Choose Living Over Lawyering

On my first day in law school, I listened to a speech by the school’s dean. I remember only two things from his speech: that he was wearing a green sports coat, as if he had just won the Master’s Tournament; and he used the word “guff” a lot, as in “You better not give the administration any guff.” He kept saying it over and over again, as if he were a warden of a youth offender center and we were a bunch of delinquents who had been busted for stealing hubcaps. Nothing about the curriculum. Nothing about the law. Nothing about the life of a lawyer. Nothing about the contributions we as lawyers could make to society.

Just one thing mattered above all: we weren’t supposed to give him any “guff.” And, if we were thinking of giving guff, we better quit that idea right now.


What is this? I thought. We’re about to become lawyers, officers of the court, serious professionals with serious responsibilities. Where’s the sage advice about how to become a superior practitioner of the law? Where are the wise words about how not to quit when the going gets tough? Where is the reminder about how noble this profession of law is? Answer: nowhere to be found. Instead, a man who appears to be a retired golfer is lecturing us on etiquette. It was like a Saturday Night Live skit. And, when I wasn’t laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, I was crying inside, knowing that I had made a really bad career choice. I knew it that quickly.

So, why didn’t I quit? I convinced myself I wasn’t a quitter. Also, I told myself that I believed in the ideals of the law, lawyering and the legal profession. I believed in the ideal that to be a lawyer meant you were someone who made sure that the rules of society were upheld so that the weak were protected, the wronged were made whole, and the wicked were punished. But, mostly, I didn’t quit because I didn’t know what else I was going to do.

How did I end up in that place? How did I find myself in law school? Like so many other lawyers, I went to law school because the sands of time ran out on my college career, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. When your choice is law school on the one hand and a big fat question mark on the other, it’s not hard to pick law school.

And, when you become that kind of lawyer — the kind who chooses law because he or she is simply swept along by the currents of his or her own indecisiveness and lack of creativity — the result is inevitable. You will not be happy as a lawyer. You will not experience passion and excitement and enthusiasm as you go about your duties as lawyer. No, you will always feel put-upon, as if the briefs you’ve been assigned were given to you as a form of punishment. You will always feel as if everyone gets it while you don’t. You will not look upon depositions with anticipation, eager to match wits with the deponent and obtain needed testimony, but with dread, scared that this is your opportunity to mess up the case. You will always marvel at the fact that people stupider than you are doing better. And, it will drive you bananas, except in those moments when you’re: (a) filled with rage and resentment that you have to work so hard at something you detest; (b) filled with desperation and depression that the law is your life and it will never cease being so; or (c) fearful that you’re about to get canned.

So, why didn’t I quit then? Two reasons. First, the money. The necessary evil. Money will cause you to willingly forfeit happiness for a good salary and benefits. Worse still, you will rationalize and tell yourself that the money and benefits provide “other forms” of happiness, even as you stare at the strippers and the expensive booze and feel empty inside. If you doubt that, just remember that when the Buddha speaks of true enlightenment, it’s not swinging from a pole, dispensing jello shots from its cleavage or assuring you that you’re not the first person to cry about your ex-girlfriend in the champagne room.

Second, you don’t quit because in our society, your job equals your identity. The first thing people want to know is “what do you do?” And, you can’t answer by saying, “I wake up, watch t.v., and eat breakfast.” You gotta have a “respectable” job. No woman’s parents ever dreamed of her daughter marrying the guy who stuffs envelopes at the non-profit. The parents may hate lawyers, but they hate worse the idea that their daughter will marry a broke, uneducated bozo.

Ultimately, any small moments of satisfaction and joy you can find in a job well done will disappear and you will find yourself staring up from the bottom of the abyss. This feeling is so pervasive amongst lawyers that bar associations across the country have set up suicide hotlines. When you call, they say: “What took you so long?”

You may, at this point, begin therapy. I know I did. And, after a good deal of work with my therapist, I got a gold star. I got engaged to my ex-girlfriend while I was dating someone new, and my therapist gave me a gold star saying, “You win, that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.”

If you’re smart (smarter than me), this is when you realize it’s time to make a change. If you’re not so smart (see, e.g., me), this is when someone else realizes it’s time for you to make a change — i.e., this is when you get fired. Believe me, I know. I’ve been fired and/or laid off from 4 law firms. So, I know. I know all too well.

But, why subject yourself to such pain and misery? Why not “live each day as if it were your last?” Why not go do what you’re really passionate about, that thing you would do if money were no object? I’ll tell you why. It’s the same reason you chose law school in the first place — fear.

But, living a life of fear is no life at all. So, don’t be afraid. Let go of the safety bar. Figure out what you really love and go do that — NOW! You wouldn’t stand for anyone else wasting your time so why stand by timidly while you waste your own?

It’s the most life-affirming thing you can do. Ask any person who’s made the leap, and they’ll tell you — best thing I did was to leave the law. Do they miss the money? Sure, sometimes. Who doesn’t want money? To quote David Mamet, “Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it money.”

But, I have news. If you loved money that much, you’d be a banker, not a lawyer. So you already know that money isn’t the most important thing in the world to you. In addition, if you do what you love the money will follow. I guarantee it. I’m living proof of that. I’m making money as a comic. It’s not partner-at-Wall-Street-law-firm-money. But, it’s money. And, it keeps getting better.

Is it easy to do this? No. It’s not. When I decided to turn my back on the law and become a stand-up comic, I had to go back to square one. I had been a partner in a law firm, 14 years of private practice under my belt, and I went back to the beginning. And, I can tell you that as bad as law school was, beginning a career as a comic is far less glamorous. Comics are crazy and so is the world of comedy. People treat comedics with disrespect and disdain. Big comedy clubs do not vie for young comics to the tune of $150K starting salary. There is no health insurance. There is no 401(k). There is no partnership track. There is no equivalent to the Am Law 100 tracking the bundles of money made by young comics.

But, there is the satisfaction of waking up each day knowing that the partner who used to circle the halls peeking into each office in my law firm to make sure we hadn’t escaped — as if he was the Commandant of Stalag 17 — isn’t in my life. Same goes for the other partner who said that if I insisted on going to synagogue on Saturday mornings, he better be able to reach me during those few hours, even if it meant I had to leave services and take his call in the bathroom. It’s the satisfaction that I don’t have to ruin yet another weekend slaving away over a brief that no one will read. It’s the satisfaction of knowing I’m doing something I really want to do, not something that I think other people think I should be doing. It’s the satisfaction of not having to give free legal advice to crazy relatives and friends of friends who want to know what to do now that their landlord found out they have a collection of scorpions, tarantulas, and poisonous snakes.

And, best of all, I now get paid by lawyers to perform at their bar associations and law firm functions to bring a little joy into their sad miserable lives. I love that part. Because I feel their pain . . . and I get to make fun of it. Whaddya know? After all that, I get to give some guff.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rdphotography/764604799/)

Law School, Legal Careers

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  • Anon

    After reading this, one has to wonder why you’ve chosen to become a contributor to the Lawyerist?

    • http://houchinlaw.com Kevin Houchin

      Because if one is not practicing law because one is motivated intrinsically to do the work, one should get out and do something else because unhappy, bitter lawyers are not helping anyone and squandering an opportunity to enjoy their lives and contribute their gifts.

      Examine why you do what you do. If it doesn’t feed your spirit, go do work that does. It’s an important concept that we are NOT taught in law school, college, high school or elementary.

      Thanks for sharing this Alex.

      • http://www.alexbarnettcomic.com Alex Barnett

        Kevin: Thanks for your insightful comment. I agree completely. I have friends who love practicing law. And, I think this is great! Their lives are very fulfilling, and the profession is much the better for having practitioners who actually want to do what they are doing. My hope in sharing my story is to reach out to those who have already been downsized or who are feeling unfulfilled and find themselves lost or too scared to act I want them to know that they are not alone and that they should not be afraid to be bold.

        All the best to you and thanks so much for writing in and continuing the conversation.

  • http://www.coyelaw.com Wade Coye

    It’s trial and error. You’ve got to work out the best and worst of it.

  • MattDev

    Nice post, Wade – I completely agree. Not everything in life can be perfect.

  • Anonymous

    Great post. I’m certain that I don’t like the law and don’t want to continue to be an attorney. However, I’m glad I got a chance to start my own solo practice. It has allowed me to discover that I really love being an entrepreneur. Am in the process of figuring out a more suitable career path that capitalizes on my newly discovered passion. Will use your post as motivation to get ‘er done.

  • Meredith

    Nice article. Actually made me chuckle out loud a few times. I share many of the sentiments expressed and would love to get out of the law and do something different. More easily said than done (and I probably know at least a dozen attorneys who feel the same way). A couple things that make the law not so dreadful: (1) I am able to pay back the mountains of debt acquired by law school (a law school that did actually preach all the things they are supposed to unlike the one described above, but they still cost me a bloody fortune); (2) I work at a good firm with nice people who are incredibly supportive and expect you to have a life outside the office. If you work with the right people, it ain’t so bad.; and (3) my clients aren’t all faceless corporations and most of them are very appreciative of my efforts to help them with their struggle through the legal process. Having face time with non-lawyers who need your help is a good reminder that its not all billable hours, partner politics, and, most importantly, its not all about me. It’s very easy to be miserable in the legal world and just reminding yourself that there are everyday people out there counting on you makes the brief writing and other legal tasks seem less like chores and – while not exactly fun – rewarding in other ways. So, yeah, I hate being a lawyer, but it has gotten better since finding the right firm and until I hit upon that career I ought to be having, I’m going to make the best of it.

  • http://abramsonlegal.com/2009/07/splash/ Fred Abramson

    Alex, congrats on having the courage of pursuing your dream despite the investment that you made becoming a lawyer.

    I never worked for a law firm, started my own practice the day I was admitted to practice. Never once did a partner dump a brief on me.

    I am picky about choosing cases and only deal with clients that I like. I charge more than the average NYC lawyer. I leave my office everyday no later that 5:45, unless I go to an industry event, which I enjoy. I have the flexibility to take time off whenever my kids get sick. I spend half the day trying to help other people, taking them to lunch, meeting up with them for coffee. In other words, I choose a lifestyle over maximizing the amount of money I could make in a given day.

    You made a lifestyle choice as well. Just wondering if you could have had the “best of both worlds” by creating your own law firm while at the same time pursuing your comic career.

    FYI, I went to Wheatley.

    • http://www.alexbarnettcomic.com Alex Barnett

      Fred:

      I remember you! Small world.

      So glad that you’ve created such a great life for yourself where you’re able to accommodate life and work. That’s fantastic and a model for all! I wish you much continued success!

      It’s true that different experiences in the law might’ve made my career more palatable and exciting. However, at this point, I look back with little regret. I’ve found a path I find immensely rewarding and that is getting more so all the time.

      We all must find our own path. My only hope is to help those who’ve come to a bump or fork or complete dead-stop in the road in their legal careers and now must figure out “what’s next?”

  • Simon

    Dude, this is the most honest (and best) blog post about law that I’ve ever read!

    • http://www.alexbarnettcomic.com Alex Barnett

      Simon: I’m glad you enjoyed the post. One thing I’ve learned as a comic is that honesty — opening up, being vulnerable — is the best way to really connect with people. So, I’m glad you felt my post was honest. It was. It was written from my heart and that is what I will do with all posts going forward. My hope is that these posts will resonate with readers and will help them in some way. If this post helped you (even if only by giving you a chuckle or giving you some food for thought), then I am so very glad. I wish you the best and much success and happinessl.

  • Anon

    Alex,

    I came across your posting while studying for another bar
    exam. I am on my fourth. I had so much fun studying for the first three, I
    figured I would study for another one. Hell, the pace I’m on, I should have the
    entire country (and Puerto Rico) covered at some point. And each time, a little
    piece of me dies . . . .

    Anyway, I got a great couple of laughs out of your story. So
    very true. I’m still trying to figure out what I was really meant to do with my
    life.

    Best of luck on your comedy career.

    Anonymous, Esq.

  • Anonymous

    Alex,
    I really appreciate the honesty. Although I haven’t yet become a lawyer, you’ve echoed most of my thoughts on the law school matter. A week ago, I was starting law school at a top 20 school. After the first day of orientation, I deferred my enrollment for a year and left to go work in a winery for a few months. The thing that I’ve been grappling with is that I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer. For years, I’ve thought of the law as a righteous institution and that notion motivated me to work towards law school. In the last two years, I’ve completely lost that feeling and now I am afraid of becoming something I don’t believe in. At orientation I encountered a few lawyers and judges who believe they are instruments of justice and these individuals seemed to be in denial, as if they were trying to convince themselves of something. I’m not sure of what I am meant to be/ do so maybe I will have to go to Law School until I figure it out. I just don’t know if I can regain the feeling that the law is morally good.

  • Paul Law

    I stumbled across this website after Googling, “I hate being a lawyer.”

    I hate being a lawyer almost as much as I hate lawyers. I cope by running 25-30 miles a week. I also eat Xanax at night to sleep. Otherwise, I would grow a mustache, gain 40 pounds of belly fat and punch people in the throat.

  • Laura

    I simply adore this post. I plan on showing this to all my friends and family who look at me like I have suddenly sprouted a second row of teeth or have just confessed that I lead a double life as a bath salt dealing prostitute when I explain for the millionth time why I choose not to practice law.
    The thought of spending my days writing briefs, ticking away billable hours, and dealing with the inability to be unavailable to my employer makes me literally want to hide under the covers.

  • anonymous

    This was great–I paused a few times and thought–wait, did I write this? That’s how well it resonated with me. The only problem is everyone says “follow your dreams” but I’m not sure what I’d do. All I know is that I don’t like doing what I’m doing. I’ve worked at a large white shoe firm; headed a legal department at a prestigious corporation; worked at a midsize law firm…. yet, inspiration hasn’t hit me. I guess I lack creativity–which led me to choose law in the first place… actually, that’s not true. What I really want to do is nothing. I just want to socialize. I guess salesmen are paid to socialize… or a drug rep pushing drugs on doctors… but those don’t sound too fun…