Twenty years ago, I found myself yearning to do something different with my work life. I had been practicing as a public interest lawyer since graduating from law school, and although I liked certain aspects of the work, I didn’t see myself as being a litigation attorney for the rest of my career.
Two pro bono activities sparked my thinking. As a Legal Aid lawyer in New York City, I had been elected a shop steward (i.e., union rep) to the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, the union for staff attorneys. The experience served as my discovery of the labor movement and worker advocacy, and it had a formative effect on me. We did and said many rash things as union activists, but the union enabled us to bargain for better pay and provided us with a platform for raising social justice issues.
In addition, I was serving as board chair of the Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF) based at my law school alma mater, New York University. PILF awarded seed-money grants to fledgling public interest law projects, drawn from funds raised from students, alumni/ae, and area law firms. I enjoyed the combination of working with the law student officers of the foundation and blending the tasks of fundraising and grant making. I also learned a heckuva lot about non-profit management and administration.
The needed nudge
However, I was hesitant to move outside of my comfort zone in terms of employment, and I feared that I would have to “start over” if I strayed too far from my credentials as a public interest litigator.
It was around that time that I encountered two books that encouraged me to think more expansively about my career. One was Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984; now in a 25th anniversary 2010 edition). What a great book about the early days of personal computing, starting with students at MIT obsessing over the university mega-computers that occupied entire rooms in the late 50s and early 60s! Hackers goes on to tell stories about the first homebrewed computer clubs, the formation of companies like Apple, and the development of computer games — with plenty of details about the individuals involved.
I was struck by how these computer pioneers were so utterly into what they were doing. Flow and engagement in one’s work…what a treat!
I also got hold of a self-help book, Barbara Sher’s Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want (1979; now in a 30th anniversary 2009 edition). Wishcraft helps readers identify their strengths and interests and overcome resistances to change, a terrific mix of inspirational and practical advice. It remains one of the best self-help books for people who want to transform their lives.
I don’t think that I worked through every exercise and set of questions in the book, but its basic premise made a strong impact.
NYU Lawyering Program
Inspired in part by these books, I pushed myself to look at opportunities outside of public interest litigation, and the most appealing one was a position as a legal skills instructor in the Lawyering Program at NYU. The Lawyering Program is an innovative, year-long course for new law students that combines instruction in legal research and writing with a series of clinical simulation exercises designed to introduce them to the tasks of interviewing, fact-gathering, negotiation, and advocacy. It is the brainchild of professor Anthony Amsterdam, who has made seminal contributions to civil rights litigation (especially anti-death penalty work) and to clinical legal education.
I applied for the job, and after a series of interviews I was offered a position, which I accepted right away. It was an entry-level, non-tenured instructor position, and I even had to take a small pay cut. It didn’t matter; I loved it and became immediately enamored of teaching. Three years later, I pursued tenure-track appointments and secured my current position at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.
Modest yet meaningful transition
Okay, so going from legal practice to law teaching isn’t exactly a radical departure from the norm — presumably I didn’t need to be inspired by computer pioneers and life transformation experts to make the move.
Nevertheless, I thank these books for helping me to ask myself, what do I want to do with my life, and how do I get there? It has led me to a satisfying career that combines teaching and various types of law reform, public education, advocacy activities. There have been bumps along the road, to be sure, but I know that I made the right choice.
In particular, this career has allowed me to invest considerable time and energies into tackling the problem of workplace bullying. I doubt very much that I would’ve created this niche for myself had I not been given the opportunity to do serious research and writing, eventually leading to the drafting of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill and extensive contact and collaboration with folks outside of academe.
Given my interests in stopping workplace bullying, this blog often discusses the more difficult and nasty aspects of the work experience. That said, I encourage you, especially if you’ve experienced bullying, abuse, and other mistreatment at work, to ask yourself the same compound question that spurred my change in direction some 20 years ago: What do I want to do with my life, and how do I get there?
The path to a better place may not be easy — in fact, there are no guarantees that smart planning and hard work will get you to where you want to be — but this inquiry is a pretty darn good place to start.