“She was chosen as one of the best high school students in the country, to visit the President of the United States. Her parents assumed that she would go on to be a doctor or a lawyer, so when she announced that she wanted to be a poet, they weren’t sure what to make of it. ‘She said, ‘My father swallowed once, and said, ‘Well, I’ve never understood poetry, so don’t be upset if I don’t read it.’ ‘ Her teachers at college told her she was throwing her education away if she didn’t study something more practical.“ The Writer’s Almanac, Aug. 28, 2013.
“She” was the now-renowned poet Rita Dove. At the time she chose the path of a poet, and not that more practical path as a lawyer or doctor, she was not a Pulitzer Prize-winner. She was not the first African-American Poet Laureate of the United States. She was not the winner of so many awards and honors it takes paragraphs to list them all.
Dove was young, and the daughter of a man with a master’s degree in chemistry. He had worked for a time as an elevator operator, because companies wouldn’t hire a black chemist. Eventually he became the first African-American chemist hired by Goodyear Tire. Dove’s mother was a high school honors student who never went to college, but always encouraged her children in academics.
But She’s Never Been A Lawyer
Why am I writing about this, a blog about lawyers and their career struggles? Hearing Dove’s story, I was struck by the amazing courage it took to decide on poetry as a career. Dove later told the Chicago Tribune, “As a young black person in college I was expected to be a professional. . . Writing poetry was unthinkable then. I was writing but not showing it to anyone yet because I couldn’t see myself as a writer.”
Dove’s struggle is no different than that of many lawyers wanting to leave law to do something radically different. Actually, it’s probably more courageous, because in the 1970s the employment climate wasn’t as welcoming to women and minorities as it is now (not that it’s currently utopia out there, but that’s a different blog). She did have a much healthier economy in her favor, but her future as a poet was by no means guaranteed.
She faced derision from her peers, to whom “”declaring one’s intention to be a poet was analogous to putting on a dunce cap.” There was no clear career path, no assurance of success. She took quite a risk, and she could have fallen flat on her face. What if she wasn’t as great as her desire to be a poet was? What if her promise never materialized?
The Tyranny of What-Ifs
Yes indeed, what if? It’s a question I hear all the time from clients: What if this plan doesn’t work out? What could I possibly do then? (As if they are talentless and got to Lawyerland via a magic wand.)
Well, what if it (that magical IT you secretly dream about) does work out? Is there any chance you’re scared you can’t handle being fulfilled? That you aren’t prepared to succeed imperfectly at something you want so badly? Worth pondering.
But usually, lawyers derail themselves because they can’t see every arc and dip of this new, uncertain path. Because, like the rest of us, they’re not psychic. But unlike many people, lawyers are somehow convinced they must know the end, and every step along the way, before they begin.
If you get past all that, start down a path and it doesn’t work out precisely as you envision, you might have to create a different path. You might have to re-think things, and figure out a different way to get where you want to go. You might have to do what most people do during their lifetimes: Figure it out as you go along. Be prepared to change.
Resisting Change, a Luxury You Can’t Afford
It amazes me that lawyers still walk around with the idea in their heads that their primary need is a secure career, and that law firms or government jobs will provide that security. Yet you may have noticed that lock-step career paths in BigLaw are now the exception, not the rule. The legal industry is changing, and the pace of that change will only increase in the face of
- unrelenting pressure from clients to dismantle the rapacious billable hours structure;
- technology innovations that make it easier and more likely that smaller firms can compete effectively with larger firms and their overhead;
- shrinking government budgets;
- a generation of lawyers who don’t want to devote their lives to soul-killing work; and
- an oversupply of expensive (read: hugely indebted) lawyers, combined with uncertain corporate demand and high demand for cheaper legal services.
I hope this isn’t a newsflash: Like everyone else, lawyers don’t have the luxury any longer of refusing to change. Like it or not, you have to learn about marketing, about technology, and about how to get along with and motivate people who aren’t just like you, to name but a few things. If you refuse to get creative and take charge of your future, whether it lies in law or not, you will most likely get the dregs, the left-overs. Sounds appetizing, right?
Whether you want a life that is mildly or wildly creative, you need creativity to solve the problems a new or existing career will foist on you. This is not a reason to panic, I promise. We are all born creative, including you. Maybe it’s time to get back in touch with that problem-solving genius that got you to law school.
So what do you say—can you be even a tenth as courageous as Rita Dove? Go on, try some small step toward creativity today. Start rebuilding those muscles!
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys grow their courage and generally get past their pre-conceived ideas of how a career should look. If you’d like some help in getting courageous and seeing alternate pathways to happiness, contact Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org. She offers discounted sample sessions if you want to see what it’s like to create a life and career you deeply want.