web design etc.
“I came up with the idea of being a Life Design Coach. At first I was too broad – my target market was everyone in Silicon Valley. For the past six months I’ve focussed on lawyers and that seems to be working – I’m getting lots of leads and new business.”
Smith’s next big plan is a three-day wellness retreat in Mexico later this year, for lawyers who need to recharge their batteries and expand their skills.
At a cost of $8,000 per person, excluding flights, it’s set to be a good earner but there is a lot to organise.
“We will have some great speakers and we are going to condense a lot of fantastic content into a micro amount of time.’
She also wants to do a TED talk on Life Design and has no plans to leave San Francisco just yet.
“Things are going well and we’re having fun at the moment.
“But I do always envisage moving back to Harrogate one day and having a farm with beautiful sheep.
“That’s where we used to live and nothing can beat Yorkshire on a beautiful sunny day!”