Above the Law

Fact: The law isn’t for everyone. Fiction: You have to practice law if you’re a law school graduate.

Sometimes, you just have to leave the law completely and follow the road less traveled in order to find your true passion. I’ve interviewed two former attorneys who were brave enough to venture into the unknown and in the process, discover their passions outside of the law.

MEE-JUNG JANG (New York, NY)

1. What is your current occupation or line of work?

I’m the founder/CEO of a tech startup called Voncierge.com.

2. Did you practice any law after graduating, and if so, where and what did you practice?

I practiced corporate and IP law at Cleary Gottlieb in Manhattan for about two years.

3. What made you decide to completely leave the law and pursue a startup?

Simply put, I just couldn’t see myself working at a law firm for the rest of my life. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak and realized that I would regret it if I didn’t go for it.

4. How was the transition from working for a law firm to working for yourself?

The hardest part was actually making the decision to quit. I went back and forth on it for many months. Even though I didn’t want to be a corporate lawyer for life, things like the paycheck, the risk, the economy, all made me hesitate. I talked to my now husband for almost every day about it and changed my mind daily – I’m sure he got sick of hearing about it! After I made the jump though, it was a smooth transition. It felt so natural to me.

5. Could you describe what aspect of your work makes you feel passionate now, compared to when you were practicing law?

I think a big reason that I lacked passion in law is because I had never “dreamed” of working at a law firm. It was never something that I had planned as a life goal. I just ended up in it, like a lot of law students. I went to law school because of my interest in women’s rights issues, not because I wanted to be a corporate lawyer. In contrast, my startup is my baby. And I love creating something from nothing – it’s such a rewarding experience.

6. Do you find that your law background is relevant or useful to what you’re doing now?

It actually has been helpful. I drafted some of the initial legal documents myself when we were really bootstrapped. Lawyer fees are expensive, as you all know, so that helped save us money. The law firm training also helped me learn how to be efficient.

7. Any plans to return to law?

Not at the moment! But never say never…

ANONYMOUS (Jakarta, Indonesia)
1. What is your current occupation or line of work?

I’m head of the math department at Jakarta International School (JIS), a big private school (approximately 2,500 students, K-12) serving mostly expats. We offer the AP and International Baccalaureate (IB) curricula in grades 11 and 12 and many of our students go on to college in the U.S., so we’re on a similar schedule. People tend to not know about or understand international schools, which is why I explain all this. Next year, I’ll be the IB/AP Coordinator, sort of a pseudo-admin, but still teaching one math section.

2. Did you practice any law after graduating, and if so, where and what did you practice?

I practiced for less than a year in the IP group at a big firm in Chicago. Great group, great firm, just clearly wasn’t for me.

3. What made you decide to completely leave the law and pursue teaching?

Well, I almost didn’t even go to the firm because my volunteer position during my deferral year, at the National Association for Urban Debate League, made me realize that I wanted to be in the educational sector. But I wanted to at least attempt a career in law. However, I realized that I didn’t ever want to be a partner, or go in-house, and didn’t have the stones for say, public defense. All this time, I was reflecting on great memories from my previous teaching stint in Taipei from 2004 to 2006. In the end, I couldn’t imagine a fulfilling, long term career in law, and the temptation of the international teaching lifestyle was too great.

4. How was the transition from working for a law firm to working on the other side of the world?

The transition wasn’t so hard because I’d taught on the international circuit before and generally knew a lot of people on the circuit. JIS is in the same athletics/activities conference as my previous school, Taipei American School. There was a little difficulty in navigating the identity shift from teacher to lawyer, then back to teacher, because part of the reason I went to law school in the first place was to assuage some status anxiety. My friend Molly once put it well, regarding my decision to go to law school, when she said, “You just wanted to prove that you could do it.” So now that I’ve proven that I could go to a good law school, do well and snag (just barely) the Biglaw job, I could relax and do what I really wanted.

The transition was also eased by the fact that the international teaching lifestyle is so incredible – good compensation packages in the right tier of schools, ample time off: one week each semester, three weeks at Christmas, seven weeks this coming summer. This is real time off where no one is trying to reach you on your Blackberry. Plus you’re living in a great country (Indonesia) or region (Southeast Asia), which is fun to explore during your vacation days.

5. Could you describe what aspect of your work makes you feel passionate now, compared to when you were practicing law?

The passion I found in law school, and to a slightly lesser or different extent at the firm, allowed me to continuously challenge myself on an intellectual level. I enjoyed the great intellectual challenges, especially since I had to utilize my heavy math and computer science background. Teaching high school math, even at a higher level, offers only so many intellectual challenges of the kind that stretches one’s brain. But for me, the law lacked meaning, actually more like negative meaning. My job didn’t make me want to get out of bed in the morning.

So I’ve traded off a little intellectual stimulation in exchange for increased meaning (even if I am teaching mostly ultra-privileged students). In order to boost the intellectual challenge of teaching, I’ve sought more leadership roles, which present human interaction challenges that help me grow and learn in another domain that I historically ignored as a lawyer.

6. Do you find that your law background is relevant or useful to what you’re doing now?

My ability to “think like a lawyer” actually does help me create an inquiring atmosphere in the math department, which I think has been integral to our growth in these past few years. And I’m not referring to analytical thinking because math people are already constantly thinking that way. Rather, I mean the idea that little truth is arrived at by a process of putting ideas on the table without asking hard questions and testing these ideas. It seems that my experience with the Socratic method has seeped into my classroom, for better or worse. I also think that my legal background will be useful next year as I attempt to help counsel people through a big international organization (the IB) while interpreting its rules.

7. Any plans to return to law?

I might need to get back to the U.S. at some point because my parents are a bit older and I’m an only child. I’m from a small town in Iowa so I’d probably move back there to take care of my parents. If so, I would try to work at one of the local public schools. Or take the Iowa bar and try to do the small town lawyer thing. We’ll see.

Note: Going to law school doesn’t have to be such a waste after all. Sure, there may be days when you feel dragged down by the chains of your law school debt, but a law background may prove itself useful in non-traditional ways. At the very least, you can save money by doing your own legal work.

If you’re not ready to leave your job yet, you can still pursue your passion in the safety of your own free time. Happiness is the underlying motivation for passion. Most people can’t reconcile their 9 to 5 job with happiness and that’s perfectly fine. Once you clock out, however, you can pursue ballroom dancing, volunteer work at a shelter, development of the next iPhone app, whatever your heart desires. Don’t allow law to be a restriction on your imagination, creativity, and passion.

Sunny Choi is the 2013 Writers in Residence Coordinator for Ms. JD. She is a former participant in the Writers in Residence program, where her monthly column Legally Thrifty focused on beginners personal finance advice for law students and professionals. A graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, she currently practices commercial litigation and creditors’ rights while freelance writing and blogging in her spare time. She can be reached at contentdirector@ms-jd.org.

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