Estie Dallett, Negotiator: From Insurance Claims to Incorrigible Canines

EstieDalletNot a dolphin trainer, or a rock star, or a ballerina, when Estie Dallett was eight, she recognized herself as a balance-seeking Libra and wanted to be a judge when she grew up. To become a judge, she first had to be a lawyer. “I was very academically oriented, and I knew from an early age that the expectation in my family was that I would go to an Ivy League school, like my siblings before me,” Her father, a long-time archivist at the University of Pennsylvania made this expectation clear.

She did not disappoint. From the prestigious Maderia School in Virginia, Estie moved on to Harvard College and Harvard Law School. She secured a clerkship and then a position as an associate at one of Washington, DC’s oldest “Big Law” firms, only pausing before law school to teach English in Africa for a year – a detour she says her father didn’t understand.

Once an attorney, Estie forged ahead, working long hours and moving up the ranks. But she rarely even had the time to think about whether the work she was doing was what she really wanted to do and found herself too drained to seek a vibrant social life. “I was doing insurance law, and I started thinking to myself. ‘Is this what I wanted to do when I was little? Work all the time and help Fortune 500 companies that already had money get more from their insurers?’”

The years rolled by and Estie continued to trudge away at the firm. She was approaching 40, single, and miserable in a relentless legal environment. “I knew I wasn’t happy but I didn’t know what to do about it. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I never wanted to be an insurance lawyer, and yet, here I was almost two decades into my career as one.”

In the back of her head, her father’s voice was still assuring her that she was on the right path. This was a stable, respectable and appropriate job for a Harvard grad. But her mother’s voice was creeping in and slowly taking over — she had studied zoology at Vassar and had always shared her love of animals with her daughter. As a child, Estie had lived in a rural area and had once dreamed of being a vet. Her dread of the office grew and Estie began wondering whether she might be able to have a career working with animals.

During her last years at the law firm, the unofficial motto of her prep school, “function in disaster, finish in style” was haunting Estie. She felt that’s what she was doing – she had become Counsel at her firm, but she was still existing at the beck-and-call of urgent client commands, just functioning, not thriving, not really living. For a year or so, she experimented with teaching law but she couldn’t reconcile her own personal feelings about the field: “I would walk into my torts and legal writing classes at the University of Maryland, knowing students were graduating with plenty of debt and worsening job prospects and all I really wanted to do was shake them and shout, ‘Why are you here?’”

So she began preparing for a change. She pulled back on the contributions to her 401K so she would have more cash on hand and stopped spending money on almost anything except the bare necessities. She ate lots of rice and beans and didn’t buy any new clothes for over a year. “Michele Singletary’s column on money and budgeting in The Washington Post became my go-to source for figuring out a financial path to change.” And perhaps most importantly, she came to terms with the fact that, if all else failed, with two dogs but no partner or children depending on her for support, she could sell her house and downsize her life. “I loved my house, and when I realized that I would rather lose it than stay in law, there was no turning back.”

In July of 2007, Estie’s father died, and – as so often happens with a significant life event – it catalyzed the need for change. One year and one day after his death, she left the law firm. As a “recovering lawyer,” she slept late for weeks, but also began an apprenticeship with internationally acclaimed dog trainer Pat Miller, who is known for reward-based positive reinforcement training — a method that is force- and pain-free. This method generously and frequently rewards as many “right choices” as possible, instead of punishing occasional wrong ones.

Estie realized that reward-based teaching is radically different from old-fashioned punishment-based teaching and techniques that are even today applied not only in choke-chain “corrections” of dogs, but also in schools, businesses, and even law firms worldwide. Considering the punishment-based phenomenon of “learned helplessness,” Estie said it felt as if “that’s what being a lawyer had done to me.”

In 2011, Estie opened Civil Dogobedience, LLC, a dog training and behavior modification business committed to applying the rewarding techniques she learned from Pat Miller. Now, instead of negotiating settlements of multi-million-dollar insurance claims, Estie mediates conflicts between dogs and their people, helping them to live more calmly and comfortably together. Regrets? “Are you kidding? None, zero. Ok, I take that back. I miss having a dedicated paralegal to do my paper work.”

“My goal is now leading a life where I have enough to eat, and I have time to pay attention to the things I care about.”

And in a somewhat fairytale ending for Estie, pursuing her true path also led her to love. In 2008, after taking the leap to leave the law firm, Estie met her new husband, and his dog, at a local dog park.

Questions?

Did family pressure play a role in the career you ultimately chose?

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