Finding Purpose in the Law

Workshop organizers hope new events can help legal professionals define success for themselves

On Purpose Legal Workshop
Lauren Lester (left) and Jessica Bednarz say they plan to hold more workshops in Denver and Chicago. / LAW WEEK, JESSICA FOLKER

Lots of seminars and conferences promise to arm busy professionals with the “tools for success,” whether that’s the latest software, networking techniques or skills for managing time and money. But one recent workshop sought to bring local legal professionals together to rethink what “success” even means in the first place.

A small but enthusiastic group attended the On Purpose Legal Workshop, held January 17 at The Commons on Champa in downtown Denver. The workshop’s creators hope it will be the start of a community dedicated to change in the legal profession and are planning on more events over the next year in Denver and Chicago. 

OPLW, the brainchild of Colorado attorney Lauren Lester and Chicago-based Jessica Bednarz, was inspired by the personal experiences of its founders and the malaise that affects many in the legal field.

“[We] had this recurring experience that we would either meet someone who was in the profession and had left or was really struggling within this profession because they just didn’t feel like they fit into it for whatever reason,” said Lester, who practices family law in Denver. 

A lot of the problems in the profession are already well known and, thanks to studies like the ABA’s reports on attorney well-being, have even been quantified. Many of the industry’s troubles can be traced to the billable hour business model, Bednarz said, citing a favorite lawyer complaint.

But OPLW explored other stressors that attorneys might be more reluctant to discuss openly, like the feeling of not being smart enough to be in the profession or their fears of failure. 

The full-day workshop began with a discussion on finding one’s purpose and staying focused on it. The session was led by two local entrepreneurs who have built careers around helping businesses find their purpose: Nathan Havey, founder of Thrive Consulting Group, and Conscious Company Media co-founder Meghan French Dunbar. 

The next session, led by Ryann Peyton, executive director of the Colorado Attorney Mentoring Program, focused on helping participants build their professional identities. The group also spent part of the session identifying the personas they have taken on to fit in at work or among other lawyers. 

According to Lester, pressure to conform to rigid notions about how a successful attorney should act is something a lot of lawyers struggle with.

“A lot of folks just don’t fit into that. And really, those folks have so many more talents and specialties that they can bring,” she said. “But they get shunned, or they just have to work so hard to be someone that they’re not.”

The afternoon portion began with a session on resilience led by Bednarz, director of innovation and training at the Chicago Bar Foundation. Through a series of exercises, attendees assessed their own attitudes toward failure, perfection and perseverance, and Bednarz talked about Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s work on “fixed” versus “growth” mindsets.

Lester led a workshop to help participants think about their ideal lives as legal professionals a decade down the road and map out how to reach those goals. Karen Lamprey of Lamprey Law gave attendees tips on building habits to help them take steps toward their goals. Finally, Bruce Campbell, founder and “chief happiness officer” at Blue Dot Advocates in Boulder, shared his own story of finding fulfillment in the legal profession.

A lot of the topics and activities featured at OPLW were inspired by conferences Bednarz and Lester had attended featuring author and motivational speaker Rachel Hollis. Bednarz said that at one of the conferences, a gathering of about 6,000 small business owners, there were only a handful of lawyers. 

As the two friends started thinking about putting on their own workshop, Bednarz said she wondered whether they should create a program specifically for the legal profession or just encourage lawyers to attend more general events like those hosted by Hollis.

“We just didn’t feel like if we did a general [one] it would resonate as much with lawyers,” Bednarz said. “I find, oftentimes, when you’re putting anything together for lawyers, it has to be very tailored to exactly what they’re doing, or they just tune out.”

She said they considered both Denver and Chicago for their first workshop. They went with Denver in part due to costs, but also culture.

“This whole idea of working with purpose and conscious capitalism seems to be bigger in Denver than it is in Chicago,” said Bednarz, who previously lived in Denver and met Lester through the CWBA.

They’re hoping to debut the workshop in the Windy City in the fall, probably late September or early October, Bednarz said, adding they also plan to bring the event back to Denver in early 2021.

Additionally, they are exploring the idea of creating a pared-down program that’s more accessible for law students who otherwise might not commit a full day or have the cash for registration fees.

Lester said they received lots of words of encouragement after their workshop in Denver, and feedback from participant surveys has also been positive.

“I was approaching burn out and looking for inspiration and community with like-minded lawyers,” said comments from one anonymous attendee shared by Lester. “OPLW was like attending a Tony Robbins seminar for the legal profession. I was really energized, motivated, and felt good about things for the first time in a while.” 

—Jessica Folker

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