A few weeks ago, I was drinking an Old Cuban with my roommate at my favorite bar, Grand Tavern. We were sitting on the back patio, when a group of men across from us started talking loudly about Above the Law. My ears perked up, and I began wondering if I might overhear something like this or this.
Fortunately for the gentlemen across the bar, I didn’t hear anything scandalous. Fortunately for me, I did hear them mention Brian Smith, a former associate at Nixon Peabody, who opened the doors to his new business, Huckleberry Bicycles, last Friday in San Francisco.
I met up with Smith last week, and we spoke about how he became a part of our growing club of lawyers not practicing law….
Like a lot of people, Smith went to law school because he wasn’t sure what else to do. He ended up graduating from the University of Michigan Law School and landing a summer associate position at Nixon Peabody. He earned a full-time position and started work the day Lehman Brothers collapsed.
It was a scary time to be an associate, he said. (No kidding.) A lot of people were questioning their careers and openly discussing their own “what I would do if I left law” fantasies.
Although Smith says he enjoyed the people at Nixon Peabody and had no real problem with the firm generally, he began realizing he wasn’t interested in the Biglaw life. He didn’t want to be part of a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie.
He was good at the job. Shortly before he left the firm at the end of 2010, the main partner he worked for moved to DLA Piper and asked Smith to follow him. Smith declined, and when he finally quit to work on Huckleberry full time, there was no hot-tempered departure memo.
“Almost every single person was like, ‘That is awesome!’” he said.
Smith, who is 34, still meets up with some of his old coworkers, and he has no plans to let his law license lapse. Down the road, he hopes to advocate for children in guardianship cases. In short, he harbors no ill will toward the Biglaw system. It just wasn’t for him:
I left on my own accord. I really loved working for that group. They were awesome. It was a really tough choice to make, but I’d already gone so far down this road — and it was so exciting to me — that I had to take this risk.
I was afraid I would find myself 10-to-20 years down the road saying to some junior associate, “Good for you man, I always wanted to do that.”
Smith co-owns the new store with two friends, Zack Stender and Jonas Jackel, who have both worked at bike shops before. It goes without saying that all three are passionate about cycling.
Their goal is to provide a friendly, community-focused store, with a special emphasis on commuter cyclists. Smith acknowledges that cycling stores can be intimidating, and they want to avoid that.
The trio has taken an unusual strategy of opening the store on Market Street at 7th Street — in the middle of San Francisco’s infamous Tenderloin district. The store sits next to an adult movie theater, and a steady stream of addicts and derelicts continuously stagger past the front door. But Market Street has the highest bike traffic of any street west of the Mississippi, Smith said. And the store owners have already cultivated a following by offering free bike repairs every morning on the busy corner outside the shop.
The city badly wants to improve the neighborhood. Twitter is moving in up the street, and the organization that runs Burning Man is also down the block. Smith says he got a lot of help from the city, in the form of media relations and logistical support from San Francisco. The mayor stopped by last week, too.
It hasn’t been easy. Smith says he hasn’t made money in a year. He’s still got student loans dangling over his head, and he’s still working 12 hours a day. But he’s waking up to fix bikes at 7:30 every morning instead of writing legal briefs in an office, and he is happy.
Not too shabby.
Christopher Danzig is a writer in Oakland, California. He previously covered legal technology for InsideCounsel magazine. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisdanzig or email him at email@example.com. You can read more of his work at chrisdanzig.com.