Go read Jeremy's post, please. He writes about how strange he finds this phenomenon: many people at Harvard Law School, when sharing fond praise and generous hopes for one another, say things like, "You're too cool to be a lawyer," and "I hope you end up doing something really great -- better than being a lawyer." He wonders where the institutional self-loathing seems to come from in this career that 90% of the people saying these things to one another are affirmatively choosing for themselves. It's a pretty good question, and of course I don' t know the answer. Instead I'll give you some unsorted thoughts, from a person who never thought I'd become a lawyer, and didn't think I'd like it for this long, and who sometimes feels a little embarrassed or disappointed when meeting people and having them nod when I tell them I'm a lawyer, and who now is taking stock about whether I want to keep doing it or stop doing it or do it differently somehow.
The first thing that springs to mind is something I'm not sure how to tie in, but it feels connected somehow. A few years ago it was my dad's 25th reunion, and the Harvard class of 1969 prepared a book. Everyone in the class could submit a picture and a page of text, and I remember sitting in my parent's kitchen thumbing through this book. First I was star hunting (Tommy Lee Jones, Al Gore, etc) but then I was just reading what this group of talented people had to say about their lives 25 years out from college. And I noticed a pattern. Some people submitted their resumes, lists of achievements, etc. Most people did some of this, but talked more about other things -- families, trips, a struggle with an illness. In the aggregate, I found the essays of this group pretty reflective and pretty honest about where they had been. And almost all of them followed this form: a bit of discussion about a career that may or may not have been actively chosen ("somehow I ended up as president of a brewery"), a description of family life -- maybe a couple of divorces and some acknowledgment of the difficulty of this, or a loving description of a life partner and perhaps some children. Talk of some kind of hobby and its pursuit, maybe a description of a recent trip or achievement or event -- my barbershop quartet just recorded an album! And then a sort of reflective paragraph, saying, "Wow, our class was really talented, I thought we'd change the world in some kind of major way, and I wonder if we still will." This isn't coming out very clearly but the message I took from it is that even the most ambitious and talented people with big bold ideas get kind of distracted by life. That the major happinesses these people wrote about (even Tommy Lee Jones) were small pleasures -- time with family, a fishing trip with a son, performing music or giving a poetry reading -- rather than major career achievements. As a group they all sounded kind of puzzled about it -- "I'm really happy here managing this small horse farm in West Virginia, although I always thought I'd end up doing something important and especially that all of you guys would end up doing really interesting and world-changing things."
But to be great don't you have to give up all the stuff the people who were happy wrote the most about? The regular downtime that makes a family comfortable with one another, the intimate digging in the dirt with your rosebushes that lets you win a blue ribbon, the neighborliness that lets you feel attached enough to your community to be on the city council -- these aren't the things ambitious young undergraduates imagine for themselves or their classmates. It seems like they're the things that fall by the wayside if you're devoting all your waking hours to the passionate attainment of some career peak. But they can be the stuff of a happy life.
I'm feeling like I'm really off topic here and I don't know how to connect it to what Jeremy's classmates were telling one another. I don't know if I want to be a lawyer when I grow up or not. I didn't think I would when I was in law school, or when I graduated, or when I took this job. I still don't know. One reason I'm still doing it is that it's funner than I had imagined. It stimulates more parts of my brain and my personality than I realized. On the good days, I get to see people I like, in situations that are intense and challenging, and I get to play a role in finding a resolution to the difficult situation that lets the client move forward with his or her life. And then a new and different intense situation comes along -- cool. I don't need to live through the boring parts of my client's lives, when everything is working just fine. I only get to see the messy and interesting parts, when nobody's sure how it will turn out. I get to write, and meet people, and read, and learn, and speak, and feel valued for cleverness and quick-thinking and reasoning and people skills. There are lots of smart people in the profession to learn from. So law is more worth doing than I really knew it was when I signed on for it. There are lots of different ways and styles of being a lawyer, too.
But another reason I am still a lawyer is that it lets me have a life that makes me very happy. At my firm, at least, I do get to go home at a reasonable hour, and I've spent the past couple of years really focusing my energy on non-career stuff. I've bought a house and been slowly and incompently making it into a place I really like to live, a place where people drop by for dinner or to play, a place with a garden and a big yard and daffodils and rosebushes and a canoe behind the garage. I've got a tribe of friends who do neat things together. I've got a sailboat that I'm fascinated by and a crew of Hooked On Tonics girls to sail it with. I'm involved with a group of really smart people putting on a cool technology conference every year. Heck, I have a blog, and a dog, and I walk and play. I have a really happy life. And over the past few years I've put a lot of my attention into building this life and making it work for me. That is energy that has been available to me because my job fits me pretty well, because it doesn't drain me, nor does it consume me. This life has also been available to me because I have enough money to take care of myself, and to feel like I'm taking small steps towards being a "responsible adult," at long last. Finally, it's been available to me because I haven't been spending time or energy trying to be GREAT. I'm not climbing a big fancy ladder or competing to be the best at anything. Nor have I leapt bravely off into some career path that I had to invent on my own -- I've not tried to start my own business or write the Great American Novel or who knows what. Those paths, it seems to me, would leave decidedly less time for playing and gardening and sailing and having dinner parties. Instead I have this stable platform of a job that gives me room to be the person I want to be. For a lot of people, probably for most of Jeremy's classmates, BIGLAW probably means the opposite of that -- ambition and talent and BIGLAW probably means exceedingly little time left for the rosebushes and the barbershop quartet.
I have been thinking about this a lot, in the face of my own rising restlessness. When I think about NOT being a lawyer anymore what I think about is losing these known happy ingredients. I've tried to structure my life so I don't ever feel the need to earn a lot of money, so that I don't get trapped by possessions or obligations. But I can see easily how people do that; I'm more entangled and less flexible than I'd intended to be. I can also see getting caught in complacency. You start out doing something, and you might not intend to end up there. But you make it work, and especially if it's not where your real passion lies, you turn your attentions elsewhere and pull pleasure from there. And then lo and behold years go by, and you're still in the place you didn't expect to stay, and you're pretty happy, and you're pretty tired, and it's hard to imagine upsetting the whole apple cart to make a change to something you can't even picture all that clearly.
I can also see how, if what you were doing at work each day felt like a pretense, or drained you, how your own failure to make a change, your own unwillingness to upset the apple cart, and the accumulated inertia of your co-workers who were all also postponing their aspirations, could feel like a prison and lead to loathing of oneself and of the profession. I pray that never happens to me, or to Jeremy, or to any of those classmates he observed toasting one another, or to any of you, my readers.