Saturday, February 20, 2016

"So You Think You Can Tell"

What label describes you?
One thing that I still struggle with since leaving the law is the concept of identity. The main reason I went to law school to begin with was I didn’t know myself very well, which meant I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’d always loved writing, but I didn’t think I could ever make money at that, so instead I listened to all the people I heard chattering in my political science and philosophy courses, and the professors who taught them. “Go to law school,” they all said. Or at least that’s what I heard.

During my last year of undergrad, everyone seemed to be taking the LSAT, so
I signed up for a free practice one. It was on a Saturday morning in the humanities building (the ugliest building on campus and arguably one of architecture’s biggest mistakes since Daniel Burnham designed the Flatiron without a women’s john). The room was packed with eager underwater-basket-weaving majors. I remember the proctor giving us the once-over as he passed out the exams. “I can tell all of you are meant to go to law school,” he said with a knowing chuckle, “since no one but a Type A would get up this early on a Saturday.” I should’ve raised my hand to ask, “What about a confirmed Type B with no other prospects?” Or maybe I should’ve wondered why an esteemed JD was administering a practice LSAT to a room full of doomed BAs. Alas, I opted to forever hold my peace.   

I got a pretty good score, so naturally I figured it was destiny. I ignored the fact that every reputable arbiter of personality type I’d consulted (Myers-Briggs, Carl Jung, the cashier at Walgreens) all concluded that the law would be a terrible place for me to drop anchor. Despite their well-reasoned objections, I marched on. Which would not have been tragic in and of itself, except that I ended up spending tens of thousands of dollars in pursuit of a career that made me identify with Travis Bickle more than any person comfortably should. 

The law wasn’t all bad, though. It did provide me with an identity. Whenever I met new people or got together with friends (which was almost never considering the law is a 24/7 gig), people would ask what I did and I could proudly declare, “I am a lawyer.” The fact that I was miserable didn’t faze anyone under the circumstances. Non-lawyers had seen this bit on TV before – there was probably an exotic reason for my plight. Maybe I was being stalked by a former client/serial killer. Or perhaps I was prosecuting my last criminal trial on the way to Big Law, but my efforts were being thwarted by a brilliant defendant, not to mention the lead detective who’d slept with the murder victim. Or was I fighting The System on behalf of the little guy? Some evil chemical company who’d managed to fly under the radar while heartlessly poisoning a small town’s residents in service of its bottom line?

No. It wasn’t any of those things. I simply didn’t like getting up in the morning. I never bothered anyone with that information, though. They all seemed so happy that I was a lawyer. 

Fast-forward to my post-law life. I go to a party and get asked what I do. I tell them my job is incredibly boring, but I’m passionate about writing, about living intentionally and having meaningful experiences, about trying to figure out what all of this means. No one knows what to do with that, so many of them are relieved to find out I used to practice law. It might be a well-meaning friend, maybe even my husband – someone who knows me will offer this bit of trivia and my new acquaintance’s face will light up at finally learning something interesting about me. And he or she will want to know the same things: What kind of law did I practice? Who’s the weirdest client I ever represented? Why did I quit?

When I first left the law, I was fine with this. I accepted it as a necessary part of my transition into a non-legal existence. For years the law had been my life, my identity. Of course people would want to talk about that. But now…

Now, I kind of wish no one knew I was ever a lawyer. It just feels uncomfortable when people ask me about it, and painful when I see their disappointment in finding out I walked away from it. It makes me wish JDs were transferrable; I’d happily assign mine to some poor algebra teacher who has been misled by David E. Kelley, Dick Wolf, and John Grisham into believing that the law is sexy and exciting and dangerous. Because the truth about the day-to-day practice of law is - in my experience anyway - more accurately described in this video (especially the part about agreeing to a mediation only to discover that “the other side requested it so a process server could trap your client in the bathroom of a Wendy's.”). 

Now that I don’t have that identity anymore – however heartbreaking it was – I find myself sometimes missing that label. Something easy I can tell people that will satisfy them, validate my existence. Maybe I’m still mad that I invested so much money in a degree that didn’t generate much of a return. Maybe I just wish I could go back to that Walgreens and ask Greg the cashier if he still thinks I’ve got a future in plastics. 

Or maybe searching for an identity is something everyone struggles with from time to time. Labels can help us make sense of our lives. “I’m a lawyer.” “I’m a mom.” “I’m a democrat.” Who are we without them? Are we anything without them? 

But every time I find myself missing the easy label, I remind myself of this: Without labels, there are options. Possibilities. I remind myself of how far I’ve come since leaving the law. That debt is no longer holding me back. That I actually like waking up in the morning now. That I have hope for my future. I didn’t choose the easy path, but a more meaningful one. 

Back in high school, one of my favorite songs was Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. I remember the line, “Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?” always struck a nerve with me. I couldn’t appreciate then how prophetic the line would prove to be, of course, but I sometimes wish I could tell my sixteen year-old self that I would never really appreciate freedom until years later, when I fought my way out of a cage.