Will Meyerhofer, a New York psychotherapist in private practice, resisted going into the mental health field for a long time. Psychotherapy is his third and most satisfying career.
His online forum, The People’s Therapist, is especially popular among lawyers. Will knows from personal experience what their work lives are like.
As an undergraduate at Harvard, he spent a lot of time counseling people. Among his friends, and then their friends, he developed a reputation as a good listener who kept secrets. There was no shortage of Harvard undergrads who needed someone trustworthy to talk to.
“I was everyone’s therapist,” he says.
In fact, Will came from a family of therapists. His father is a psychiatrist and his mother and brother are psychotherapists. His brother suggested that Will might enjoy being a therapist too, but Will headed to New York University School of Law instead. After graduation, he joined the New York office of Sullivan & Cromwell.
Will hated the adversarial nature of law firm work from the start. He liked working with other people, but the firm culture placed a higher value on working against them. When he tried to take a more collaborative approach with opposing counsel, the partners came down on him hard. He was miserable, and started having panic attacks. He had started going to group therapy at NYU while he was still in law school. Those sessions became invaluable while he was at Sullivan & Cromwell.
“The group was my refuge for five years,” he says. He also started seeing an individual therapist, whose work he admired so much that he started to reconsider his brother’s career advice.
But he needed to get out of law first. The firm helped him with that. As a consequence of his misery, Will stopped performing at work as well as he had when he started. His supervisors noticed, and suggested that perhaps Sullivan & Cromwell was not the right place for him.
“Thank goodness I got fired,” he says. The firm paid for him to see an outplacement counselor.
Because Will knew so little about what other jobs involved, the counselor suggested that he do some informational interviews. At the time, Will knew little about networking, and it didn’t come naturally to him. His outplacement counselor pushed him to develop those skills, a coercive approach that was exactly what he needed at the time.
In all, he had 40-one informational interviews. As Will thought about what he might want to do, he kept thinking about books. He started to focus his outreach on people who had something to do with publishing. His networking led him to his next job: a junior marketing position at Barnes & Noble. “And after that, I had a new identity,” he says.
The persuasive skills Will had honed in law school helped him get his first marketing job. Although Barnes & Noble was initially resistant to hiring someone with Will’s legal background, he convinced them that he was a great bargain.
Because he wanted the job so much, he told them that he would be very flexible about his salary. He also pointed out that they could probably halve their legal bills by hiring him, since he could review contracts in-house. They gave him a chance.
Will’s starting salary at Barnes & Noble was half of what he had been making at Sullivan & Cromwell. He had a more junior title, but his work was more engaging. Will liked the process of brainstorming with corporate partners like MBNA and Master Card to come up with deals that worked well for everyone.
Will was soon known as the person who could make corporate relationships work, and he could draft agreements quickly himself. His creative approach was praised instead of punished.
Although he was doing well at Barnes & Noble, something was still missing. One night, his brother noticed that Will seemed to be bored with his work, in spite of his success. “He asked me whether I really cared if the company’s revenue was up or down,” says Will. “And that cut through me. I was at Barnes & Noble only because I liked books, but I didn’t care at all about selling them.”
For the second time since law school, he set out to change careers. Will wasn’t afraid to ask for support. “I told a friend that I needed someone to remind me who I was, and that I was unique and skilled,” he says. “He told me that I was a good listener. I knew that on some level, but it helped to hear it from someone else.”
What Will really valued, he realised, was people and personal relationships. Leaving the firm for Barnes & Noble had been a good first step, but it hadn’t put him on the path he really wanted to follow. After talking with many therapists, including his brother, he decided to become a therapist himself.
In order to do so, he had to go back to school for a two-year program. He took on another $US35,000 of debt to go to Hunter College School of Social Work, which was a fraction of what he would have owed had he gone to a private university. “I highly recommend cheap schools,” he says. Returning to school in his thirties, he was quite a bit older than most of his classmates. He also had to work at an unpaid internship for two years. He found it hard to be as deferential as his internship required, and at one point he was almost thrown out.
When Will graduated, he got a part-time job at a clinic, earning less than $US27,000. He taught 10-week group sessions at the clinic, filling the seats primarily by word of mouth. After his clients completed the group sessions, he offered to see them individually through his own practice. His fee, set deliberately low at first, rose over time. After five or six years in practice, he was making a six-figure salary again.
But he is not in it to get rich, he says. He is in it to be happy, and he is. After all, he says, “What would you pay if I could guarantee you would be happy about what you were doing all day?”
Some of Will’s clients now are unhappy lawyers. He empathizes with the difficulty some of them have in seeing outside the world of the firm. “Law firms can be hermetic,” he says, “and it’s easy to get tunnel vision.” When everyone you know is a lawyer, he says, it can be hard to see that not everyone works on weekends. His lawyer clients, he notes, often try to rationalize their unhappiness at work by telling him that it is “just a job.”
Will disagrees. He believes that work is a form of self-expression critical to living a good life. “It’s important to find the work you love to do, but you need to look inside to do so,” he says. “Everyone deserves to get up in the morning and go to a job they are excited about. It is a right.”
From “Life After Law: Finding Work You Love With The J.D. You Have” By Liz Brown, J.D. Copyright © 2013 by Liz Brown. Reprinted with permission from Bibliomotion Inc.
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