I had breakfast with my friend T, who was something of a good-natured nemesis of mine in law school. I quit law review in disgust; he became the Editor in Chief. I butted heads with lots of people, things, and concepts in law school, and he was always placid, wise, and accepting while I was impatient and frustrated and overwrought. We would drink gin and tonics and argue with one another fairly regularly. Anyway, he's down in a Big City and just left work at Anonymous Law Firm to take a more interesting job at a much smaller firm, and came home for a few days between gigs.
"Do you miss the law?" he asked me.
No, I said, automatically. Then I wondered whether it was true. Well, I said, not very much. There's a certain kind of thinking that you get to do when you practice law, a certain kind of puzzling through complicated concepts, with precision and rigor, that I do miss. That's really fun. And I don't have an outlet for that anymore. I guess I have a little bit of intellectual hunger now. I like my life, a whole lot. But, yes, there's something I really liked about practicing law that I haven't found a substitute for yet.
I'm reading a book called Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived. The chapter I'm on right now is about something called "vital engagement." Basically it is a combination of engrossment -- the pleasurable experiential state of becoming absorbed in something that is challenging but not frustrating, that requires your full engagement and activates skills and traits that you're proud of in yourself -- and a sense of purpose or vital meaning or contribution. You can be engrossed in a game of foosball, but you won't feel that sense of larger social purpose or meaning. People who regularly are engrossed in something they feel is worthwhile are the happiest people, it seems.
And I do think that law, at its noblest, can offer that to some people. Certainly the nature of the work can be engrossing, challenging, and absorbing. And doing it well can be a calling, and can connect you to a sense of greater good. You need to be able to choose your matters -- not everything lawyers work on will strike a chord with your own sense of purpose and value and meaning. But there are many paths of law practice that satisfy both of these components of vital engagement.
I don't miss practicing law, or think about it very often, so my friend's question took me by surprise. Writing engrosses me, as does coaching, and in both cases I think there can be some value to the world beyond my own absorbtion in the activity. But I do admit there's a specific kind of thinking that you do in the practice of law that I really enjoy, and that's not part of my life these days.