My first ‘career’ job was as a state lawyer. I started in early 2008 and it was the most eye-opening experience of my life. I had gotten through college and law school, but after my final university graduation in 2006 I basically froze up. I had no idea how to succeed outside of an academic setting, basically having taken the easiest routes possible through all seven years of higher education. I probably should have trusted myself a little more considering I managed to make law school easy, but for most of my life self-confidence and trust never really existed.
I worked full time at a bookstore for fifteen months during which I made half-assed attempts at getting a job in my field. Working for a few dollars above minimum wage was a lot more comfortable for me than charging forth and see how I would match up with the rest of the world.
I finally got on with the state in a part-time attorney role, after interviewing for four different positions with them over the course of a calendar year. My first law job involved representing Child Protective Services in abuse and neglect cases, but they were civil cases, not criminal in nature. We didn’t send people to jail or prison for their offenses, but would take their kids. Sometimes permanently. My office did all of the necessary legal work in these cases and oftentimes the work itself was stressful and the fact patterns that arose could be as bad as you can imagine.
I had never even known this kind of work existed until I started applying for jobs and within a few weeks I had to learn how to suppress all types of emotional responses to reading about and handling situations involving children in pretty awful circumstances. As I said, eye-opening.
But what really caught my attention in this process was how I was able to adjust to the very stressful and very ‘adult’ nature of my new profession. I immediately hit it off with not only all of the other attorneys and support staff in my office, but opposing attorneys, court personnel and social workers who were part of the massive juvenile justice system. With the utmost modesty I can honestly say that for a large number of people, I became a top two or three favorite attorney with whom to work.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had found myself in a situation as comfortable as the one I left behind at the bookstore. It was an odd revelation, one that probably should have taught me that I was capable of doing pretty good work. Sometimes you just need to rely on your own competence. But my view of this new life was clouded by the fact that I made the most of the situation by developing what were, in hindsight, inappropriate, boundary-crossing social relationships with just about everybody I worked with, within my office and otherwise. A favorite, frequent pastime was drinking from close of the work day to close of the bar.
So what happened instead was that I let myself get wrapped up in another comfortable situation and identified the environment, rather than my own abilities, as the reason I was finding success.
That happened for six years. I barely bothered to look for other work anywhere else or try to expand my skill set until I was forced to when my wife decided to move to a different state.
I was nervous to make the leap because even after six years as a practicing attorney I did not believe that my success and solid reputation were products of my own making. In looking for work in a new place I pretty much focused on the type of job I already knew, figuring that it would be the quickest way to land one from out of state. Switching jurisdictions as an attorney and finding employment from fifteen hundred miles away is a daunting challenge, and I chose to take the easiest path I could. I think it made sense given that I was more interested in expediency than the type of job I ultimately secured.
So I got a job with the new state representing Child Protective Services. How uninspiring, right? Given the opportunity to jump into an entirely new area of law, with an entirely new set of challenges, I ended up picking the same old, same old. Even worse, although I had done this work for so long I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to hack it outside of my longtime cozy setting. But at the same time I figured that if I landed in a new, super comfortable situation I could just continue to cruise along.
Well, neither one of those things happened. I get along just fine alongside the people in my new professional life, but nothing out of bounds. My work life stays at work. In the year I have been here I have avoided allowing my social existence to get tangled up with my work life. I play softball with one colleague. I have a friendship with another that predates my joining the office. Happy hours and work lunches are very rare for me. It’s made life easier and gives me more clarity in approaching my job.
Even better, and more surprising for someone who has never had any faith in himself, I have discovered that the reason I was so good at my job back home, and why my reputation was so sterling, is me. It has nothing to do with my position in a clique or who my associates are. I am much more independent now, professionally speaking, than ever. I’m entirely alone with my skill and competence, not enmeshed in the fabric of an often dysfunctional organization and relying on that to identify my personality as a lawyer. I loved what I was a part of in my last job, but right now I am thrilled to realize that I am making my own way. With this new-found trust in myself I am full of ideas and creating opportunities that I never would have dreamed of trying before. There is a very real chance that I take a big leap and go out on my own within the next year. I am excited and for the first time in a long while genuinely looking forward to the future.
Guest post by RMK, attorney for a paycheck, not a living.