September 2010 Bar Bulletin
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September 2010 Bar Bulletin

Profile / Karen Summerville

Helping Lawyers Find Success

By Fiona Cox


In 1993, Karen Summerville experienced a “career crisis.” She was a partner at a Seattle law firm that was “going through some very difficult times,” as she put it. She was working excessively long hours and she had a new baby. It was not a situation she relished, so she began asking herself why she was doing it. Now, she recognizes that things just stopped making sense.

What followed was a change that led Summerville to what she calls “a career in something she was born to do.”

Ironically, by working with a career counselor, Summerville identified that what she really wanted to do was to become a career counselor herself. To get clarity, the counselor recommended that Summerville resign from her position at the law firm, so she could really focus on the process.

It was a big step, but Summerville did just that, not really knowing exactly what it was that she was going to do. After about three or four months of researching and networking, she was at a point where she could articulate what she wanted to do, which was to work with other attorneys who were in career transition.

Once Summerville had that clarity, people were able to start pointing her in the right direction and recommended other people she should talk to. One of the most helpful people Summerville spoke to was a woman who had been in the banking industry and, as the banking industry consolidated and contracted, was working with people looking to find new career paths. She was an inspiration for Summerville and confirmed that experience in the legal industry would give her an edge.

In hindsight, Summerville laughs as she remembers that when she was deciding to go to law school, her brother had suggested that it was a waste of time and money; he thought she should go into career counseling instead — that she was a natural. But, Summerville says, she couldn’t do what she does now without having first been an attorney.

Her experience as a lawyer has given her the ability to relate to her clients. She too was once an associate; once a partner. She has been behind those closed doors. She’s seen the legal profession from the inside and, yes, she believes those crazy stories that lawyers come to her with. Without her legal experience, she doesn’t think she would believe them otherwise.

Interestingly, throughout Summerville’s legal career, she’d unknowingly been preparing for a profession in career counseling. She had been on her law firm’s hiring committee and had been involved in some of the associate training. At the time, she just didn’t know that was where she was going. Now she does, and she works with attorneys to help them get there as well — determining what they want to do and helping them find it.

Summerville has worked with more than a thousand attorneys in the last 15 years. Each person is different. From the outside, it might seem hard to identify exactly what the attorney is dissatisfied with or what he or she wants to change, but Summerville has the ability to take in information and distill it. She’s intuitive about it.

Over the years, she has identified and adopted several different assessment tools to help her do this. One such tool requires clients to list their accomplishments. From that list, Summerville can identify whether an attorney is well suited to the practice of law. Another tool evaluates the client’s values — if the attorney’s values are completely inconsistent with the values of his or her practice, then that person probably is not going to be successful there ultimately.

This can be a shock for such clients, who sometimes take this assessment as meaning that they are not smart enough to practice law. But that is not the message at all. The message has nothing to do with intelligence; it’s about the fit and finding something in which the attorney can really be fulfilled.

One of Summerville’s early indicators that she was on the right track with her new career choice was her intense hunger to read anything she could from a career counselor’s perspective on career searches, interview techniques and the like. She studied books on these topics and often was reading up to four of them at a time.

Surprisingly, she found this research more exciting than the reading she did when she was practicing law. Now, she sees that was a clue that it was a good career direction for her. And she applies that lesson in her counseling. She tells people that if they’re not willing to read about it, then maybe it’s not the right choice.

For example, she once had a client who wanted to transition from the prosecutor’s office into a private firm to do civil litigation, and she didn’t have a writing sample because she’d never really written anything. So, Summerville suggested she might want to volunteer to get a writing sample. But the client really resisted. Summerville then asked her if she liked to write and the client really wasn’t sure. When she got a job at a private law firm, she didn’t last long because it turned out that she didn’t like to write. Summerville knew just from the look on her face and her body language that it wasn’t the right fit.

A point Summerville really likes to emphasize is the difference between skills and talents and how they affect our ability to enjoy the work we are doing. Skills are learned. We are born with talent.

The people who are most unhappy are those whose work life draws only from their skills and not their talents. Such people typically are tired in an exhausted kind of way; not in the way they are when they’ve had a good physical workout — they just don’t have any energy for anything at the end of the day.

By looking at her own path, Summerville can talk to attorneys about instances in their pasts that might have pointed them in another direction. This is where Summerville’s own experiences as a practicing attorney give her the ability to empathize with her clients.

Sometimes we forget what really got our fires burning. For example, it wasn’t until Summerville had established herself as a career counselor that she ran across a forgotten article she had written and published as a liaison for the ABA’s section on law office management while she was in law school. The article was on résumés and hiring practices in the legal profession. The writing had been on the wall, so to speak, but she hadn’t put it all together until the “career crisis” hit.

Summerville’s goal is to assist attorneys in uncovering what they were born to do, but might not see for themselves. Together they develop a strategy. She wants them to know there’s someone to guide them through the process and to see that it is a process.

In some cases, it’s a process of elimination, because people have an idea of what they want to do, but there may be unforeseen roadblocks. When they can set those aside, they can move forward. In other cases, what they thought they wanted to do isn’t something that they really want to do now, so they can set that aside and go on to do something else.

Many attorneys tell Summerville that they want to leave the practice of law, but when they determine that the compensation in other fields is not comparable, they decide to continue practicing law — not because they want to, but because they feel as though they have to. In those situations, Summerville’s role is to help them find a way to practice law that will be better suited to them, with a plan toward becoming less dependent on the income, so they can eventually leave and pursue something more satisfying.

Summerville has sympathy for people who feel financially stuck in the practice of law. Usually there is a way that they can pursue something else and make it work financially. But sometimes it takes considerable determination and creativity. We might have to think in a non-linear way and law school doesn’t train us for that.

One solution to career dissatisfaction might be as simple as choosing a different practice area. Many attorneys have approached Summerville thinking they wanted to leave the practice of law, only to change their practice area and realize that they really do like practicing law — they were just in the wrong practice area and/or environment.

For Summerville, who turned her own “career crisis” into a career opportunity, helping others do the same makes a lot of sense.

Fiona Cox practices nonprofit law and is a pro bono attorney for the Northwest Justice Project’s Home Foreclosure Legal Aid Project. She is also on the board of her family’s foundation. She can be reached at


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