Five years ago, life irrevocably changed when I learned that my beloved husband was diagnosed with brain cancer. In the few seconds that it took the doctor to convey the news, my optimistic plans for my empty-nest future with my husband — working on law-tech projects together (there wasn’t a computer language that my husband couldn’t master in a matter of days) or living on a beach in the Caribbean part of the year – went up in smoke, and my horizons contracted to figuring out how to make it through each day.
Up until that point, I’d played things relatively safe. True, I’d been running my own law firm, but I stuck with a practice area – energy regulatory law – that would always pay the bills even though it didn’t always light my fire. My husband did the same; turning down opportunities at start-ups for tech jobs — albeit at great companies like Google and Amazon — to save for our retirement and pay our daughters’ tuition bills. (Thankfully, he did get that opportunity to work for a startup as Chief Technology Officer for about 6 months until the company ran out of money – and he loved it). But even with all of our planning, we couldn’t outrun the horrible fate that life had in store for us.
As lawyers, we’re on a first-name basis with risk-aversion. Think about it. In law school, we’re encouraged to engage in overkill as we’re rewarded with extra points on exams for spotting every issue from the likely to the preposterous just so that we can keep all bases covered. Risk-aversion carries over to law practice where as attorneys, we’re loathe to offer even tentative advice until we’ve researched every nook and cranny of a particular issue.
Many lawyers are no different when it comes to career path. We stay too long at well-paying but soul-crushing jobs that are good enough or pay well but that don’t feed our passion or leave a legacy . Many new grads who went to law school with a passion to promote justice now settle for legal-adjacent jobs that don’t require a law degree because it seems safer than holding out for what they want. Needless to say, this approach has caused the rate of depression, alcoholism and substance abuse among lawyers to skyrocket – yet rather than try to get at the root of the problem by forcing lawyers to think hard about what gives them meaning, we simply look for healthier ways to mask our discontent – as evidenced by the growing cottage industry focused on lawyer wellbeing.
Even when we talk about starting a law firm, lawyers still yearn for safety. Back in the day, legendary Jay Foonberg warned lawyers against starting a firm without a year’s savings on hand. And so many of today’s coaching programs play to lawyers’ fear of risk by touting programs that will shortcut you to success by adopting, cookie-cutter style, a path that worked for someone else – even if that type of firm isn’t necessarily what you may have in mind.
Here’s the thing. With or without a plan, starting your own law firm is risky and scary. Always has been, always will be. There’s no guarantee that you will succeed, and there’s not much of a safety net if you fail. And as I now know from my own personal experience, even the best laid plans are never foolproof.
And yet, what I’ve also learned as I emerge from the fog of grief is that there’s a lightness that comes from taking a risk or embracing uncertainty, or embarking on a course not knowing where it will take you but doing it anyway without a Plan B or the safety net of a second income or a steady salary. Because life is on the wire, as Karl Wallenda famously observed. The rest is waiting.
If you have been thinking about starting a law firm but feeling nervous about doing it, stop waiting and pull from within you the courage to join us out here on the wire. It feels good to be back.