In this week’s episode of Lawline's Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle interviews Anne-Marie Rábago, Founder and Principal of Modern Juris. Anne-Marie’s story is one of relentless reinvention. Through continuously searching for purpose in her career, she ultimately creates a place where she empowers lawyers to serve the latent legal market and make lasting systemic change. Listen to the full interview or read highlights of the interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.
Interview with Anne-Marie Rábago
Colorado’s Beautiful Weather and Nature
I have recently relocated from Austin, Texas to Denver, Colorado, and I just wake up each day grateful for the climate and the beautiful natural surroundings that we have here. So, yeah, that's what I was grateful for this morning, is the weather, believe it or not.
On Her Origin Story
The Search for a Career that Best Helps People
I call myself an accidental lawyer. I was about 10 years out of undergrad and had been working in a variety of environments, and positions, and roles, and organizations. And I desperately wanted to go back to school and get a graduate degree. I found this fabulous program at the University of California, San Diego, where I would go for six years and get a PhD in sociology.
And I was so excited about this program and I was talking to my significant other who is now my husband, and he paused and said six years! That is a long time. And for what? A PhD in sociology? What do you do with a PhD in sociology? I said, well, you become an expert and you help people. And he didn't skip a beat before he came back with, well, what about law school? That can't be six years long. I don't know how long it is, but it can't be six years long, and lawyers are experts and they help people.
And I thought, hmm, there's something to that. So I went and did a limited amount of research. I should have done much more research than I did. And sure enough, three years and you could become a lawyer. So I literally went back to Barnes & Noble, exchanged my GRE prep book for an LSAT prep book, and signed up to take the LSAT probably that week. And that was the beginning.
It was about the timing, I'll be honest. And the financial investment, right? A six year degree program is gonna cost a whole lot more than a three year degree program. And at the end of the day, really what I was looking for was a pathway to helping people. And this is a theme that I think is true for a lot of lawyers.
I have taken the occasion of being in rooms with many lawyers over the last seven years. I've been directing incubators and now morphed into my own venture here. But every opportunity that I get, I ask a room of lawyers. You know, how many of you went to law school, at least in some part, because you wanted to help people? I will tell you that 90 to 95% of the hands in the room shoot up into the air. We may not always remember that. And we may not always stay on that path where we initially started, but I think that you can't get away from the fact that the law is a helping profession. So I really feel like it was serendipitous almost, and that theme, though, keeps coming up in my legal career since it started 17, 18 now, years ago.
If I lose sight of the fact that why I am here is because I want to help people. Something is triggered in me or there is a sign that I receive that brings me back to, wait, we started down this path and chose this journey because we wanted to help people. So that's encircling everything that I have sought out in my career in law.
On Her Love for Tax Law
So Many Puzzle Pieces in Play
I went to law school thinking I would be an employment and labor law attorney, cause I had a background in HR before law school. And my 1L summer that quickly went out the window. I spent that summer working at a nonprofit with employees and realized that's not how I wanted to spend my days. And a lot of my decisions come back to trying to stay true to the lifestyle that I want to have and stay in touch with what feeds my soul and truly makes me happy.
So having spent my days in that 1L summer not being happy with the way that that work went, I went back to the drawing board and said, oh no, what am I gonna do now? And as luck would have it, I fell in love with tax law.
Yes. Yes. I know. How often do you hear that? In fact, usually people use tax law as, like, the joke field of, well, it's not like we can make tax law interesting. I love tax law. I think it's the most interesting thing in the world.
I didn't recognize it at first, but part of what is fascinating to me about tax law is that there are so many pieces that are in play at any given time, and so many different levers that we can pull and push to make a difference for a taxpayer. People think tax law is black and white, but it actually is tremendously gray.
I actually taught federal income tax as an adjunct for a few years at California Western School of Law also. And I would tell the students that, to me, tax law was like going back in time and reading one of those ‘choose your own adventure’ books that I read as a tween. When you are working through a tax problem, you're using the tax code, and there's so many places that you go to find tax law, and you're reading something and it points to this treasury regulation, or it points to this revenue proclamation.
There's so many different sources of law that it truly is like those ‘choose your own adventure’ books. If Billy goes to the cave, turn to page 26. If you get on the bicycle and ride home, turn to page 10, right? It's fascinating in all the different directions you can go with it. And that was intellectually what drew me in. Yeah. That's part of the journey.
On How Career Detours Occur
Teaching to Consulting to Ultimately Starting Her Own Practice
I did take some of my students who came into federal income tax, had their sights set on another area of law and then ended up becoming tax lawyers. And I love whenever all of those students that have come back and ended up doing what I did, which was going forward from my basic JD tax courses to getting an LLM in tax. So I did that for a year and then I was recruited to work at a big four accounting firm doing international tax consulting.
This is a place where I got a little bit off that path. And I spent really just a year there and the work was fascinating, intellectually challenging. I loved the things that I was doing, but there was something missing. And that was one of the first points in time where I paused and said, what is it that's missing? At the end of that sort of self-reflection I realized that I had gotten away from helping people. Essentially as an international tax consultant, I was helping international companies move intellectual property offshore so that they could lower their U.S. Effective tax rates.
And there weren't many people involved in those transactions. I had been around the tax law world enough to see that if I wanted to help and work with people, it was going to require that I either join a small boutique type law practice or start my own. So I decided to start my own practice.
That was fun. On some levels. I started with what is called a tax controversy. That is when a taxpayer is in trouble with the tax agencies. And I was in California practicing, so we have three state agencies in California that you can get in trouble with. We always joke that the three scariest letters in the alphabet are I-R-S. So helping people who are being audited or haven't filed tax returns for many years or have filed tax returns, but haven't paid them and so they have collection actions. That was again, fascinating work, definitely back on purpose with helping people, but, this surprises people, it became very emotionally taxing for me.
This is a topic that I work with lawyers starting their own law firms on a lot. We think of money as being something that is transactional and it's logical. And then someone can reach into your bank account and just empty it and take all that money. So you don't have money for gas. You don't have money for lunch. You don't have money for rent. That is extremely traumatic and emotionally taxing. You are correct. And I have very high empathy and I didn't even realize it at the time, but my levels of empathy were causing me to have that sort of vicarious trauma, if you will.
And I'm sort of jumping ahead to the end of my solo journey, but I was at one point I got very, very ill. I got pneumonia and I could not get on top of it for about six months. I just was consistently struggling with pneumonia or the symptoms of it. It just would not go away. That was what caused me to pause and really, again, reflect on the work I was doing and to realize that, for my health's sake, I needed to pivot. And so at that point, I transitioned to doing a bit more tax planning, business planning, and really stopped taking tax controversy work and adjusted my practice a bit. That made things better, but still there was something that wasn't quite right and I couldn't put my finger on it.
Until one day I got in the mail copy of my Texas Bar Journal, because I'm also licensed in Texas, and I was flipping through this magazine, just seeing what's in it. And there's this one page ad for the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program, which most of our state bars offer a similar program for attorneys in the state. And I encourage every lawyer to avail themselves of those services. Most of the people that work in those areas are just so compassionate and understanding of what we take on as lawyers and what it costs us to be able to do the work that we do. And they help us navigate it if we're having troubles. But this ad was an iceberg floating in the water, and they had words above the water that looked like substance abuse, grievances, feelings of chaos, and under the water, there are all these other symptomatic words. And I remember the one phrase that caught me at that time, which was compassion fatigue. And I thought, what is this? I know those two words, but I've never heard them used together. So I started trying to figure out, what is compassion fatigue? And it's this concept that if we're consistently caring for others and giving to others, and if we are not taking care of ourselves, then our energy stores and our fuel tank just lower to empty. And we have to do things to take care of ourselves. Or we end up in a really unhealthy mental space.
On Changing Career Plans
Don’t Settle Until You Find Your Happiness
I would say that it was sort of the beginning of the end and the beginning of the beginning. I niche'd my practice down, I would say, to serving really only other solo and small firm attorneys. I came to realize the clients that I most enjoyed working with were other lawyers. And there was plenty of need for business planning, and tax planning, and tax controversy. Even too, amongst the lawyer community in San Diego. And so I started only working with clients that I found to be the ideal clients in terms of the energy exchanges and the intellect and what I could bring to their firms and their work. Then I had this amazing campaign that I did that brought in a whole lot of leads of lawyers across the whole state of California. I had this whole plan. I was going to take over California and do this work. And then Texas, and then New York was gonna be next. So it worked. And I had these leads coming in and I just did not want to engage. And that was it.
Stephen Pressfield is an author who wrote a wonderful book called The War of Art, and it's actually intended to help other authors overcome resistance to the things that get in our way of writing. But I was familiar with this concept of resistance, when all of your energy is holding you back instead of pushing you forward. And that was where I was. I was like, these are my ideal clients. This is the work I've told myself I want to do. Why am I not excited? Why am I not jumping at responding to these leads and engaging these new clients? And I was like, this is it. I'm not meant to do this. What's next?
I think that it was my subconscious telling me. Since my own personal experience, I've worked with lawyers who have been going through the same sort of existential crisis where we spend years of our lives, so much money, so much energy becoming lawyers and earning this opportunity to serve clients and to practice law that you wake up and you realize, it's not good for my mental health, my physical health.
Then it's very difficult to turn your back and to realize even that there's a whole other world of opportunities and so coming to grips with that was something I had been struggling with. And so I believe that not being excited about engaging with those clients was probably something going on in my subconscious of finally giving myself permission to let go of the business I had built. To move on, to figure out what was going to be next.
And I started looking to see what was out there, happened upon a Craigslist ad. I still to this day think that's odd. Where one of the law schools, there's three ABA schools in San Diego, was looking for a part-time graduate career advisor. Again, remember I had that background of recruiting and HR. So I threw my hat in the ring for that. Went to work in the career professional development office at California Western, and then the gentleman who had founded the incubator there was retiring. So they were looking for an incubator director. So I said, well, I can do that and I threw my hat in the ring for that opportunity and was hired to take over the incubator program there.
The incubator world was the first place that everything I had done just made so much sense, because there was outreach and education to let people know what incubators were and how to join one and what you got from joining one, which was marketing. Then there was a selection process, creating applications, and conducting interviews. And selecting the best people to be in the program because, particularly at the State Bar of Texas, not to jump ahead, it was a competitive process to get into that program. There was training and development, which we haven't talked about. I worked for Capital One for several years and that was the HR world. And then I moved into doing training and professional development for them. Instructional design and developing courses inside of the incubators.
The last piece was my sales and marketing background, which was, you know, I was able to train the people that worked for me in retail, on sales. And I was also able to develop training and try to help the lawyers and the incubators develop some of the sales and marketing skills that we need when we find ourselves in business for ourselves.
I was fortunate enough to graduate into two recessions. When I graduated from undergrad, it was 1995. We were in the midst of another recession, so jobs were not prevalent. And that's how I ended up in retail. And yes, I spent three holiday seasons in retail. And let me tell you, that is also some serious fortification right there.
But, yes, the people that I worked with, the skills that I learned, the experiences that I had, just really set me up for some significant ability to transfer that into future work. And even though my story sounds a little bit, like, I keep falling down, which is an entrepreneurial thing. So I'm good with it. I'm good with my failures, so to speak, but I think the retail experience also helped me to start to develop some resilience skills.
It starts in the conditioning of law school, where it's this admirable quality to just keep pushing and fighting, and sometimes it's actually healthier. And this could be part of the health conversations and the wellbeing conversations that we're consistently having in the law. It's healthier to just let go and to say, you know what, this isn't right. But I'm sure that something else is and let me go find it.
On the Incubator World to Modern Juris
Bringing Lawyers Together
Legal incubators were born out of the time where lawyers were graduating and passing the bar and there were no lawyer jobs. So the law schools initially were sponsoring organizations that said, you know what? We probably need to step in here and do something because in the course of a legal education, we are not training lawyers on how to become business owners. So how can we bridge that knowledge gap for them?
So most of them across the country, regardless of who the sponsoring entity is, they have dual missions. One is to train lawyers, to know how to set up a solo business. You wear three hats, right? You have to be the chief marketing officer, you have to be the business owner, and you have to be the lawyer. And balancing all three of those competing priorities is a challenge in and of itself. But it's even more challenging when you don't know how to do any of that, which was the case for most of these young lawyers. So teaching the lawyers to start solo practices and then the dual mission also for most of these programs, is an access to justice mission. Which is to help low and modest income clients and figure out how to develop your law firm so that you can serve that clientele.
Which is what I call the latent legal market, because it is a tremendously large market. As in a business market. And let me be clear, we have legal aid organizations and pro bono services. They help people in most service areas, not all, up to a certain income level. And then they're cut off. But after that we're, as a country and organization saying after that, then you should be able to afford something for your legal services. Maybe it's not the $300, $400, $500 an hour. That is the market hourly rate of lawyers in major metros across the country, but something. And so one, we're trying to teach lawyers how to offer alternative fee arrangements, flat fees, transparent pricing, sliding scale fees, as well as alternative legal service delivery. Things like unbundled legal services, limited scope representation, even ghost writing and legal coaching, is what I call it, where you're helping the client understand how to better help themselves by coaching them through the process versus actually taking on any of the representation yourself. Right?
But we are uniquely situated as lawyers to know how to do all of that. And yet we're only interested as a profession, (generally, I'm making generalization here) in selling the cart blanc, full representation service. And so we're trying to catch these newer lawyers and give them the skillset and the imagination to do something different in the law and with their law firms and with their legal careers that I think at the end of the day, also, will make them happier, healthier lawyers.
So the State Bar of Texas has that dual mission. Their program is well in the hands of a gentleman who took over from me, which I am grateful to him for. And I decided that I wanted to take this concept of what we're doing with legal incubators, under sponsoring organizations across the country, and make the training, and the support, and the tools more broadly available to lawyers across the country who maybe don't have an incubator that they could apply to and qualify for. And to work toward continuing to bring lawyers that want to figure out new business models and approaches for serving this latent legal market, which is an untapped billions and billions of dollar potential industry, and bring people together. There are lawyers out there doing this, but we all are islands. So having a community to support you in trying to do something different is really important. And that's probably one of the biggest pieces of what I'm trying to achieve at this point.
Modern Juris is for any attorney for any point within their profession. Many of the incubators, because of the law school, are for lawyers that are zero to three, zero to five years of licensing. At the State Bar of Texas, we started that way and then we opened it up because what we found was that often there are lawyers who have not been in private practice. Maybe they were a legal aid attorney for their whole career or government attorney for their whole career. And so there's many aspects of running your own practice that they haven't been exposed to and still need to bridge that knowledge gap. So the State Bar of Texas opened up the eligibility to any Texas lawyer that was interested in our mission.
Everything is virtually delivered. We have a learning management system, a portal that our members log into where there's a library of training and tools. And then we have a Facebook community where people can interact, and then we host Zoom sessions and use other platforms to actually bring people together to exchange ideas, to share wins, to share challenges. It's interesting because in the incubator world we've surveyed participants through the years. When we would survey the participants, they would tell us that the greatest value that they got from being in the incubators actually was having a community of other lawyers who were like-minded and were going through the same things that they were at about the same time.
And that there was something that didn't have a price tag that we have to foster and create, but we tend to forget that innately, we are social beings and we need connection to others. And that's part of what sustains us. And back to my personal story, I feel like if I had had an incubator, if I'd had the kind of community that I try to create, in bringing lawyers together, that I might still be in practice. I might have made it through because of having the support of others to battle the challenges that I faced alone, because I was a solo.
On What Leadership in Law Means
Moving Others Towards Change
When you're on your own, leadership can take the form of coaches and guides and mentors, because I have done a lot of not working for others. Right? But I see myself as a leader because I'm trying to rally people around ideas and rally people around change, frankly. Which is hard, and particularly hard for lawyers and the mindsets that we often bring to our profession. So to me, leading isn't just about a formal relationship between boss and subordinates, or even mentor / mentee. We see leadership as a place where you're trying to help move others.
On What She Would Change About the Legal Industry
Moving Away From Precedent and Going Forward
Ooh, I would say, it's a big one. So if we could get away from the mindset of precedent and traditional approaches that, you know, this is the way something has always been done and instead say, well, if that's the way it's always been done, then maybe there's another way and go forward, intentionally exploring alternatives to what has always been done.
On What People Misunderstand About Her Work
What the Latent Legal Market Actually Is
Ha, I did throw in an access to justice in our conversation, but I very intentionally moved away from using access to justice in descriptions of what I do, even though it is at the heart and the core of what I'm doing, what we are doing.
And instead I talk about the latent legal market. And those two things, in the way that I'm using them, are actually the same. What it is, is this large swath in the United States, and as I understand it also across the world, of people who have legal issues and need help to navigate our very complicated systems of laws and justice, but do not seek help from lawyers for a whole variety of reasons. That we assume is cost, but the studies show it actually isn't always cost. It's only about 17% of people who point to cost being the reason. And when we talk about access to justice, as lawyers, everyone's brain jumps to pro bono and free legal services and, oh, you're just asking me to volunteer and to do something for free. And that's not at all what I'm trying to do in this space.
Instead, I'm trying to get lawyers to step out of the way things have always been done and look for ways that we can bridge this access to justice gap, serve the latent legal markets through business-based approaches to providing what we have to sell our services.
So, in general, what we are taught and what we see is really just this full representation model of hello, yes I'd like to help you with your matter. I need a $10,000 retainer advance fee deposit for my IOLTA account. And then my fees are $350 an hour. And I don't have any idea how many hours it's going to take, but I'll get you through this. That's what we expect consumers to buy. And where else in the world do any of us go and hire a professional or buy a service under those parameters? There's nothing appealing about that proposition. And so why does it have to be that way? It doesn't. We are the ones perpetuating that as the model of legal service delivery. I believe that we can take other approaches that still make us feel safe and secure in our ability to have a viable business, but can make it an easier purchase from the consumer client perspective.
What we're looking at is limited scope representation. So something that is less than full representation. Unbundled legal services is something that seems the same as limited scope, but it actually is different and nuanced from the standpoint of taking a legal matter and recognizing that there are natural phases and steps that go into delivering the full service on the matter. And that we could actually take those steps and break them down into discreet places where the lawyer can be a part of the solution, or maybe the lawyer doesn't need to be a part of the solution in a representation standpoint, maybe they can just draft something or they could just talk the client through in a legal coaching manner.
Doing the work on the part of the lawyer business owner to figure out what something costs and to have transparency in, okay, $300 an hour. These cases usually take me 20 hours. So we're looking at $6,000 for this matter. That right there starts because then somebody can start to wrap their head around, this is what I'm gonna need to pay.
I think we do a lot that doesn't serve us as a profession in terms of not being willing to try to meet the client where they are instead, always staying lawyer-centric, instead of client-centric. So much of the way law has always been practiced in the models that we are taught are centered around us as the professional service provider, without thinking about the experience of our clients and stepping into their shoes.
The main reason why only 17% of people say it’s the cost is that they didn't believe that they needed advice. One issue that we see is that people who have legal issues don't recognize them to be legal issues. Don't recognize the value that a lawyer can bring to the situation. And just never seek out advice. And to me, that's an opportunity on our part to get out into the world and educate consumers about the inherent legal issues that come up in their everyday lives, that they don't even necessarily realize are legal issues that a lawyer could help them navigate or could ease. Right? Preventative laws, one of my favorite subjects.
We have a sort of product market fit problem from the standpoint of consumers, even understanding what we do and why they need us. That's the biggest category, then lower down is people don't know where to find a lawyer. Even though we think we're out there making ourselves available to the whole world, they can’t find us. People don't know where to go to find a lawyer.
And we have a bad rap. Despite my anecdotal evidence that 90 to 95% of us want to help people, the general population doesn't believe that's what lawyers are in business for. They believe that we wanna take their money and fight, and it's definitely a significant mismatch.
On Practical Advice to Leaders in Law
Be Open to Change and Take the Journey
I would say be open to change, be open to finding new pathways and take the journey.
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.