Four North Sounders Left Established Careers to Follow Their Hearts

This is not a midlife crisis, or the result of a few bad days—or months—at work. A second act is one deliberately made, one that requires a plan to realize a long-held dream of a different career or a different life. It usually means financial risk, a giant leap from the safety and security of a job that you’ve trained for and worked toward for years, one in which you are probably an expert.

Bellingham’s Russ Kendall and Doug Robertson, along with Orcas Island’s Audra Lawlor and Susan Soltes of Bow, are each on their second acts. A second act takes chutzpah, because it’s a leap into the uncertain. It takes passion and confidence and stubbornness, people who support you, and sometimes ignoring others who say you are crazy. We thought it would be a good idea for them to tell what led to the leap, and how it’s playing out now. Here, in their own words, are their stories. –Meri-Jo Borzilleri

From Courtroom to Classroom

Every year our family goes on a New Year’s Day hike. The tradition started as a way to share family time when our kids were young. We wanted it to be an activity where we’d reflect on the old and look ahead to the new.

As the kids got older, I would muse that I wanted to do more with my life. And on one of those hikes, I came to the conclusion that I should pursue teaching—a career I’d always been interested in, but passed over for law. Even the idea of moving from law to teaching was terrifying: giving up a decades-long career into which I had poured my heart and soul; leaving my partners, who had become some of my best friends and greatest mentors; learning an entirely new profession; and, most practically, taking an enormous pay cut.

So why change? As my kids grew up and out of the house, I realized that the days behind me were beginning to outnumber the days in front of me. The law was getting to be more administrative than I liked. It is, and has been, an “all-in game,” with 60- and 70-hour weeks the norm. I simply wanted more out of life and in my mid-50s, it was now or never.

Leaving my practice would be hard. Teaching is a challenging profession and I wanted to have a strong foundation before embarking on this new adventure. I had to plan and execute the change over a number of years. I told my law partners a few years in advance so we could plan together. My first transition year, I re-took classes at Whatcom Community College—ones I had already passed as a college student decades ago—to get up to date as I wound my practice down, reliving the horror of studying on Sundays again. For my second transition year, I attended Western Washington University’s College of Education, taking the classes necessary to obtain a state teaching certificate. I was fortunate to be offered an adjunct position at WCC.

I have been teaching now for three years in both political science and economics. I love it. Teaching is hard! Just like good comedy, it is not the just the content, but the delivery. How do I convey federalism, the velocity of money, or current political polarization in a manner that engages and motivates the students to want to learn? At 8 a.m.? To a bunch of 17- to 22-year-olds who go to bed at 2 a.m.? It’s a daily challenge: it forces me to be a more thoughtful communicator and thinker.

Yes, I still get up early and dedicate long hours to “work.” But now it’s to prep for class, research for content and lectures, to grade tests and papers, and to work, one-on-one, with students. But even though my days are still long, I revel in my second career. Every day is a new opportunity to engage one more student. Seeing the moment when students realize they want to learn how to learn, that “aha moment,” is a better reward than any paycheck.

Doug Robertson is an adjunct professor teaching political science and economics at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham. His Act One was working as an attorney at Belcher/Swanson Law Firm in Bellingham.


Continue reading our feature on Second Acts here.

"It's a daily challenge: it forces me to be a more thoughtful communicator and thinker."