Saturday, June 5, 2010

Over The Hump

It’s official. I have now been away from the practice of law longer than I practiced it. I was in practice for 6+ years. And now I have been away for 7. Holy crap. That’s 13 years. This graduation year is 14 years out of law school. Yikes! I didn’t think I was that old.

I have certainly done things to exercise my legal skills since leaving the practice, either as a volunteer or in my subsequent jobs. But the longer I am away from the practice, the less realistic it seems that I will ever go back. And since homeschooling is my current plan, I envision myself ready for serious employment right around the time that I will be ready to start spending time traveling and cutting back on the stress of work.

Life is too short for me to want to start counting every six minute increment again.

Of course, that’s all easy for me to say since I have a spouse who is willing to earn an income to support our family’s needs and a great many of our wants. I literally keep my bar license active at this point because being a lawyer has become my fall back career. My security blanket in case I ever need to earn a substantial income again. To think that I put forth all of that education, money, and anxiety to have a prestigious fall back career is sort of ridiculous. But it’s true.

And it’s also true that there are probably at least a hundred reasons why I might want to revisit my legal career in a different way than the way I experienced it before. Without a doubt, there are good things that I could do to fill my cup and help others with the credentials and privilege thereof.

But let’s be clear. I did not come to legal practice as a do-gooder. I didn’t come to it to earn a lot of money, either. I came to it because I thought I would love the work enough to want to do it for my entire career. I enjoyed the writing, the research, the problem solving, the client interactions, and the collegiality. I thought this would sustain me for a long and illustrious career. I feel foolish now that I was so sadly mistaken.

To be fair, while the good things were very good, there were negatives that I didn’t anticipate. I didn’t realize that along with those things that I loved would also come gender discrimination, abusive clients, more abusive opposing counsel, and over the top stress and anxiety.

Ah, the stress and anxiety. There is something about holding the fate of your clients in your hands, ethical obligations that are fuzzy at best in so many situations, and a high volume workload (leading to the potential for occasional errors) that really raise one’s blood pressure. And if you make the single error that violates the ethical obligations, you can watch your license to practice evaporate and see the story of your error published for the eyes of every one of your colleagues to read in the monthly bar journal. I don’t miss those things one tiny bit. While the privileges of practice are great, the responsibilities can seem overwhelming.

I spent the first few years of my career feeling like a fraud. I wondered when someone would find out that I didn’t really know what I was doing. I felt incompetent on a daily basis, and noted as well that I was faced with an ethical rule that required I be competent or lose my license to practice. Perspective tells me that all new lawyers go through this sense of insecurity. Or at least most of the best ones do. Law school gives us a complex that we are idiots. Opposing counsel and sometimes even attorneys in our own offices reinforce it on a daily basis. Quick to criticize, sometimes in the most unprofessional of ways, lawyers are not known for their supportive and soothing learning environments that they create for their baby lawyers.

That insecurity taught me two things. First, it taught me that I was indeed competent and even good at my job. I figured things out. I learned by doing. I sought out feedback and guidance. I tried and tried again until I got things right. My track record spoke for itself. My numbers were strong and my clients were satisfied. My professional relationships were positive and my efficiency was excellent. (All of which is why I stumped so many when I walked away from my job.) The insecurity gave me the motivation to learn to be a really good lawyer.

The second thing my insecure baby lawyer days taught me is that life is an immersion learning program. Every new job must be tackled by just putting one foot in front of the other to do the work required. Hour by hour. Day by day. Week by week. Month by month. Year by year. You think it over. You do some research. You try things. You assess. You try again. Rinse and repeat. It’s how I got through the sleepless nights of the newborn days, the temper tantrums of the toddler days, and the sassy remarks of the grade-schooler days. It’s literally how I approach everything, because there is no map for my life. I have to figure it out for myself.

Being a baby lawyer is not the only time I have felt like a fumbling fool. And it won’t be the last. And no doubt, were I to go back to the practice, I would revisit those old feelings.

But now I am over the hump, so to speak, farther away from those days than the time I enjoyed in them. And I am not sure how I feel about it. I have mixed feelings about leaving it all behind, even if this is only a symbolic abandonment. Maybe I should rethink my perspective, though. I worked in the legal profession in support roles for three full years before law school and spend three years in law school. Maybe I’ll tack another 6 years on my 6 years of practice. That gives me another six years before I need to think about the magnitude of the passage of time in my professional life.


Sara said...

funny, i was just wondering how long you'd practiced. Passing over the hump always seems like such a big thing. I vote you put it off for a few more years.

I have to say, having a atty for a daddy pretty much sucked all the desire to pursue law out of me, even though those professional aptitude tests said I'd be good at it. Of course, they also said I'd excel in the military....

Heather said...

Stumbled onto your blog...I can't help but comment. I have practiced law for 8+ years and am now out of it. And missing it. Looking for how I can go back - we have relocated across the country due to my hubby's job (a great one). I can sooo relate to what you wrote about our "baby lawyer days!" I think I might be a "follower" of your blog. So many interesting things I can relate to. I am also a mother of three, but am not homeschooling them. Congrats to you!