How leaving the law is like being an undercover police officer

In my criminal procedure class years ago as a 2L at UC Hastings, we were visited by an undercover policeman who patrolled the nearby Tenderloin neighborhood. He described to us in detail his day-to-day tasks, experiences and routines. He talked to us specifically about the legal procedures he followed and we were able to ask many questions about his real life encounters to supplement the cases and theory we discussed in class.

And right before he left, he used the old combat adage to describe his job: Being a policeman in San Francisco involved suffering through long periods of boredom punctuated by short moments of excitement. There was a lot of drudgery and monotony, he said, but it’s the moments of challenge and adventure that made the job worth it for him.

While leaving the law is not nearly as risky as being an undercover cop, what the police officer said that day in class has always resonated with me. When we leave the law, there are a lot of unglamorous elements: We need to talk with our spouse about money issues, we need to actually forecast our living expenses on an Excel sheet, we need to do the difficult work of identifying what we’re good at and what we enjoy. We need to scour LinkedIn for contacts to reach out to for informational interviews. We need to try and align non-legal jobs with our legal skills, which can be very difficult to do. There is so much to do and a lot of it is boring and time consuming.

And all along, we need to keep living our current life. We need to go into the office. We need to get this-and-that done for such-and-such partner. We need to toil through another depo or copy and paste together another motion or draft another licensing agreement. And we need to keep paying the bills and take care of our family and retain our sanity.

And then … those short moments of excitement come into our life. It can build up gradually or BAM! surprise you from out of nowhere. It can be an aha moment that comes to you as you speak with your old high school friend and delve (really, really delve) into what your strengths and skills are. It can be a fantastic conversation you have over a thirty minute coffee with someone in marketing, business development, engineering or HR and you begin to see how your “legal” skills are actually coveted professional skills that can be transferred to other industries. It can be a compliment someone pays to you that sparks your confidence.

It can be that feeling you get when you realize that your identity need not be tied to being a lawyer. It can be that feeling you get when you can move on from law and not feel like you need to continue being a lawyer just because of the past money and time and effort you poured into law school and your job. It can be that feeling you get when you realize that you have turned the corner and are actually becoming happy and will only get happier. It can be that feeling you get when you visualize that personal and professional success that you know you want and will get. And it can be that feeling you get when you know that you will make it in this life of yours. It will be that feeling you know you will get when you are old and gray and looking back on your life, and know, truly, truly, truly know, that you changed your life at this particular moment, and while it was difficult and challenging and required you to make yourself vulnerable, you actually crafted a life that aligned with your dreams and hopes, and you will be old but you will be very satisfied with the life you have lived. It will be that feeling that you lived a life, warts and all, not for someone else but for yourself.

And after these short moments of excitement subside, yes, you will have to return to those long periods of boredom. But as you genuinely and properly leave law behind, these long periods of boredom become shorter and shorter periods of boredom, until, instead, they become longer and longer periods of confidence and satisfaction and purpose and direction and generosity and happiness.

It’s worth it.

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