Taisha Rucker gives a searingly honest, uncomfortable account of her journey out of law in Full-Disclosure: How To Quit Practicing Law With No Savings, Massive Debt, No Supportive Spouse, and Not a Single Clue About What’s Next. While I think most unhappy lawyers could benefit from the wisdom she acquired along the way, many of you may simply freak out at the thought of lurching along on an uncertain path as she did, and quickly put the book down. That would be a mistake.
Rucker does not give the step-by-step plan that most unhappy attorneys, formed by the punch-list lifestyle, deeply crave. After all, aren’t we supposed to set a goal, figure out the steps to that goal, and then march, march, march?
That’s how most lawyers got to law school, whether or not law school was the goal. Lawyers, especially those that go to the top tier schools, are masters of achieving the goals of good grades, leadership positions that look good on the application, and that myriad of things that schools and corporate America say we need to do to be successful and have a future. At least, one in which we will not be living under a bridge.
Yet what we often need to do is stop moving, and listen to what our true selves want and need. Rucker focuses on this crucial, yet usually derided, part of planning our career paths and lives.
The Original Plan
Unlike so many of my clients and readers, Rucker did not go to law school because she lacked any better idea of what to do with herself after graduating college with some stripe of liberal arts degree. No, she knew since she was 11 that she wanted to become a criminal defense lawyer.
This was her plan:
Step 1: Go to U of Michigan for college.
Step 2: Go to law school.
Step 3: Become a criminal defense attorney.
Step 4: Represent high profile athletes who have committed crimes of passion; or become a lawyer for the Mob.
Step 5: Spend the rest of my working life defending people accused of the most heinous crimes.
Step 6: Make a lot of money doing this.
Step 7. Die.
Rucker was similar to many of my clients, and lawyers generally, as far as money goes. It’s often a motivating factor in the choice of law school over, say, becoming a therapist or someone else who actually helps people one-on-one.
Those who go to law school “to help people” learn, usually sooner rather than later, that you cannot help people and work for BigLaw, or even MediumLaw or SmallLaw necessarily. No matter the law firm size, the success yardstick is revenues, and most law firms don’t see holding people’s hands when they’re in crisis as revenue-generating.
Rucker arrived at the University of Michigan Law School after working 2 years for Teach For America. “So about two weeks into my First Year of Law School, I didn’t want to be a criminal defense attorney anymore. In fact, I didn’t want to be a lawyer at all.”
The First Non-Legal Job
Now, this is where things start to get interesting. Maddeningly, though, Rucker never shares with us why she had such a huge change of heart. Two weeks into law school, and things are still feeling new and unfamiliar. Heck, you probably haven’t even been called on in class. or know where all the bathrooms are. It must have been something big that provoked such a 180, but this is the one instance where Rucker does not live up to her promise of full disclosure.
Of course, Rucker doesn’t just quit law school, or we wouldn’t be reading this book. Instead,
I did what most people do when they find themselves in the throes of an existential crisis. I pretended that everything was fine.
This made me laugh out loud, because I’ve not only witnessed this behavior in others, I’ve done it myself. (Although for me, I couldn’t even see that I hated law school, the denial ran so deep. No, no, it was that I was having a hard time with the single exam format, or with having to really work at something academic for the first time ever, or anything but the fact that law bored me silly and I had no business studying it. Good times.)
So Rucker contorted her way through school, graduated, and then, lacking a job at graduation time, moved to Detroit to be with her boyfriend. And decided that until she passed the Michigan bar, she wouldn’t apply for any law jobs, Instead, she started working in women’s clothing at a high-end department store.
She stayed for 2.5 years.
That’s just the tip of the career craziness iceberg in this story. While eventually Rucker does take a series of law-type jobs, in the middle of crazy job move #3 or #4, I had to fight a really strong urge to stop reading. As a reader, I felt like shaking her and saying, “Cut it out! You are obviously very smart and you went to a stellar school, twice. Get your shit together already!!”
Aside from being woefully judgmental on my part, that reaction steamrolls over what was really going on with Rucker. She kept dodging the existential questions that had been haunting her since 1L: Who am I? What is my purpose? What will make me happy?
The answers to these questions is the difference between running from the law and running toward your purpose. If you don’t know why you exist, you’re not going to be happy even if you get a non-legal job. You’ve got to do the work. You have to be relentless in understanding yourself. (emphasis in original)
On this point, I completely agree with Rucker. I’ve experienced it myself, and I see it in clients constantly. The ones who leave dysfunctional law firms and go in-house or to government in legal capacities are indeed happier. At first. But when law isn’t part of their purpose, those clients feel the waves of unhappiness lapping at their knees again fairly soon. Within weeks or months, not years.
I’m not saying that taking a “bridge job” out of the law firm insanity isn’t a good move; it’s often an excellent strategy for giving yourself the experiences and skills you need on the path to your long-term dreams. Just don’t mistake it for your final destination.
As Rucker aptly puts it,
If you look at the end, in this case with looking at careers or jobs themselves to help you quit law, I think it’s about the same as staying in your relationship until you meet a new girl you like better. It could work. But it probably won’t.
Rucker shines in the more metaphysical parts of her book. She gives some nice examples of how following her “Voice Within” leads her where she needs to be, despite the fact that the decision looks completely nuts when she makes it. For example, she moved to San Francisco to take a $40K job that eventually morphed into much more. Despite lousy credit, she got the exact apartment she wanted.
The Lens You See Through
We tend to write off these kinds of serendipitous-seeming lifelines as pure chance, and not to be relied upon. But what if they’re not? What if they are signals from the Universe that you are indeed on the right path?
I know that when I’m clear about what I desire, and I think about it until it is as real to me as this computer I’m typing on, I get what I want. Every. Single. Time. . . Sometimes you think you’re living your dream when really it’s the dream of your parents, or your spouse, or the Joneses. It’s easy to get swept up in the frenzy of wanting what other people want. We’re bombarded with images in the media, on T.V., and on our mobile phones and tablets.
I liked the message of Full Disclosure, and I wish there were more books that talk about how messy leaving law actually is for many, many people. It often involves things that seem unthinkable or at the very least ridiculous, such as damaging your credit score, taking lower-paying jobs that mean the kids have to go to public school and the spouse has to work. There often isn’t a clear plan or path.
But guess what? The paths we think are clear and logical often don’t work out, either. We just delude ourselves that they always will, if only we can squeeze ourselves inside someone else’s cramped, soul-killing box.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple distracting things about Full Disclosure. Most annoying, likely because I used to edit for a living, are the typos and grammatical missteps. I give a lot of latitude to writers using grammar in casual, unconventional ways. This may be what Rucker was trying to do, but too many times I just couldn’t understand what she was trying to say without re-reading a passage 3 or 4 times.
Also, the book had a feeling of a bunch of blog posts strung together, though it wasn’t. That may not bother many readers, but it did me.
Full Disclosure is not going to resonate with those of you who are determined to stay in hard-charging, prestigious jobs whose main attraction is that they aren’t law jobs. But if you read the old Deborah Arron What You Can Do With a Law Degree (Besides Practice Law) and nothing in that spoke to you, Full Disclosure probably will.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys uncover their purpose and dreams from underneath the pile of other people’s dreams for them. If you would like some help with that process, book a discounted sample session by emailing Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org.