Thursday, February 25, 2016

Letting Go

A few weeks ago, I was catching up with “Howard” (the colleague I interviewed in episodes 3 and 4 of my podcast) After chatting about what’s new in both of our lives, the conversation inevitably turned to the subject that has bonded the two of us ever since we met at the bus stop on that first day of 1L year: the practice of law.  

We both have strong feelings about it. 

Back in law school, Howard was the smart one
(Order of the Coif), well-spoken, and he had strong job prospects despite the shrinking legal job market. Funnily enough, he almost didn’t go to law school. After college, he got a great job offer at a software company that would have been perfect for him. But at that time, he was also working at a white shoe firm, where he caught the Big Law bug. Despite being advised by one of the partners not to go to law school (we all recall those well-meaning attorneys who tried to talk us out of it, don’t we?), Howard decided to take the plunge. After the first year and a horrible experience clerking for a solo practitioner, Howard considered dropping out. I did, too. I got pretty good grades that first year, but something felt off. I didn’t connect with a lot of my classmates, for one thing. It’s not because I didn’t like them, but because I didn’t feel like I was one of them. Most of the people I befriended that first year were the ones like me and Howard – the ones who were always one foot out the door. I recall one of my favorite classmates, who didn’t show up for the entire first week of 2L because she was still deciding whether she wanted to come back at all. Her absence caused quite a stir, so much so that she sort of became my hero. At one point I even thought, If she doesn’t come back, maybe I'll walk away, too. Maybe it’s a sign that law school isn’t for everyone and that’s ok.
But, she came back. We all did.

Howard and I graduated. We became lawyers. We drifted.

Then, a few months into my first year of practice, Howard and I scheduled a lunch. Shit, I thought to myself, How am I going to fool him? He’s probably psyched about his big firm job, while I feel like I’m sinking. I vowed to somehow fake my way through it.

But as we got to talking, it became clear that Howard and I were both unhappy. The law sucked, we knew it. We’d known it since orientation. The week before, Howard’s wife went away for a couple days to see her family while he stayed home to work on prepping for a depo. He spent all weekend staring blankly at a box of documents that he was somehow supposed to read and decipher, then draft questions based on the information he absorbed. Questions intended to annihilate the plaintiff. By Sunday night, after nearly forty-eight hours of fruitless staring, panic set in. How does an attorney fake a depo? How does an attorney fake a law career?

Things weren’t any better for me. I wondered why I didn’t drop out that first week of 1L, when my gut told me to. Why did I accept the job at my firm? Why did I spend tens of thousands of dollars for something that never inspired more than an eh in my mind?

And now, years later, Howard and I were having a similar conversation. Three years ago, he finally took that software job. The one he should have taken instead of enrolling in law school. This time, the conversation was more pleasant. Howard had good news.

“I’m resigning,” he said. “From the Bar I mean.”

“What? Why? It’s only a few hundred bucks a year to keep your license.” I knew that because I’d been dutifully paying my annual dues for the past five years, despite the fact that I still had no intention of ever practicing again. 

“At this point, I could make more money doing consulting work than practicing law. And I’m sick of sending them my money. What’s the Bar ever done for me?”

He had a point. Why was I sending them hundreds of dollars every year? What was I holding on to?

Some people might think it’s a sign that I still want to practice someday. Let me assure you, it’s not. I’ve considered it from time to time, but when I picture the day-to-day grind and I think about the friends I have who still practice, I always arrive at the same conclusion Howard and I did during lunch all those years ago: practicing law sucks. Some people love it, but I didn’t. I hated it. 

The question remains then: what am I holding on to? I’ve always been sentimental about things. Recently, I’ve started decluttering my life, throwing away possessions I no longer use, giving away clothes that don’t quite fit right. It’s hard. The things in my life represent memories, the past. Just like my law license. There was a time when it was important to me. Letting go of it feels, somehow, like I’m rejecting my former self. Or like I'm letting go of the good memories I have of law school and my days as a lawyer, however few and far between. A while back, I sold most of my law school textbooks. All except one – the Black’s Law Dictionary my husband gifted me when I graduated. It represents a good memory. He was proud of me. I was proud of me. It’s hard to let that go, even though the memory would still exist without the book. I guess some things are harder to part with than others. 

I started thinking about all this because my dues statement is going to arrive in the next few weeks and I’m considering following Howard’s lead, resigning. What has the Bar ever done for me? Why am I clinging to the past? Why is my law license important when giving it up doesn’t negate my achievements, my memories? 

While writing this post, I found my eyes drifting to my mother’s photo on the bookshelf. The one I keep next to her ashes. She never saw me graduate, never saw me in court. Maybe that’s why I’m holding on. She always wanted better for me than she had; maybe I still want to give that to her. As long as I have my license, her daughter is still a lawyer. 

Or maybe it goes back to my Black’s Law Dictionary. A moment when someone was proud of me. It’s rare to hear that once you graduate from college, law school, etc. etc. Once you’re out in the “real world,” you almost never hear “I’m proud of you.” Most of the time you hear how much you’ve screwed up, whether you hear it from your boss or from yourself. Or you hear about all the things you should be doing: building a career, being a good parent, keeping an uncluttered house, saving money, worrying about global warming, voting, calling your parents on Sundays, and remembering to keep a gratitude journal about all of it. 

In the real world, it’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day minutiae, to forget that I once had a plan for my life, and that I still do. Holding on to my memories is a way of remembering that no matter where life takes me or whatever mistakes I’ve made – or have yet to make – someone, somewhere, some place, was proud of me. 

And letting go of my law license might be a way of finally believing that someone, somewhere, someday, will be proud of me.


  1. The only reason I haven't resigned is because my state has a "retired" status where I don't give them money. Even with that, I have strongly considered just resigning anyway.

    1. My state allows retirement status at no cost, but if I decide to go back into practice after retirement I would have to first pay active dues for each year retired!

  2. Beautifully written; you've spoken for many of us. I can't let my license go either, although I should. I guess it would be an admission that law school was a terrible waste of time and money and I haven't gotten to the point where I can admit that to myself.

  3. Just found your blog. I enjoyed it very much. I walked away after 22 years of litigation. You are lucky that you didn't stay in as long as I did.

    1. Hi Unknown, I am now 31 years in practice and I can't figure out how to walk away. Care to share on how to do this? Thank you, Miserable and still going strong

  4. Thank you for sharing your experience. I'm finshing up my 1L year right now in Canada. I've been so focused for the past few years on getting to this point.. in the 3rd year of my undergrad I turned down a job that would've paid better than anything I'll likely make for the first few years after my law degree. It would have required that I delay the completion of my degree by a year or two at least, but I thought 'no way' that's not MY plan.. so I foolishly elected to finish up my last year and a half as a broke student rather than a well-compensated professional, then meandered through the uninspiring short-term opportunities available to soon-to-be-returning students.. I had such high hopes with law, but this year has been nothing but misery. More than anything in 1L I've learned that law is a dead end for the issues I think are important, that I have passion for. At the same time I feel trapped by the opportunity cost of the opportunities I passed on, by the cost of getting through this year. I'm not sure what I'll do, I'm almost hoping my exam grades are poor enough that I won't ever think of coming back.. anyway its comforting in some odd way to know that I'm not the only one.

  5. I found your blog last year and it has been such a relief to know that I'm not alone - we have very similar paths. I also worked in criminal defense at one point.
    Please keep sharing your journey. Your story gives me hope.