The Gratitude Challenge of an “I Used To Be A Lawyer” Volunteer

NLW LAwyer

Is it possible to complain without whining?

Or as they say in the British detective novels I love to read, without “whinging.”

(The word “whinge” sounds just like it means, don’t you think? Perhaps we should campaign to adopt the word “whinge” instead of  the word “whine” in the U.S.)

This week – when I should already be in full-on, pre-Thanksgiving mode, I am airing one small, dubiously whinge-worthy matter before moving on to the gratitude part.

The matter in question: my present status as a Volunteer compared to my prior status as a Law Partner.

Now, do not misunderstand. I am thrilled to be semi-retired and able to volunteer regularly, but I do miss some aspects of my former life as a DC law firm partner.

A tiny incident this week at a wonderful non-profit where I volunteer unsettled me.

I arrived early and saw a young staff person scurrying around busily to get ready for the workshop.  I asked her if there was anything I could do to help, she said sure and handed me a big stack of charts fresh from the photo-copier.

Could I please arrange these papers in properly numbered order sets of 30 pages each and staple the packages together to distribute to the workshop participants?

Of course I could, happy to help. Truly I was. But then it hit me again, as I sat at the table in the non-profit’s meeting room, sorting through tall stacks of paper, putting them in numerical order, that I am no longer who I once was.

I am now a Volunteer. A Volunteer who collates. Assembles. Staples. Who does what is requested of him or her. No task too small.  Without “whinging,”  (except for here.) Volunteers serve to assist an organization to fulfill its’ mission.  I feel very lucky to be part of this particular group.

Except that sometimes being a volunteer makes me feel as if I have shrunk as a person.

This small-staffed organization, like another for which I regularly volunteer, depends on its volunteers.  I know these non-profits are very grateful for our participation. I also don’t expect to get a pat on the head every time I show up. I’m fine with pitching with the smallest of tasks that need to be done.

But I’m still dealing with that pesky shrunken person feeling.

Back in the “good old days”, the managing partner of my law firm relied upon a catchy phrase – each to his or her “highest and best use”  – in deciding how to allocate legal work.

One of my law firm colleagues was a terrific negotiator so she was called upon to handle deals. An associate who was an excellent writer prepared briefs. I was considered very good at client service so I built solid client relationships. Each of us to our “highest and best use” – an approach which made for happy (relatively) lawyers and satisfied clients.

It is a sobering recognition to realize as a semi-retired person that I may no longer be sought out for my “highest and best use”.

It is not the status of being a lawyer that I miss, it is that sense of being fully utilized for what I can offer.

A few years before I left my law firm, stressed by the demanding hours and pace, I met with a career counselor who specialized in helping law firm lawyers transition to other careers. (Can you imagine? A flotilla of unsatisfied lawyers supports this career counselor specialty.)

She asked me about my non-legal experience; I told her I had done a significant amount of volunteer work over the years –  on the board of my synagogue, chairing projects at my kids’ schools, facilitating a mental health group.

She suggested I try to become an executive at a non-profit. Important to be paid, she told me, expressing her strong belief that the most unappreciated people in any organization are its’ volunteers.

I never followed through on her career change advice. My cranky aortic valve forced an early instant retirement decision. Now I think of myself as a full-time writer and part-time volunteer. A volunteer who once was a lawyer, not a lawyer who volunteers on the side.

I disagree with the career counselor’s opinion. I do feel appreciated, needed, valued. Just in a very different way than how I felt at the law firm with clients who relied on me for advice. This is an adjustment I am still making.

It is up to me now – and me alone – to figure out my own “highest and best use.”

My legal training, my ability to issue-spot, to think critically and problem-solve will always be with me. And there are times when the volunteer work lets me bring my legal mind back from hiatus. But not always. That’s my new deal.

So I will now promptly stop whining – or whinging – about this small incident and get back to being thankful that I am able to contribute to the important work this non-profit does.

Part of my pre-Thanksgiving gratitude plan.






















Filed under Baby Boomers, Books, Careers, Law firm life, Lawyers, Retirement, Second Careers, Semi-Retired, Women, Women in the Workplace, Working Women

8 responses to “The Gratitude Challenge of an “I Used To Be A Lawyer” Volunteer

  1. Miriam Daniel



  2. I know I have had to check my ego on my comments and actions when I was volunteering for a non profit.


  3. zb

    I get your desire to move past the whinging (and, yes, I love the word, too). But, why can’t you contribute at your best value? Not a rhetorical question. First, I presume that part of the reason is that even when we are paid employees we don’t always get to contribute at our highest value — sometimes the best writer had to meet the client instead, or do the research. Second, I presume that being used at one’s highest value often involves a longer and more complete commitment than we are willing to make (after having retired/quit/become disabled/etc.). For example, if one quits so that one can *always* put family first, due dates, trial dates, etc. aren’t going to be compatible with the kind of work we want to do.

    But, I do wonder whether more effective allocation of resources could quell this all or none decision that many women seem to feel they have to make. I’m thinking about it because I recently had a long conversation with a physician, who is thinking of retiring, at 50. It can’t really be sensible (for the economy, the world, etc.), can it? to throw away all that expertise?


  4. wendytech

    If it’s any consolation, when I was an associate earning six figures at a New York law firm, I felt that much of my job was sorting, collating, stapling and Bates stamping documents. (Billed as “document review.”) A high school student could have done what I did. I only wish it had been in the service of a good cause, a cause I chose, as you did when you volunteered. That said, it’s boring and there are paper cuts, as well as constant cuts to the ego! Thanks for your blog, especially this post. –Wendy, Who Used to be a Lawyer, Too


  5. memorten

    Nancy’s posts definitely ring true for me–great insights into “this stage of life” and it’s a big help to know that these sentiments and feelings are shared!!




  6. rk

    Well said, Nancy. I have been there, too, couldn’t cope, and went back to work for pay.


  7. Andrea Holberg

    Well said. I understand the problem with not being “fully utilized,” but I keep telling myself the volunteer help is so needed, even if it’s not at full capacity.


  8. I have never heard whinging and plan to use it immediately in conversation.


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