Two years ago, I found myself asking: “How did I get here?”
I had been running a solo family and workers’ compensation law practice for about five years. I had enjoyed accomplishments in my practice, and I believed in what I was doing. I had not made a huge living, but I had always kept the doors open. Nonetheless, I was having a creeping sense of dissatisfaction. My pride in what I had built did not stop burnout from happening, nor the physical illness which followed. My energy was sapped, and I just could not keep doing this much longer.
Here is what I knew: I became a solo just months after I was admitted to the State Bar of California. The bottom had dropped out of the legal market while I was still in law school, and the country was still clawing its way back from the Great Recession of 2008. I had been job searching all over the state since the middle of law school. Most employers either did not respond to my inquiry, or they expected new attorneys like me to work for free. I refused to work for free as a matter of principle. The solo route was the best of several unattractive options for a newly minted lawyer at that time. So I started my own practice.
I moonlighted as an in-home caregiver on and off throughout having a solo practice. This ensured cash flow during lean months, but left me time to work on my caseload. I did not admit to fellow attorneys or clients that I did this type of moonlighting. I felt pressure to instead project an image of success and prestige, in order to be taken seriously and get referrals.
Through networking, I was soon fortunate to find a pair of attorneys in a small practice who hired me for paid freelance work. I appeared in court for them, took depositions for them, and did research and writing projects for them. These attorneys would sometimes get inquiries from people with simple cases, who could not afford the fees that established attorneys charged. So the attorneys I freelanced for began referring such cases to me, and mentoring me on the cases. A couple years later, they would retire after long and successful careers.
Between freelancing and networking, I was able to get a steady stream of cases. I charged people on a sliding scale basis, in order to compete with more experienced attorneys. I cut my costs by working at home, except when I used offices rented by the hour to meet with clients. I also ran my practice singlehandedly, instead of having an assistant. Although doing without an assistant saved money, this accelerated my eventual burnout.
I focused my practice on mediation, arbitration, and informal settlement negotiation. I stopped taking on litigated cases after awhile. Lawyers either love or hate litigation, and I hate litigation. Litigation takes over an attorney’s life. I want to work to live, not live to work.
Refraining from litigation gave me improved control over my life. Nonetheless, both family law clients and workers’ compensation clients need frequent attention. This is because they are going through a very rough time in their lives. At any given time, I had clients (or opposing parties) who were demanding enough to make my work highly stressful. Some of them expected quick responses at any time of day or night, including on weekends. Since I did not have an assistant, I fielded all communication.
In doing this work, I was becoming weary of constantly dealing with people at their worst – especially since most of my clients paid well below market rate. Even good people can be difficult at their worst. But the sunk cost fallacy kept me practicing for years. I did not have time to stop and think about what else I wanted to do. I would sometimes wish that something would happen to hospitalize me, so that I could stop doing this work once and for all. Then I would feel ungrateful for wishing that.
Then, two years ago, I did start to become ill. Fortunately, it was not sort of thing people die from. But I was advised by a doctor to make a career change soon. I had to take the chance. So I wound down my practice.
After leaving my practice, my health improved quickly. I continued to do freelancing for other attorneys, as well as arbitrations. Neither of those involves the emotional aspects of directly representing people going through divorces and work injuries.
I took an in-house job while I figured out what to do next. Working in my cubicle, I asked myself: “How did I get here?” I knew what I did not want to do. But I did not yet know what I did want to do. In a repetitive job, I was able to safely carry out my duties while simultaneously daydreaming about what I might be happier doing.
I reflected on why I had gone to law school. I admitted to myself that I had gone to law school to make my family happy and proud. A great many law students do the same, and it is perfectly understandable. Educational decisions, which can carry up to a lifetime of debt consequences, are often emotional ones more than rational ones.
I made some poor choices during my adolescence. I caused my family a lot of trouble and grief. Mistakes of youth often cast a long shadow over one’s life. I learned some hard lessons. I was fortunate, though, as I could have come out of a bad situation much worse off than I did. But I felt guilty for having disappointed my family. While I was rebuilding my life, my parents suggested professional school as a way of reforming myself. Their intentions were the best, and I am grateful for that. I was highly suggestible at this time, more so than they probably realized. I saw taking their suggestion as a means of redemption. So, I chose to go to law school.
I also reflected on how to pursue current dreams (both mine and my spouse’s). A few years after law school; one of the things that had attracted me to my now-spouse when we first started going out, is that we both shared a desire to travel. We both dreamed of the RV life, and exploring at leisure on the road. He and I started getting serious in our relationship around the same time that I was recovering from law practice. When he told me then about his travel dreams, I was reminded again of my own – even though I had been too caught up in my work to think about them for a long time. I am so thankful that he helped me to reawaken my dreams.
I had gotten into the legal field trying to please others. Now, I realized, it was time to do what I thought was right for myself and my new spouse. I had to give our dreams a chance.
Fortunately, I was able to take a couple of vacations from my cubicle job. I had not been able to take a real vacation in years. So I took this opportunity to rent an RV with my spouse, and visit places like:
Yosemite National Park:
Joshua Tree National Park:
Death Valley National Park:
Yellowstone National Park:
Grand Tetons National Park:
Pinnacles National Park:
We even stopped in a tiny town in Nevada near Area 51 with an alien theme, and the same name as me:
While seeing these incredible, jaw-droppingly beautiful natural places; I was filled with a sense of awe, of exhilaration, of being alive, and of being deeply connected to the Earth. I have never been religious, but I had profound spiritual experiences during these travels. I was deeply moved and forever changed by these places.
I knew then that I had to keep traveling. I could not simply remain in a cubicle day in and day out for much longer, nor continue to do work that did not offer enough flexibility to travel regularly. I had to figure out a way to make a living, but still travel. (My spouse is also developing an online freelance business.)
Even when I returned to work following my vacation, I could not stop thinking about the places that I had visited. I was anxious to do and see much more, and a couple of weeks out the year to do so was not enough for me. The hope of my spouse and I soon living on our terms sustained me even on the most difficult days at the office.
On my end, I had two problems to address. One was how to make a living on the road. I did and still continue to do freelance arbitrations and legal research and writing for attorneys, as these kinds of tasks can be done remotely and pay well.
The more major problem is my student loans. Serving people on a sliding scale helped me pay bills as long as I lived simply, but it didn’t help me pay down my loans. Using the income-based repayment program for my loans had kept the wolf from my door for years, but the interest was ballooning in the meantime. I am still one of the many American professional school graduates with six figures of debt, and I do not qualify for bankruptcy discharge. I have often grumbled to myself that if I had a house I could not afford, I could sell the house. If I had a car I could not afford, I could sell the car. But with an education I cannot afford, I cannot simply sell that back. But then I thought, “what if I could sell my education?”.
So, I decided to write and sell books about subjects learned in law school. It is my goal to have these books eventually pay off my student loans, as well as help to sustain a life on the road. I can work on these books and travel. I have always lived simply and have never felt the need for an extravagant lifestyle.
It should not cost anyone six figures to learn the basics of law. In the spirit of all that is Free Range, I am working on making legal education accessible and enjoyable to people everywhere through my books.
I will announce on this blog when the first book is ready. In the meantime, I will continue to share more about transitioning to life on the road, and legal freelancing!
As always, dear readers, thank you for following my story.