A Note to the World: I am Still a Lawyer, Technically

There seems to be some confusion concerning my recent career change. Yes, I am still a lawyer, technically. I have, however, quit my job and returned to school—both as a graduate student and as a writing instructor. I teach freshman. I am a T.A. The world is confused. Why would I, a somewhat successful lawyer, abandon my job in this, this economy, to become a poor student and teacher? Let me assuage your fears and separate you from your misunderstandings. I assure you that I have not entered into a mid-life crisis 20 years too early. I am, simply, living my life.

First, there seems to be some sort of misconception about lawyers. We are not all millionaires immediately following the bar exam. Yes, it is true, large law firms do pay their first year associates well (in the 100K–200K range I’m told). However, these jobs are difficult to get unless you have stunning credentials or a family connection. The firms require their associates to work something like 60 hours a week—more if there is a trial approaching. The attorneys work late, work from home, and generally develop bad habits that include drinking and anger issues. I am being unfair, of course, but the point is that you have to desperately love your job, or money, to make it as an associate at a large law firm. If you lose your job, you will be out on the street with a condo mortgage and crushing student loans. Even if you do manage to hang around for a while, you will eventually make partner only to find yourself earning less under a deceptively named “profit-sharing” plan, but nonetheless under increased pressure to bring new clients to the firm. Yes, it is a glamorous life. The truth is, it often feels like a trap.

The vast majority of lawyers, myself included, find a job at a smaller firm. I actually consider myself lucky. I did not have to put in any time making ends meet with short-term “contract” or temp work. I found my job about six months after passing the bar exam. The job I did find was a litigation job. Unlike so many big-firm lawyers, I was getting court experience within my first week. I was taking depositions, arguing in front of judges, and managing smaller trials on my own. The pay was decent. My boss had his moments, but who doesn’t? The point is that, assuming I really wanted to be a lawyer, I had it pretty good. To assume that I really wanted to be a lawyer, however, would be incorrect. I enjoyed the paycheck. I enjoyed some of the court battles. I did not enjoy the billable hour treadmill, therapy sessions with clients, or sneaking suspicion that the law is less than honorable. The secret (not so secret) truth to law is that people lie all the time. Clients lie. Lawyers lie. Heck, I even had a judge lie to me. The entire system is, it would seem at times, full of liars. There is only so much I could take. I needed a change of scenery. I needed to find out what I really wanted to do with my life. Paychecks are great, but so is mental health.

With the tremendous support of Diana, I prepared for a change. I took the GRE. I filled out an application for the NIU English graduate program. I wrote to my professors for letters of recommendation. I applied to be a teaching assistant. By March 2012, I knew that I had to quit my job—and so I did. In August, I handed over my caseload to my replacement (who I helped to interview and hire). I took a week off, and then dove into the world of teaching and literature.

The transition has been difficult at times. I won’t say that I regret my decision because I don’t. I look forward to my classes and to helping my students. I often wonder what my ex-clients are up to, how their cases are proceeding. I still wake up in the middle of the night from time to time, dread and panic in my mind, convinced that I have forgotten to file a motion or answer interrogatories. I then calm myself down, and remember that I should now be more concerned with finishing Great Expectations or grading a stack of student essays. I am not poor. I am paid, not much, but something. And of course Diana is there to keep us afloat and check my insecurity when necessary.

Life is a series of trade-offs. I traded stress, money, and the soul-crushing apathy chained to a poor career choice for hope. I am just as busy as I was as a lawyer—more so when mounting school work crushes my schedule. My anxiety hurts: I wonder if, as a 31 year old man, I have made the right choice at the right time. However, I do feel as though I have made a trade off that will, in the long run, pay me back in happiness.

I know that many of you wonder just what the heck I am doing. “Why, Tim, why?” you ask. My explanations don’t satisfy you. That’s okay. They don’t have to. My goal is not to satisfy you, but rather to let you know that I will survive—that I have not lost my mind or followed an ideal for nothing. If it makes you feel any better, please remember that I am still a lawyer. I do not have to give up my law degree. I am still licensed to practice law.

Of course, I have other plans.

23 Oct. 2012