Being a Leader Begins with Strong Self-Leadership

Sigalle Barness | November 2, 2022

In this week’s episode of Lawline's Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle interviews Michael Kahn, Co-Founder, Educator, and Coach at ReelTime CLE. Michael shares his journey from practicing lawyer to counseling lawyers. Through the steady and intentional practice of self-leadership, he has dedicated his career to the well-being and success of lawyers nationwide. Listen to the full interview or read highlights of the interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.



Interview with Michael Kahn


On Gratitude

Blue Skies in Vancouver


I'm on the west coast. So it's still kind of mid-morning here. But for me, it was looking out the window, which I like to do for breaks when I'm sitting at my laptop. But this morning it was even before I started working, looking out the window and seeing completely blue sky here in Vancouver. There's a few months in Vancouver where there's a lot of clouds and rain at times. So to see a full blue sky made me very happy.


On the Start of His Law Journey

Finding the Right Fit


I didn’t always want to be an attorney. I didn't know what I wanted to be and that was one of the challenges. I mean, it's amazing that we go to college and they ask us to declare a major when, how the heck do we know? Many of us don't know. I was gonna major in accounting, which is laughable now, if you think about it. If you know me and my interests, but that's what I was gonna do. I took a class in accounting and quickly decided, no. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I went to Emory. It's a pre-professional school, and a lot of people go to grad school, med school, law school, business school.

And I thought, what do I wanna do? I don't want to go to psych grad school. I thought that was just being a psychologist and testing and all that. I didn't wanna do that. And I thought, well, I'll go to law school. Majored in psychology that maybe will be a benefit for law school. I have no idea where my career services office was at Emory. I never attempted to get any guidance. May have talked to my parents and friends a minute about it. 

So I went to law school. It was more of a default. I hate to say that I was being pulled to. And I actually enjoyed law school, which I know some people out there may be thinking, what? Enjoyed law school? But I did. I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation. I mean, don't get me wrong, the amount of reading, the Socratic method stuff, where you're called out, that wasn't fun. But once I was out practicing, I fairly quickly realized it was not gonna be a good fit for me. And that's how I ended up changing careers and becoming a therapist.


On Changing Career Paths

From Law to Counseling


Six years with the Attorney General's office in New Jersey. Represented the Department of Corrections for two and a half years and the Department of Environmental Protection for three and a half.

And if I was gonna practice law, that's where I'd want to be. No billable hours. It was very relaxed, mostly nine to five, sometimes late nights. Not a lot. Sometimes weekends, not a lot. Interesting issues. I got to hit the ground running. Did federal trials, state trials, administrative hearings, appellate court arguments, agency advice. So that was fun. And the people I worked with were wonderful, still friends with some of them. The actual practice of law, the nuts and bolts, just was not a good fit for me. I'm not a guy who loves conflict, not a guy who loves arguing, not a guy who likes writing. So there are a lot of aspects of the law that just were not good fits for me. What I did like was advising clients. Especially my agency clients. I liked helping out in that way. I actually went to a professional coach who worked with lawyers who was a former lawyer himself, getting his PhD in counseling. And he helped guide me to really validate what I already knew, that I wanted to be in a profession that was more building up folks.

Not that lawyers don't do that in certain aspects and areas of the law, but I wanted to be an area where I was helping to build folks, to help heal folks in collaboration with them. So I was drawn to going back and getting my master's in counseling.


On Having a Great Mentor

His Professional Coach


I don't know how I found him, but somehow I was fortunate enough to learn about him because I really was flailing a little bit. Of course there was a part of me thinking, my gosh, I went to law school. I spent all this money, all this time, and I'm just gonna throw it away?

So I did consider other areas of law. And I decided there's just not a good fit. And somehow the universe just sent me to him and it was so long ago. I don't remember how I was able to find him, but it was such a good match. And I'm actually still friendly with him. He's written a good book on what to do with your legal degree. Larry Richard, I'll give him a shout out. But he ended up just being so helpful. 



On The Pivotal Moment That Changed His Thinking

The Drive to Work That Became a Wakeup Call


I'll give you a moment that was more, I need to make a change. I was driving to work on Route 1 in New Jersey to my office in Trenton, New Jersey, for anybody who is from New Jersey. I'm driving to work early in the morning, 7:30 or so, and I started pounding the steering wheel. Because I was so unhappy and so depressed. Pounding the steering wheel as I'm driving to work, not the safest thing to do in the world. And that, to me, was just a wake up call. Michael, you gotta do something different here. You are miserable. And that was the moment where I decided I can't do this any longer. 

I could have done that and then just gone on to work, and gotten back into the routine. But that was just such a dramatic thing for me. And of course, I had heard those things before that moment, little whispers in my head. You're not happy. This is not working out. But then those response whispers of, wait a second, you went to law school for three years. You worked hard to spend all this money. How can you throw it all away? So you have those conflicting things going on, but that moment was so dramatic that it just got my attention. And it still took me another three years to figure out what I wanted to do. I didn't leave the law for another three years after that, but I'm a bit methodical that way. But it was the moment where I shifted. 


On Leveraging His Legal Experience to Help Others

Counseling for Lawyers Assistance Group and Other Lawyers


With the help of Dr. Richard, I, um, went back to school, went to University of New Orleans and then transferred to UNC Greensboro, where I got my master's. I got a job at a family counseling agency in North Carolina. Wonderful experience. Learned a lot. Got paid more than 50% less than what I was getting paid as a lawyer. So it was a sacrifice in terms of income, but well worth it. I certainly do not regret the change that I made. Learned a lot there. Then opened private practice. Which I really enjoyed. One of my main areas of expertise was grief. So I did a lot of grief counseling. Did some work with an agency that worked with parents who had children die. So I did groups and I loved doing those groups, helping people in that place where they're grieving a significant loss, and seeing folks in the groups connect with each other.

So I really enjoyed that and then moved out west and got connected eventually with the Lawyer Assistance Program here in Vancouver. I'm doing a couple days a week with them seeing lawyers. So the cool thing is yes, I left the law as a practicing lawyer, but I still am working with lawyers. So I'm bringing that experience I had as a lawyer to my work with clients, just like Sigalle, you are. You're not practicing anymore, but you're still in the lawyer world. So that's the cool thing. Yeah. I may not be practicing anymore, but I'm still using my experience as a lawyer. And it gives me more credibility too, with lawyers, to know that I practiced.


On Helping Lawyers Maintain Wellness in Law

Moving to Better Fitting Roles, Setting Boundaries, and Focusing on Replenishing Habits


You have to be in a good place in terms of your well-being. You're more likely going to have blind spots if you're not in a good place, if your needs aren't being met outside of the law. 

One of the main challenges that a lot of particularly young associates are dealing with are billable hours. Some small firms are doing things differently, not doing billable hours, but that still is the way of the world for law firms.

And these young associates are struggling with the amount of work that they have to do to get their billable hours. But one of the cool things I'm seeing with young lawyers, I never would've thought of doing as a lawyer, is they are pushing back. They're setting boundaries. Not all of them, but I'm hearing some of these younger lawyers saying, I can't do that. I've got all this on my plate already. I can't do what you're asking me to do and get it to you in this amount of time. So I'm seeing some young lawyers, very respectfully setting boundaries, which I think is fantastic. And like I said, when I was a lawyer, I would just dutifully say, yes. Yes, sir. Yes, ma'am. I will do it. And not even consider saying no or saying, hey, I can't do that right now because... 

I've seen with some of my lawyer clients that they're making changes. They're maybe leaving a firm that's not a good fit for them, or they're reducing their hours, or they're changing their roles. Maybe going from a firm to in-house. If that lifestyle is something that they think will work better for them. So there's definitely a lot of movement in that regard. And, you asked about what kind of issues I am seeing? Anxiety and stress are still right up there as far as what are some of the presenting concerns.

My lawyer clients are coming in with, and I’m helping them come up with, ways to set boundaries between work and home, to identify things that are depleting them at work and home, and also talking to them about, okay. Be more intentional about identifying things that replenish you. I love your question that we started with about starting my day, and what was something I noticed.

So I like to have that conversation with lawyers about what are the things that you do that fill you up? Because lawyers are getting better at doing things before the day and the end of the day, but it's during the work day that I like to focus on them. You need to do stuff throughout your day, not just in the morning and at night, but throughout your day. Identify things that replenish you.

I know one lawyer, and this is pre-COVID, he said that he brings his favorite mug and tea to work. So he has this mug that feels good in his hand. And that's something that seems minor, but that's something that fills him up. Someone else will go outside, just walk around outside for 10, 15 minutes. I know someone else said they go to the restroom. Even if they don't have to go. It's just, it's something that they intentionally will force them to get out of their chair and have a break.

I mentioned looking out the window, that's something else that folks have done. We're fortunate that we're working from home because of COVID. Some people would say maybe not fortunate, but that we can be around our animals. For some, that's been wonderful to have their animals around. So those are some of the simple things.

It doesn't have to be something that costs anything or takes a lot of time, but simple things that give us just a moment of refreshment and soothing energy. 

I also talked to them about looking at the environment that you're working in. Is it a place that feels comfortable to you? Does it fill you up? Does it relax you? Is your work space looking like that? Or if you work at home, your home space, because that's really important, too. And music is another thing that lawyers will identify.

Some of my clients think, well, I can't afford to get up. I don't have time to get up and take even a five minute break. In fact, I had a young client, a young lawyer associate in my office, who said I can't look out the window even for 30 seconds. What if my boss walks by and sees me looking out the window? Does that mean I'm daydreaming and not working? So they feel like they don't have the time to take a break. I forget who said this, but I saw a quote from someone who said, when you don't feel like you have time to take a break is when you need to take the break. The longer you go without taking a break, the less efficient you become in your work. I know it feels uncomfortable for many, but by taking a break, by refreshing, you come back and you're more efficient. Your attention is better. Your energy level is better. So one of the things I do is push back on that mindset. 

And I validate, too. I say, yeah, this is hard. Being a lawyer is hard. And it is a challenge. And I often point to the lawyer's well-being task force report that came out about four years ago. And there's a great graphic in there that defines what a thriving lawyer is. It lists six different parts: occupational, intellectual, social, emotional, relational, and other areas. And also, at LAP in Portland and also in Vancouver now, we include cultural well-being as a piece to that. But I point to that and say, hey, yeah, you're taking care of your occupation, but look at all these other areas that you need to focus on to thrive.

So we start small. We don't go big, like you said. But let's start small. Let's look at some of the small changes that you can do. Maybe leaving work a little bit earlier. Maybe starting this replenishing habit that I talked about starting, to look at small changes that they can do.

I remember I had one lawyer who came in, he was depressed and anxious and he had his own law firm, shared it with his wife. And I think we identified the fact that he would read the newspaper in the morning and the newspaper would often put him in a bad mood or a sad mood. Wasn't rocket science here. I said don't read the newspaper in the morning, which he stopped doing. And guess what? It helped him. So starting out in the morning is so important. Again, I go back to your question that you asked earlier. That is so important because that starts the day. So don't look at your phone and your emails right in the morning or texts right in the morning. And I'm not perfect at it either, but do something to get your mindset in the right place in the morning.


On What Leadership in Law Means

Self-Leadership and Vulnerability


Where I would go with that question is self-leadership. That's what we're talking about here. This discussion about well-being is all about self-leadership. By taking care of yourself, you become better at what you do, and you become more present for your clients, for your spouse, partner, kids, friends.

And vulnerability is such an important piece. So the more we empathize with ourselves and are compassionate with ourselves, and the parts of ourselves that maybe we don't love, the more we can empathize with the struggles that others are having. And it's not just therapists. Lawyers as leaders, especially the lawyers who are the leaders, need to have this empathy for the struggles that their associates are going through. I did an interview with Mike Kasden, who's this wonderful lawyer who practices. He's out there doing great work. But he, to me, is a great leader because he talked about how it doesn't serve him to burn through associates. It doesn't serve the firm to burn through associates. So he recognizes that he needs to empathize with the challenges that associates are going through, and not expect too much from them or put too much on their plate.

Mike shares his own struggles, and by having those personal struggles, getting through them, and continuing getting through them, he empathizes with the folks who report to him. 

It’s saying, I went through this, and I know that you're gonna have to go through this in some way because that's just the way things are in terms of working as a lawyer. And this is what helped me. So it’s them gaining from your wisdom and your experience.


On What He Would Change About the Legal Industry

Billable Hours and Sharing What Works


It would be billable hours, that's a big one. I would say, and again, in learning from my work with lawyer clients, I would encourage leaders to be better at sharing what's working. What are the lawyers doing well? Because I think the mindset for many leaders can be, well, I don't need to comment on what's working. Let's focus on what we need to fix. So I would say do both, of course, but remember it helps to be encouraged. It feels good. And to know what's going well. So that would be one small piece, other than the large chunk of the billable hours piece. That would be something that I think is very doable. 


On What People Misunderstand About His Work

The Stigma Around Therapy


Fortunately, it's getting better. There's still a stigma around therapy, but it's so much better. And we're so busy at LAP, which on the one hand is a concern, of course, that lawyers need to seek us out. But on the other hand, it’s great that they know we're a resource and they reach out to us. I had two emails waiting for me on Monday from clients who I had seen previously who wanna come back because they just need some maintenance, which is great.

So one thing that's misunderstood, I think by folks, is that you have to be in a really horrible place to go to counseling. That you have to be in some major crisis or have some significant mental health disorder. And you don't. You can just be someone who needs to talk to somebody about something that's a normal, day-to-day thing.

It could be a relationship concern, or work stressor, or grief, grief and loss, and not even grief and loss necessarily around a death, but maybe a job change or a move. I had a client yesterday who's needing to leave Vancouver because of issues unrelated to what he wants. And he's struggling because he's really gonna miss a lot about Vancouver. This is where he grew up. 

So it doesn't have to be anything “major.” It could be, I just need to talk to someone who's objective. You know, I talk to my friends and family, and that's helpful. But someone who's objective, who has expertise, who can be of assistance. 


On Practical Advice for Leaders in Law

Have a Growth Mindset and Be Kind


I think one of the traps that lawyers get into, many of us but particularly lawyers, have this fixed mindset. That I am a finished product. And if I make a mistake, then that's the end of the world because I shouldn't make a mistake. I am, in fact, done. I am complete. 

So one piece of advice that I would give, and I'm still working on this myself, is to have more of a growth mindset. Have more of a belief that, okay. Yeah, I'm gonna make mistakes. And most of them, hopefully, are good mistakes that I learned from. And that's not the end of the world. I am learning. We all are learning. As young associates, to expect that I'm gonna practice like someone who's been practicing for 20 years is just not realistic. I'm not saying celebrate mistakes, but understand. And realize that they're gonna happen, I'm gonna learn from them. And then the next time, I will handle it differently. So that would be one way to answer your question. 

The other way I'd answer your question in terms of following my lead, and you mentioned the word at some point earlier, is kindness. I would love to see, and it's so weird, I'll be vulnerable here. I'm getting choked up as I share this, because I just don't feel like there's enough kindness in this world right now. Wow, this is weird that this is happening to me, but you can tell it's just so important to me, that there needs to be more leading with kindness, leading with empathy, with patience, with acceptance, and even with people who you disagree with. Abraham Lincoln had a great quote. I'm not gonna say it exactly. He said, "I don't like that man. I need to get to know him better." Or something like that.

And I love that quote. And it's hard. Don't get me wrong, it's hard. It can be hard, but find something you like about someone. And I have to do that as a therapist, and it's not hard. Find something you like about someone, even if you disagree with them. To me, that's really important.

I'll recommend a movie that was a real salve for me during COVID. I went to see the documentary about Mr. Rogers. I went twice. The movie was with Tom Hanks, but this is the documentary. To see someone who lived his life that way. He just led with kindness. And there were no skeletons in his closet. He wasn't a perfect guy. You see in the documentary he certainly wasn't perfect. It was encouraging to me to be reminded that there are people out there like that.


On Who Has Shaped His Journey

His Parents and His Former Boss


Of course, I'll say my parents in different ways. And I'll also name my boss at my job as a therapist at the family counseling agency. He showed me, this is perfect to answer now that I'm giving him as an answer. He showed me good leadership. How he could walk the line between being a good leader, demanding respect, and also being a friend. And boy, that's a tough tightrope to walk, but he was able to do that. And he also protected us when we needed to be protected. When there were issues going on in the agency that we didn't need to deal with, that was for him to deal with. 

I mean, there were some things he needed to share with us, of course. But he knew when to take things on himself and when to share with us. And he also gave us the latitude as I mentioned earlier, to try new things, to make mistakes. And there are other folks I'm sure I could identify, but those three, my parents and John.


On Self-Care

Music, Animals, Exercise, and Movies


I Play the guitar. Music is really an important part of my life. Listening, playing. I'm in a guitar group that started during COVID, a virtual guitar group. Meets every Friday. There's a theme and we each play a song for everybody. It's a little bit scary.

Animals are huge for me. We are between dogs right now, but being around animals is huge. Jogging is important for me at all times, exercising and being outside. 

The other thing I do for self-care is actually movies. I love movies and good TV shows. At ReelTime CLE, we use film clips in all of our workshops, both Hollywood and four or five of our own films. In fact, I just did a program this morning before our podcast. We used clips of our own films to facilitate discussion and to make it more fun and entertaining for folks.

Lawyers Who Lead is a weekly podcast that celebrates lawyers who are making powerful changes through extraordinary leadership. Each week, Lawline’s Chief Storyteller, Sigalle Barness, interviews a lawyer who is driving meaningful change in the legal industry. Guests represent a diverse and exciting range of experiences but with one common thread, the pursuit of bettering the legal profession. 

Each episode explores the guest’s journey to leadership, the underlying principles that helped them make an impact, and devises ways listeners can apply these concepts in their own lives.

Subscribe or follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Audible, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. You can also follow @lawyerswholead on Linkedin, and Twitter. Let's celebrate and continue to build a community of leaders in law together.

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About the Author

Written by Sigalle Barness

Sigalle champions and grows Lawline’s brand awareness through impactful stories that are authentic, meaningful, and thought provoking. She designs communications strategies that underscore the why and how behind Lawline's work. Sigalle is an avid lover of music, video games, blogging, asking questions and all things food. She is also fluent in Hebrew and enjoys writing fiction, traveling and scuba diving.


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