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A Mid-Life Pivot from Lawyer to Baker

By Maridel Reyes

  • PUBLISHED May 03
  • |

Rebecca Miller never planned to leave her job as an attorney. She had a stable $115,000-year position that allowed her to work from home in Columbia, MO. And unlike other lawyers she knew, her hours were more reasonable and she felt that she had more freedom than some of her peers. The problem? “There was nothing remotely interesting or compelling about it,” she recalls.
So when her mother, Jean, floated the idea of reopening her successful bakery after a 10-year hiatus, Miller jumped at the opportunity, initially assuming it was possible to juggle her day job and the new business venture. “I really thought I would be a lawyer-slash-pie baker and I would be awesome at both,” she says with a laugh.
After raising $10,000 through crowdfunding, the mother-daughter duo opened the doors to their Columbia-based bakery called Peggy Jean’s Pies five years ago, deploying grandma’s pie crust recipe as their secret weapon.
They couldn’t afford to hire anyone, so they did everything, from baking until 4 a.m. to clean up to social media. After six weeks, Miller realized she couldn’t do it all: “I was trying to keep my law clients. I was trying to be at the store. I was failing everywhere. Even my dog was like, ‘Really?!’”
But even though she was bone-tired at the bakery, she couldn’t shake a curious feeling: “I thought, wait a second, I’m happy in here.” She had never experienced that kind of fulfillment or contentment in her legal career. “Obviously this is where I needed to be, it just took a while to get here.”
She told her husband that in order to keep the bakery afloat, she would have to quit her law job—something they hadn’t planned or saved for. “The color drained from his face,” she recalls. “He actually turned green and sort of freaked out.” 
The couple had a healthy emergency fund, retirement accounts and no credit card debt. They took a hard look at their budget to see what was possible. Miller knew she had to reign in her spending. “Before I had the business, I shopped a lot,” she says. “Our kids always had a lot of clothes and toys and stuff they certainly didn't ‘need,’ our home had lots of décor, and me and my husband enjoyed things like spa treatments.” They started to set limits on how much they’d spend on things like fall clothes, cut out any spending on non-necessities and began diligently tracking their grocery and restaurant spending. 
Making Adjustments
People always ask Miller the same question: “How were you so brave to quit everything?”
“The first year was rough on all of us,” she says. “We worked constantly.” She went from working from home, managing the household and being always accessible to her kids to being at the bakery all day.
Her family of four was able to rely on her husband’s healthcare benefits after Miller quit her law job. And while their lifestyle didn’t change dramatically—they didn’t have to move or sell a car—they had to be more careful with their spending. “It felt awkward,” Miller recalls. “I had always worked. We never had a marriage where it relied on one paycheck. I wasn’t used to it. And it made him feel pressure, too. It took us awhile to adjust.”
The bakery lost money the first year in business. Miller stopped shopping for anything except the family’s necessities. She didn’t have the time or the money anymore, but didn’t miss it. “I don’t have that compulsion now because I’m not bored. I’m focused,” she says. 
The family also saved money by skipping their annual vacation that year. “My kids were like, ‘The shop is ruining our lives.’” But one day, she saw that her son had put her on the cover of a mock magazine for a school report about all she had achieved with the bakery. “I burst into ugly tears. He talks about the bakeshop all the time.”
A New Career Path
Miller doesn’t miss being an attorney, because she uses many of the same skills running the bakery. She handles lease negotiations and, when terms for a business deal don’t seem fair, she is a trained and able negotiator. Her background also helps her take the long view when it comes to growing her business.
What she didn’t expect was what the shop would teach her about balancing the books—at work and at home. She had to adjust from her previous money mindset of never really thinking about cash flow. For the first three months, Miller didn’t keep track of the bakery’s profits and losses, until the checks started bouncing. She went to an accountant and learned how to use accounting software. At home, she started having Sunday meetings with her husband to talk about their finances. 
Five years later, Peggy Jean’s Pies is a fixture in the community, employs 10 people and is expanding into a bigger space. “It is one the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Miller says. “Our company has grown tremendously. And I’m so happy. As it turns out, being a lawyer was just a waiting line to give me the skills I need to be an entrepreneur.”

Maridel Reyes is a journalist based in New York. Her work has appeared in Forbes, Bloomberg Businessweek, the New York Post, USA Today and the Boston Globe.
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