“Did I tell you about Jen?” Laura said to me with a huge grin.
“No. Jen from your old firm?” I asked.
“Yes. She got out!”
Out, as we both understood without saying, meant out of the profession. We are lawyers. Or former lawyers, rather, now that Jen and Laura had both successfully left the practice of law. I had been trying to get out for years, but had not yet been able to.
“That’s awesome,” I said, smiling back. Laura proceeded to give me the details about Jen’s successful leap to start a new career. I was truly happy for Jen, but a cloud of envy consumed me. It is really hard to leave our profession and I desperately wanted to get out. It may seem as easy as quitting and starting a new job, but it is much more difficult than most realize.
It goes without saying that lawyers work hard to make it in the profession. After earning an undergraduate degree, we continue on to law school and then the bar exam, both of which are grueling and humbling experiences. The same can be said about the practice of law in general. For women, it can even be demoralizing. I salute any female lawyer who disagrees with this characterization. Either she has an uncanny ability to rise above it, or she is just plain in denial about the unequal gender status that palpably exists in our profession.
Women attorneys slog it out for years trying to be accepted into the proverbial “ol’ boys’ club,” and after finally passing the bar exam and crossing the threshold of state licensure, we get in. We push ourselves through the hard work, the all-nighters, the endless reading of statutes, cases and treatises, the overcoming of nerves and anxiety about speaking in public, the constant drive to make an argument soundly and eloquently, and we even find a way to endure the tongue-lashing, venomous professors and colleagues. It all finally pays off. Inspired by the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis and Thomas More, we charge forward into the stream to fight for the rule of law and justice for all.
Then reality sets in. We made it into the ol’ boys’ club, but the ol’ boys – the lawyers who have been practicing for decades and are supposed to be our mentors, guiding the next generation of legal minds – proceed to do everything in their power to jam our inferior status down our throats. Some of this treatment is subtle. Much of it is blatant. For many women in the profession, this treatment continues long after they have years of experience. It turns out, the ol’ boys would rather point out our lesser degree of experience and shame us for it than mentor us. Are they threatened by youth and its inevitable spurring of change? Are they afraid that women will weaken the perceived higher status of the profession? Or do they do this because they believe it is what was done to them, like some kind of rite of passage?
At first it is perplexing. Later, it just gets boring. We are smart enough to recognize that nothing beneficial is gained by the profession from this foolish game. We lose respect for the ol’ boys because their hypocrisy outshines their intellect and reason. Before long, we downright resent them. But the greatest injustice after years of trying to make it in the profession and eventually losing ourselves as we conform to be one of them, is that the last spark of creativity and passion that we once had for our profession is extinguished. It dies.
I have continued to practice law for years after my spark died. I am not saying this happens to everyone. I am quite certain it doesn’t. It is, however, what I experienced and has been the experience of so many others. I feel lucky to recognize it, which is why I made the decision to get out. Although I made that decision a few years ago, I am still trying to leave.
I am able to now see that I initially made the decision to leave the practice of law for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to leave just to get out rather than leave to do something I really wanted. I just wanted to be done. Trying to leave under those terms was entirely ineffective. I had no plan and no idea of what I wanted to do for a new career. For many months I worked on my resume and searched job postings in just about any area that sounded interesting. I applied to jobs, customizing my resume and cover letter to suit each job’s field hoping something would stick. Not surprisingly, nothing did. I’m sure my lack of direction was evident to every prospective employer I contacted. Aimlessly grasping at straws for a way out only resulted in getting nowhere. It also resulted in the build-up of a paralyzing fear about leaving my profession.
The voice of this fear would lecture me about the things I could not take back if I left. It told me that I would be tossing into the trash all of my hard work to be a licensed attorney. The status of being a lawyer was important. To have that “Esq.” after my name had at one time made me immensely proud. Fear told me I should not let that go. Once I did, I probably would never have it back. You see, lawyers must take a certain number of credits of continuing legal education every year in order to keep their license active. If I changed careers, I would no longer do this (not only because it would not be relevant to my new job, but also because it is expensive and time-consuming), and my license would lapse. Bye bye, “Esq.”
Lawyers must also carry malpractice insurance. If I changed careers, I would not be able to afford it and I would no longer be covered for past acts. Even if I dared to go back to the legal profession, that lapse in coverage would keep me from being insured all those prior years and possibly render me unemployable by any firm, at least for some amount of time. That is a very scary prospect.
Then there is the idea of leaving my clients. This is the toughest. Some of my clients have been coming to me for years. Like me, many lawyers are control freaks who have a difficult time delegating the care of their clients to their own staff, let alone passing them off to another lawyer altogether, never to help them again. It rather sucks, to be honest, to think about ditching people I have cared about, worked with and seen through some of their most difficult times. It is when I think about this that I know with all certainty that when I leave, I need to make it count.
It took some time (and therapy) to finally realize what would justify, to me, leaving everything for which I had worked so long and so hard. One thing, and only one thing, made the fear of leaving the practice of law dissipate: pursuing my dream of being a professional writer.
I had been writing for over twenty years, but mostly for myself. I never thought I was any good at writing, but I really enjoyed it. It was a means of escape and release. Over the last fifteen years my writing has significantly improved. My attention to grammar and detail was honed by the very profession from which I was growing apart. The constant drive for perfection and accuracy, which at times had the power to debilitate my creativity, gave me the very tools I needed to develop my writing skills. For almost twenty years it has been a continuing writing education for me, and I have the practice of law to thank for that.
I made my decision to pursue my dream. At once, the universe tipped a degree one way and all felt right. Which brings me here, writing about my journey not just to get out of the legal profession, but to pursue a career in writing. What had once felt like a giant leap of faith to leave the practice of law, now feels like a natural progression from one period of my life to another. Without the tiniest sliver of doubt, I know it is the right thing to do. Nothing in my life has been as freeing or inspiring.
Feel free to follow me, as I have set into action a plan of transition that will take some time. There is no deadline or timeline to fully transition other than “when the time is right.” I am closer than ever, but still far away. I am writing more and making time for it in my already packed schedule. I am working on my prospects for a freelance career. In the meantime, since I have a family to support I must keep my day job. Or my continuing writing education, as I so choose to view it.