How One Lawyer Realized Her Passion and Swapped the Court for the Living Room
You spent your 20s working toward building your dream career, but now that you're in your 30s, what do you do when you've, well, changed your mind? Or maybe you never quite figured it out, and you're now ready to commit to something you're passionate about, whether it's a job, a city, or just a new way of life. To celebrate the career changes that can come at any age, we're debuting a new series called Second Life. Each week, we'll hear from women who got over their doubts and fears and made the biggest changes of their lives.
Do you remember being a child and thinking you could be anything you wanted? Your dreams felt like real life, and it seemed like anything was possible. At what stage in our development did that self-belief end? I often wonder that myself, because at some point along the way, many of us push our imagination aside and swap passion for a steady paycheck. We let fear take hold, and we become risk averse. Such was the case for Carly Waters.
For years, Waters was a practicing family law attorney, but she knew deep down that it wasn't the right path, and she longed for something that would fire up her creative spirit. So in 2014, with a 1-year-old baby, Waters left law and launched her own full-service residential design firm, Carly Waters Style. She's still servicing clients, but this time she swapped the courtroom for the living room and more. And yes, designing interiors is way more fun than writing legal briefs. For the next installment of our Second Life series, Waters shares the story behind her big career change, how she got over her doubts, and what you really need to take the leap yourself.
MYDOMAINE: Tell us about your first career path.
CARLY WATERS: I started my career as a family law attorney in San Francisco after attending UC Hastings Law School (I graduated in 2010). I knew I wanted to help people (my father is an immigration attorney), and I thought that family law would be the perfect fit. Turns out, I landed in the most litigious, emotionally charged areas of the law—divorce and custody. I worked with high-net-worth clients who rarely wanted to mediate.
On the flip side, the firm I started with was amazing—they were women-owned, allowed new moms to work four times per week, and had reasonable billable hours (as a lawyer, most firms require a certain number of billable hours per month). I had great mentors and jumped in head-first. I even started a networking group to meet other young attorneys.
MD: How did you make the transition from law to design/organization?
CW: In 2014, when my son turned 1, we moved from San Francisco to L.A. During that transition, I finally had time to reflect and think about where I saw myself going over the next 10 years. I had my "aha" moment when I realized that I didn't want to be my boss and didn't aspire to grow into her role. When you're a go-getter and you don't want to climb up the ladder, something's up.
At that point, I hired a coach to assist me in making the transition out of law and into interior design and organization (something I always saw just as a hobby). I spent the next few months creating budget spreadsheets, marketing, and networking.
It is terrifying to leave a well-paying, stable job for the unknown. I focused on the friends/colleagues who could help me stay positive and tried to ignore the naysayers.
MD: Tell us about your current career path/business.
CW: Throughout my 20s and during law school, I organized for clients on the side. Since I already had experience organizing, I started my business primarily as an interior organizer. It wasn't until we purchased and remodeled our first home that I expanded into design. Today, my business is a full-service interior design business that merges organization with design. We work with our clients to design spaces that are both beautiful and efficient.
MD: What have been the biggest challenges in your many careers and why?
CW: I like to look at my career path as a journey, not as a trip. I collect information and wisdom with every new experience. The skills translate from one industry to the next. That being said, sometimes it can feel overwhelming and difficult to gain traction. The biggest challenge at first was feeling like I was faking it. Since I had never been to school for interior design nor held any credentials, I wondered whether anyone would take me seriously. Fortunately, clients saw my talent and never questioned my abilities.
Another big challenge at the beginning was finding a community in a brand-new field, specifically in a field that doesn't provide much overlap with others. We are all working with clients, but there are few opportunities for collaboration. Luckily, I tapped into my skills and networked (and utilized Instagram). I now have a great networking group that meets monthly on Skype, and then a few good friends in the industry who have been key to my success.
MD: What triggered your need to change this time around?
CW: I felt lackluster about what I was doing. As a naturally passionate person, I wanted to feel that urge to learn, research, and succeed. I didn't have that with the law. Once I started tuning into what I was passionate about and looking at how I spent all my free time, a light bulb went off. But it wasn't that simple, as that light bulb flickered a lot in the beginning. Every time I spoke to a friend or family member who questioned my decision, I questioned my decision too. I'm a people pleaser, and when you're doing something that doesn't please people, you question your decision. Again, I credit my coach for helping me through a lot of that early anxiety and fear.
MD: Why is your current path suitable for your personality?
CW: Ironically, I wrote my law school essay about my desire to merge my right brain and left brain. While that essay got me into law school, the reality is that law didn't engage my creative side at all. With my current career path, I'm able to utilize my analytical skills, my business acumen, and my creativity all at once. I'm also an extroverted person so I tend to love client work—and getting to build those personal relationships every day.
I like to look at my career path as a journey, not as a trip.
MD: What's the most important thing you have learned in making a big change in your career life?
CW: The most important thing I have learned is to listen to your gut and to follow your intuition. You know whether something feels right—no one else has to spend the next 30-plus years going into that office. If you know deep down that you're in the wrong job, listen to that voice, and try to make a change. If you meet a client and something feels off, don't take that client. Nine times out of 10, your gut is right.
MD: How did you move past the fear of change to pursue your passion?
CW: Not easily. I'm a type-A, risk-averse person who decided her path early on and followed it. Unfortunately, my path took me to a dead end emotionally. I spent months preparing myself mentally for the change and took any tangible steps I could (remember how I mentioned budget spreadsheets? It is terrifying to leave a well-paying, stable job for the unknown. I focused on the friends/colleagues who could help me stay positive and tried to ignore the naysayers).
MD: What are some mistakes you made along the way that ended up helping your success?
CW: The biggest mistakes I made happened during my own home remodel. At the time, my organization business was thriving, but I was feeling like something was missing from the business. I knew I had more to offer, and I needed to start marketing my design abilities. The problem was that I had no portfolio. My solution? Purchase a house that I could completely overhaul and use it as my portfolio piece.
While I had the design vision, I lacked construction experience. Luckily, when you are your own client, you can make mistakes. I managed my renovation entirely from hiring subs to creating floor plans to making decisions about lighting, plumbing and everything in between—it was like three years of design school rolled up into three months. In the end, my mistakes cost me money (think change orders), but at least it was my money, not a client's.
MD: What do you love most about your current role and why?
CW: I love that it's mine. Every success and failure is attributed to me. As a control freak, running my own business brings me a lot of joy. I also love that I am utilizing my greatest strength—space planning. I love that I get to walk into old, run-down houses and help clients bring them back to life. I utilize the analytical side of my brain as I rework layouts and the creative side as I choose the finishes.
MD: When you look back and reflect on your previous career, do you have any regrets? Or are you still really happy with your decision?
CW: Look, my life would have been a lot easier if I knew I wanted to be a designer at age 18. That being said, career paths are rarely linear, and everyone's path is different. Law and design are both client-based industries, and I often utilize the skills I learned as an attorney in my current role—client management, business generation, and problem-solving.
Have you taken the leap to turn your passion into a business? What was it like? What challenges did you find along the way? Share your story with us below. We'd love to hear from you.