Round two: Stepping back into the legal fray
“The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.” ― Robert Jordan, The Fires of Heaven
It’s been over two years since I returned to legal practice.
It would be a gross misstatement to say I had no choice but, having tried to make a living from coaching, consulting, speaking and writing (what a mouthful), I ran out of opportunities both locally and nationally.
If there’s one reason I can identify it’s because I didn’t go deep enough — personally (“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” ― Helen Keller) or with my chosen markets.
Actually, this doesn’t tell the half of it.
In the beginning, I marketed myself as the go-to person for social media training and advice to the legal sector. It was quite fruitful, but I always knew my freelance enterprise would have a short shelf life by dint of:
(a) the largely intuitive and self-learning nature of the tools;
(b) marketing teams and lawyers who saw and experienced the benefit(s) would soon dispense with the need for a trainer; and
(c) (most especially) I wanted to move closer to my real passion; namely, coaching lawyers and aspiring entrepreneurs.
In hindsight, I was fortunate in the gigs I secured. Not only did they help me in my ‘reinvention’ quest from lawyer to wannabe social media expert (and coach) but they also shone a light on my interior space, which up to then had been hidden from view by virtue of my competitive, ego-driven spirit. This may sound strange, but law, for all its assumed prowess, does a majestic job at keeping at bay the shadow self.
Towards the end of my self-employed sojourn (December 2013), I managed to secure a local coaching gig. I say coaching — which was the original brief — but, actually, what transpired was that I was asked to run the firm’s business development function — me, actually — and in no time at all that morphed into being asked to step into the role of Chief Executive Officer. The title was a misnomer — and I knew it then, as I can write about it now. I was no more than an office factotum who spent most of his time sorting out petty squabbles between the partners (I’m afraid to say) about money. No surprises there…!
In the end, my contract was quietly terminated on the footing of a proposed merger (I was an expense that the firm could do without), but it did me a favour: it meant I could take a few months off to consider what I really wanted to do; by this time I was 49 years old.
The two choices that very quickly arose was, again, saddling up the self-employed, peripatetic consultancy horse or looking for a permanent legal role closer to home.
In the end, I opted for the latter, and accepted a role as contracts manager for a software company in Cornwall, working three days a week.
I had no expectation about the role but you have to remember that, by now, I’d been away from legal practice for six years and I was nervous whether I’d remember anything of my training, let alone be able to apply it in a new, fast-moving environment.
Thankfully, the role was a perfect mix of drafting and advisory work and was pretty light on black letter law save for the work I did on GDPR. The main drawback with the role was the distance I had to travel. It was a round trip of 90 miles and took two hours. I did ameliorate this with the occasional stopover at my brother-in-law’s house but, in any event, I knew the role was only a stepping stone towards a full-time in-house role.
In the end, I stayed five months before finding another legal role closer to home; and I’m still here, nearly 10 months later.
I’m in-house counsel and contracts manager for a medium-sized engineering business about 12 miles from where I live. The work has an international flavour, meaning I get to negotiate and work on contracts with customers as far afield as Russia, USA and Poland. In addition, I get to deal with a diverse mix of commercial and legal issues but, thankfully, I no longer have to deal with employment law and complex litigation (which is practically non-existent in any event).
Notwithstanding my break from law and the things I’ve previously said, there are a few good things to say about being a lawyer (I’ll cover this in another post); but, much the same as when I left law in 2010, I now see that I spent too long doing the wrong thing, which has forever clouded my opinion of the profession: I worked in private practice — i.e. for a partnership — whereas, in hindsight, I should have gone in-house much sooner or, better still, left the profession to pursue something with a more entrepreneurial feel.
If you’re a lawyer reading this post, I’m sure you’re familiar with this meme but, seriously, even if you’re on a fast track to partnership, never stop questioning whether (inter alia) the pressure, stress and client demands are worth the proverbial candle.
Notwithstanding the positives of my new role, I know that law is not where I want to see out the remainder of my working life. Yes, it’s stable, reasonably well paid and provides an interesting mix of work but it’s far too narrow in its purview of the world.
Of course, I could change the mood music and instead of operating in the commercial space look to use my 20+ years of legal experience to do something more meaningful, but I don’t have the energy to battle my way through the vicissitudes of another organisational malaise. Instead, I intend to go back to the drawing board with my coaching, speaking and consulting practice — and writing to complement all three — and build a new freelance business from the ground up. When I say ‘build’, I don’t mean to suggest that I’m going to rebrand myself but, next time around, I intend to find a way to marry soul with role beyond the legal cohort that I’ve stayed wedded to all these years. I don’t mean to suggest that I’m going to completely turn my back on the legal profession but lawyers being lawyers, they (sometimes with disastrous consequences for them and their families) think they have all the answers and are not amenable to anyone helping them to explore new territory, be that an inner one or a paradigm where their gifts are offered to the world in a more meaningful way.
One question which they (and you) could do worse to answer is this:
“What would you do with your life if money was no object?” — Alan Watts
You might think this question infantile, but I’m deadly serious in suggesting a question that should evince of something much, much closer to true self than the facade you’re keeping up. Oh sure, you might play the work-until-retirement-and-then-do-what-you-like game but that’s not really a choice when, these days, you’ll be working until you drop.
Truthfully, ask yourself the question: what’s the one thing you’d do if money was no object?
Of course, money is always an object to pursue in our materialistic, individualistic world but, there again, there are many ways to live these days that doesn’t mean you’ve got to follow the crowd and aspire towards a house, expensive car and 2.4 kids.
I know, I know, I’m a fine one to talk when hitherto I’ve run with the pack, but it’s still my intention to find a place in the world where I can do soulful work and not bury all the emotions that arise in crawling back to my paymasters, seeking to atone for my freelance shenanigans.
What I’m really saying is that I intend sooner rather than later to get with the one-thing-that-brings-me-the-greatest-happiness programme and not spend any more time than is absolutely necessary working in-house. That’s not to say there might not be a transition period where I build up my portfolio of clients and develop my writing but I don’t see myself doing work under a contract of employment for any longer than is absolutely necessary.
Why am I telling you this?
Simple really: for those people that know me or have followed my work, I’ve felt for a while that I needed to explain why I returned to legal practice. In addition, and this is probably more for my benefit than yours, I wanted to reassure you that I’ve not given up on the notion, as my website makes clear, of awakening (within you) true self:
“We’re an ‘out there’ society, meaning we seek happiness in the exterior world. In so doing, we assume that to become something, we’ve got to get something — e.g. a career, material success and a bushel of experiences. But, it misses the point; namely, the unexamined life — the sine qua non of my work — which means to look within. And, yes, if that means to question our ‘story’ then so be it.
If you’re ready to go beyond the usual tips and tricks to become what you truly are, then I’d be delighted to work with you on that inner exploration.
To make the most of your life.“ (my emphasis added)
You might think this means I’m an advocate for the message that says you can and must be all you can be, but that’s not my thing.
Instead, and to borrow from the writing of Robert Bly:
“If the shadow’s gifts are not acted upon, it evidently retreats and returns to the earth. It gives the writer or person ten or fifteen years to change his life, in response to the amazing visions the shadow has brought him—that change may involve only a deepening of the interior marriage of male and female within the man or woman—but if that does not happen, the shadow goes back down, abandoning him, and the last state of that man is evidently worse than the first.” — A Little Book on the Human Shadow (pp. 80-81), Harper One, Kindle Edition
Think about it. We all have gifts that lay buried in our subconscious. Rarely if ever do we allow ourselves the opportunity to explore them let alone build a new life out of what emerges — and that’s particularly the case given the death-dealing business culture(s) that so many people endure.
Sadly, said gifts, we too readily associate with making a living; but that’s not how it works. Sure, you might start with a Big Hairy Arse Goal (BHAG) and knock it out the park but these personal and often financial dreams never last. They can’t because all they’re doing is keeping at bay the shadow self.
“Wait a minute”, I hear you say.
“This is all very good if you want to be an artist but I live in the real world where I’m morally and legally obligated to provide!”
Aren’t we all?
But then again, how much pain do you endure in knowing that you’re not doing the one thing that lies deepest in your soul? It’s more than a nagging doubt. It’s caustic and rots you from the inside out. Is it any wonder that so many people take to excessive and/or compulsive eating, drinking or immersing themselves in a hedonistic and deeply unsatisfying world?
I accept that what I’m advocating for — awaken, to true self — is not going to appeal to the masses. In fact, my client cohort may be very small but then again, I’m convinced in my heart that it’s the only path to lasting and meaningful change both individually and collectively.
I appreciate it sounds glib but life is a series of choices (no sh*t!), and despite the fact that the dominant narrative is to earn a living whatever the consequences emotionally, financially and physically, there has to come a point where you either die to be reborn or you follow the masses and go to your grave with your song still inside you.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a few words of Thomas Merton, who first stirred in me the notion that behind my often false self lives a very different person to the one who first entered the legal profession in 1996.
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”