Writing and changing to an alternative legal career have a lot in common. Your mindset going in is all-important.
I started a piece yesterday, a fiction project that may be a short story or a novel. Can’t tell yet. I’d had an idea bugging me for nearly two weeks, and finally confronted the blank screen, intending to dive in. Here’s the rough internal dialogue:
“OK, so I should just start where the story begins. Where does it begin?”
Silence. Then faintly, a sentence runs through my head. I think it’s really dumb, lame, and obvious, and refuse to write it down.
“Come on, you can do better than that.”
Another sentence dares rear its head. Slightly better than the first, so I grudgingly transcribe it into pixels.
More silence. And for the next hour, the same cycle repeats, with occasionally two- or three-sentence spurts. It is painful, and yields a paltry 275 words.
Today, I lectured myself extensively before I sat down.
“Stop wanting perfect first drafts. You know it doesn’t happen that way.”
“But why can’t I just think until I at least get a decent idea?”
“You know why. You’ve come up with some of your best stuff in the midst of writing complete shit. That’s how it works.”
And it’s very true, that is how writing works. With my improved attitude, I wrote more easily, and just more: 475 words in 45 minutes. The truth is, you often have to plunge in bravely, based on little more than a vague idea or two of where you want to go, and just transcribe whatever drivel enters your head. My writing coach calls it a zero draft. Julia Cameron calls it laying track. Anne Lamott calls it shitty first drafts, which in addition to being funny is also very accurate.
The concept here is that you need to put aside your pre-conceived notions of what will work, and just move forward. You can always change course later. It’s only words on paper, and you can cross them out or write better ones later, when they occur to you.
So in exploring alternative legal careers, it pays to enter without many pre-conceived notions. If an ad piques your interest, apply. Even if you think it’s a waste of time to write a cover letter, be brave and just do it. Writing a good cover letter now can give you something to work with later when a stellar opportunity pops up. Meeting somebody for lunch who works in an area you think is interesting, even if you think you would never do it, has its benefits. You can learn something that will serve you later in some unexpected fashion.
Give up the idea that you already know what your perfect post-law job will look like. Already knowing means you will feel stymied when that vision fails to materialize in exactly the form you imagined it. And then you will think that you really can’t find a rewarding job outside law, when the problem is that you wanted to be perfect from the word GO. Be willing to entertain a lot of career ideas that seem silly or far-fetched. Those thoughts and your actions in pursuing them might just be the bridge that gets you to the golden land of career satisfaction.
Remember, those venerable explorers Lewis and Clark did not have the slightest idea how to get to the Pacific. They paddled many miles in wrong directions, lost their baggage overboard more than once, were attacked by various Native American tribes, were helped by others, and eventually, despite their myriad mistakes and lack of map, they made it to the Pacific. They found the Northwest Passage. Most people didn’t think they could succeed, but they did. There are lots of lessons to be drawn from Lewis and Clark, but the one I favor is that they were willing to move forward into an uncertain future. They knew that even if they went down a wrong path, it was the only way they could eliminate it and find the right one.
I like this quote too:
If you always do what you always did —
you’ll always get what you always got.
In other words, be willing to do a shitty first draft of your career. ‘Cause seriously, you already have—what could be shittier than practicing law when you hate it?