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.