Where smart isn’t enough
What could possibly have happened in a week that changed my mind about being a lawyer so quickly? After all, I’d written in my sixth-grade yearbook that I planned to be a lawyer, and for 10 years, I never wavered.
Sitting in that law school classroom, I was surrounded by 100 other students, all of whom were, I realized, just as smart as I was. The very brightest people in my class stood out immediately—they were a different breed, and I recognized immediately that I’d never be like them. Right or wrong, I reasoned that if I couldn’t finish at the top of the class, I’d better find a field where I could be the best.
Once I made the decision to continue my law school education but not practice, law school became something close to enjoyable. I was a consistent contributor to the B section of the grading curve while I loaded up my resume with nontraditional creds.
I cofounded a campus newspaper in my second year before creating a national magazine for law students with another classmate of mine in my third year. The magazine, J.D., the law student’s survival guide, served as an insider’s road map to practicing law. What does an entertainment lawyer actually do? How do you pay off crippling student debt?
After a couple years of running the magazine, it was clear I needed to find a more lucrative job. A stranger who read an article about my magazine in the National Law Journal reached out and offered me a job at a new startup company that handled public relations for law firms.
The job was the perfect intersection of journalism and the law, so I said yes. Three years after entering the world of PR, September 11 happened, and I was inspired to quit my job and start my own agency for professional services firms.
Two decades, still challenged
Fast forward 20 years, and not much has changed at the firm I founded. We help the world’s best lawyers and their firms position themselves in a crowded market through strategic communications. It remains fascinating to me for a few reasons.
One, lawyers can provide insightful commentary on the most important stories in the news. Two, we’re representing the very best attorneys in the world—a client base filled with the same type of people who convinced me I should find a different profession when I was in law school.
They’re inherently interesting people working on many of the most significant stories in the news.
Three, the job allows me and my colleagues to learn about challenging, substantive areas of law every day. At any given moment, we might be pitching attorneys to the media to discuss an antitrust matter, a piece of intellectual property litigation, employment issues, or a white-collar criminal defense case. It’s never boring.
We also do crisis and litigation communications for the clients of the law firms we represent, which is fast-paced and tends to involve stories that would be headlines…if they made the news. Just last week, we handled a case that caused the president of the United States to tweet his support for our client.
Take a chance on yourself
There has never been a moment when I regretted not practicing law, and it goes back to knowing what I enjoy doing. My law school education was invaluable. It changed the way I think and approach problems. But I don’t believe I’d have been an elite lawyer.
The process of rejecting a career that would have been unfulfilling to find a career where I had the potential to be exceptional was the smartest, most satisfying decision I’ve ever made.
This isn’t to say that making a switch away from the law is easy. I watched all my friends graduate and make significantly more money than I did early in my career not really knowing if I’d ever catch up. I’m sure there were people who viewed my decision as odd in some respects—after all, who goes to law school for three years, passes the bar, and doesn’t practice?
It wasn’t a matter of me being so uber-confident that I knew I’d be a huge success; I just knew what I didn’t want to do, and that was to be mediocre in a profession I didn’t love. I was willing to set aside my ego and start at the bottom to build a new career from scratch.
My advice to anyone considering a career outside the law is to remember that your law school education has value in a variety of contexts. You think differently, solve challenges thoughtfully, and are viewed by others as someone with substance by virtue of having a law degree.
If you aren’t passionate about your future career, find a new one that excites you. The workday can feel like it’s 100 hours long when you’re bored.
The ideal time to take a chance on a new career is when you’re young, but it’s never too late. What’s the worst thing that could happen? You’ll have an interesting story to tell at your next job interview.