My version of being a lawyer

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None of us knows where we will end up:

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll take you there” ― George Harrison

We’re told to pursue our passion — or some such crap! — but on limited terms, i.e. don’t colour outside the work-based lines.

In the end, (as likely) we give up; and toil away day after day in support, mostly, of a moral obligation — life, family or a worthy cause.

At some stage though, something or somebody whispers to us:

“Wake up!”

And we try, but unless we’re willing to make the great leap, we’re easily brought back down to earth.

What’s any of this got to do with my version of being a lawyer?

Err…everything, actually.

The thing is, although I’m projecting this backstory, the same is writ large for many lawyers who pursue, as is normally the case, the predictable path of partnership.

If you know nothing about law, the word ‘partnership’ may mean nothing to you, but for the young, hungry lawyer (heavily in debt) it means everything!

But it’s a chimaera. I don’t mean in the sense that it’s impossible to achieve but once having got there, it’s never going to open your heart to life.

No, not that version of life — i.e. “Look at me. I’m so important”; but the one where you feel most alive.

In my case, I failed in my one and only attempt at partnership. I did 10 years of hard graft only to be told…err…well, nothing actually. I couldn’t get a straight answer to a straight question: “Why wasn’t I made partner?”

And so I left the firm and went elsewhere. Again, I was told I would be made partner if I met the made-up, stupid-as-hell criteria.

Well, you guessed it: I didn’t last the course. In fact, I didn’t even get a tilt at being a partner. Instead, and as I wrote about last week, I stopped practising because, quite frankly, I’d had enough of beasting myself to the point where I no longer knew who I was, let alone what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

In the period between leaving — August 2010 — and restarting my legal career — October 2016 — I did learn a lot about myself. I questioned everything including, or more especially, who I was at the most fundamental level.

In the end, though, the moral imperative loomed large (my wife: “Why can’t you do what everyone else does?” — and it’s a fair question) so that I (whoever that is…) felt I had no choice but to swallow my pride, adapt and give law another go.

But, I’m still a million miles away from the lawyer I wish I was. For a start, I don’t think to call yourself a lawyer, you have to have taken a law degree or gone into practice. (See this great post by Austin Kleon: We are verbs, not nouns.) You just need to care more than others think is wise and act on your instinct to do good to your chosen cohort of clients who need help, and there are many more of those than there are lawyers to serve them. Even if you do qualify, you’re never challenged to question the partnership model let alone what you’re going to do with all that legal training.

I’ve talked about this before, but marrying soul with role should be your guiding light. Don’t be seduced to believe that this ‘role’ is static, like a job title, but you know you’re in the heart-filled zone because you’re alive, deeply. There’s no ‘this’ or ‘that’ there is simply everything — the shadow and the light.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been in love with nature. More specifically, I love animals. If I’d really thought about how I was going to marry my legal training with what spoke loudest to me (regardless of the money imperative), I know now I should have investigated the Third Sector or my own nature-focused practice. For the record, I did look at what, now, might be available to me in the Earth Law space, and even looked at what a PhD might look like, but in the end decided that it would take me too long to get up to speed with the sector before I’d be in a position to offer anything of value to my putative clients. If this sounds like a cop-out then it is but where I’m at right now, I do have to generate a certain amount of income. I might in time come back to it but something tells me that this latest sojourn will be my last.

I’m sure if you sat down with the majority of lawyers, those at least who wanted to stay in practice — there are many who don’t! — and asked them what speaks loudest to their heart, you’d hear a response that is a million miles away from what they’re doing. At least that’s my experience of coaching them.

It seems so obvious. Find something you love and, in the immortal words of my favourite poet, Charles Bukowski, “let it kill you”. By those words, what he’s saying, is let the love for your craft subsume everything. Don’t see it as a job but as who you are.

The trouble with this approach is it doesn’t chime with the business development process for most law firms. They want a business case that meets certain criteria not least the overriding one; namely, how much profit will we make and how quickly? Even if lawyers do decide to jump ship to hopefully pursue their passion, they’ll have very little time to get up to speed and this militates against any deep dive into the subject matter. Look at it this way. These are private businesses who need a ROI; and what they’re all looking for is an area of law that makes money. If you’ve got anything about you, that won’t be the sine qua non of your pursuit. Your interest is soulful, not financial.

Perhaps it is that law is just not a very good fit for full self-expression. Instead, everyone who has a vested interest should be more open and honest and say it as it is:

“Forget all that ‘do good’ bullshit and just accept that to get on you’ll have to generate great gobs of money (profit).”

I know that sounds cynical but no more so that the regnant narrative that’s spewed forth on so many websites (I’ve kept these anonymous but you get the idea):

“We are highly collaborative – right across the globe. We pride ourselves on recognising individual value and talent. And the progress our people make here is based purely on merit.”

“We look for characterful people, professionals in their chosen field. People who are personable and like people. People who will appeal to both our clients and our colleagues.”

“We attract and develop, exceptional talent. Whether you choose to stay or pursue opportunities elsewhere, we want you to fulfil your potential. And we’re well aware that your job satisfaction and our success go hand in hand.”

Of course, you might not care a sh*t about all this soft, fluffy ‘be yourself’ stuff. You’re happy to subsume yourself in a hyper-competitive environment, do your time and get out at the earliest opportunity. And fine, if that’s your bag, I’m not here to tell you that you’ve misread the tea leaves. But I’ll wager that at some stage you get thrown off your journey-to-the-stars horse and be forced to reflect if all that toil is worth the angst? If the answer isn’tHell, yeah!” then chances are you’re on the wrong path.

What am I really trying to say?

Don’t waste your life doing work that doesn’t matter. And I’m deadly serious. Even now, I’m forced to concede that what I’m doing is likely meaningless — to me or those I serve.

And it’s not going to change.

The only thing that needs to change is me — by allowing my heart to connect at the deepest, most profound level and expressing the unexpressed part of me, i.e. the unlived me.