“So, is there anything about law firm life that you miss?” asked my old friend, Tom, a big deal partner at a DC law firm.
We stood chatting late in the evening at a wedding reception a few weeks ago. Guests gathered by the dessert table; I was debating between the little parfait glasses filled with chocolate mousse or the fruit tarts. Or both.
“No, not really,” I responded without giving his question much thought, my mind more focused on the tiny red velvet cupcakes as another option.
Tom tried again, “Really? Nothing at all about practicing law that you miss?”
O.K., so we were having a real conversation here, not just a polite inquiry among haven’t-seen-you-for-awhile old friends.
I countered, “Well, I did like advising clients. I always liked telling people what to do.” I laughed, “And I liked the paycheck. So did our mortgage company.”
Pause for a moment of silence while I recalled the thrill of my first sizeable law firm paycheck.
“I also liked the candy. I miss that.” I told him.
“You miss what?” Tom asked, with a puzzled look on his face.
(perhaps they didn’t have as much candy at Tom’s law firm as they did at mine?)
So I explained. “You know, the candy in the bowls that people kept on their desks.”
Every afternoon around 4:00 p.m. I would take a break and do a “power walk” around our law firm’s small office, stopping for brief chats with colleagues and staff and to select my daily rewards for making it through most of the work day. Susan could always be counted on to have a seasonal assortment, candy corn, turkey-shaped chocolates or peeps. Ned specialized in mints. David shared Tootsie roll pops.
The thing is that I don’t really even like candy.
Likely, though, that Tom doesn’t rely on candy as a work-day incentive. He is the kind of lawyer who loves what he does. I did not.
I thought of my conversation with Tom the other day while reading an essay by novelist Jonathan Odell, offering excellent, if unexpected, advice for graduates titled – “Never Get Good At What You Hate.”
Odell, who left a successful corporate career at midlife to become a writer, reasons that if you do become good at a job that you don’t much like, then you will be asked to do more of it. And the more you do of it, the more you will be asked to do, and the more unhappy you will grow.
I recognized myself in his essay. I, too was very good at a career I didn’t much like. I didn’t hate it – I just didn’t love it. And what made it harder for me was being surrounded by colleagues who really loved being lawyers.
How could I tell?
Their eyes lit up when they talked about a new project, they relished a tough legal debate, they eagerly worked those long hours – all because they had found that love for the law that bypassed me.
My law firm colleagues, Tom and my Dad, too, (now age 92, still practicing law at a firm he founded) – – they all share that gut level passion for the law that I lacked.
Over my lawyering years it became increasingly obvious that I was getting very good at what I didn’t like to do. It made me feel like an imposter, and while I hoped that no one around me noticed – I am sure that they did.
After 33 years of working hard, becoming a partner, earning the respect of my terrific clients – it was only through the “luck” of having a defective heart valve go seriously awry 2x, that I was involuntarily de-lawyered. I suddenly had all the time in the world to consider what I really wanted to do – return to my childhood passion, writing that does not involve any legalese.
Which makes me (if not my mortgage company) very, very, very happy. My eyes now light up (so my husband and friends tell me) when I talk about my latest writing projects.
I offer this cautionary tale for recent and not-so-recent graduates to ponder. And a question: how can you possibly know at age 22 or 25 – or at 58 or 62 what you will really like to do if you haven’t had the chance to do it?
Try this test with a few close friends. Let them sit in front of you. Then tell them about a few different work/life paths you’ve been considering.
Which one will make the work day go so fast that you won’t need candy as a mid-afternoon reward?
Which one will make your eyes light up?