Tuesday, January 6, 2009


As you know, I've been frustrated by my slow progress in figuring out my new direction. I've made so little progress and have been irritated with myself for having squandered so much time. It has been eight months since I got booted out of Paul Hastings, and I have very little to show for it. This period has been the most unproductive since I left law school. I keep asking myself, why can't I get it together?

During my plane ride to Israel, I read an eye opening article about a new book called Immunity to Change by clinical psychologist Robert Kagen and Lisa Lahey (to be released in mid-February). Essentially, Kagen and Lahey believe that when we fail to bring about the change we want, it could be because we are at odds with ourselves. When we find difficulty implementing changes, despite ourselves, our defense mechanism may be kicking in to protect ourselves from a deeply buried layer of anxiety. It is, as the article quoted, having "one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake."

It may not be because we are lazy or lack willpower. (Well, not always.)

"What you see as demonic is actually in some ways a very tender expression," says Lahey, "a protection of something you feel vulnerable about."

I find this theory fascinating. I have been treating this transition mainly as a job change, but it is also a transformation of identity and realignment of values. The article made me realize that I need to be more attentive to the psychological transition I am undergoing. Considering how I spent the past ten years talking myself into accepting my lot as an attorney, I should recognize that I am buried under layers of psychological shields I put in place. And it will take time and patience to dismantle them.

When I was a third year law student, I went to a friend's wedding. My friend put me at the same table with an accomplished documentary filmmaker knowing how much I appreciated her work. I sat two seats away from the filmmaker, and between us was another young woman about my age. When the filmmaker asked us what we did, I stammered, "Well, I'm in law school..." and the woman in the middle said, "I'm a writer," even though she soon clarified that she had not yet been published. The filmmaker asked me one or two polite questions about law school and then turned to the writer with a host of questions I wished she had asked me, like what kind of writing do you do, who are your favorite authors, what do you think about this or that book, etc. That evening, I realized for the first time what my career decision meant for me. Others would cast me in the role of a lawyer, with all the stereotypes and assumptions that go with it, just as I had stereotypes about politicians or actresses. That was probably one of my most depressing days in law school.

So for the past ten years, I built up some defenses to help me come to terms with my unhappy choice. Some of it came in the form of being overly sensitive to lawyer jokes, talking a little too insistently about the practicalities of making a decent living and setting up for retirement, rolling my eyeballs at the artsy, fartsy types. Some of it resulted in arguments with my sister, who obtained an MFA in writing. Some of it manifested in the smugness of buying $15 martinis and taking a cab because my time was too precious to be wasted on public transportation.

So I am going to sit down and sort through these issues, one by one, and try to disentangle myself as much as I can.

And then maybe I will be ready to start writing seriously in about ten more years...


  1. You'll figure it out. You will pick a path. For a totally unsolicited comment, how about exploring multiple career paths? Checking out stuff that's interested you: working on political campaigns or movements (a la Obama - and I imagine they'd *love* having a lawyer around), or testing the waters as a teacher or figuring out a way to get into school administration (a la Rhee). And you could do writing either as a third thing, or in combination with or both of the other two. Again, the unsolicited advice department. Hope you enjoyed your trip to Israel, swam in the Dead Sea, checked out the Old City and Wailing Wall, etc.

    Your fan, and unsolicited advice giver (by you give me some serious inspiration).

  2. Shinyung - I feel lucky to know you as a friend, although a little sadly as a distant one...My sister also had felt a great need to redeem our parents' lives. The last year of her life, she was secretly studying for her LSAT. Not everyone feels so... compelled?... It takes a person with courage, sensitivity, passion...it’s no wonder why you were friends at a young age.

    You don't strike me as being unproductive at all. On the contrary, your discipline is amazing, like a great athlete getting necessary rest before another day of training.

    It’s hard to pick which entry touched me most, they are so many that bespeak a person who is thoughtful, who loves beauty, ideas, people…which is of course how I see you anyway…but this last entry struck me as significant…like something BIG just happened.

    Keep disentangling…I’ve no doubt that you’ll find everything you are looking for.

  3. When it comes to my writing, I had this early conviction that it would be later in life (i.e. not my 20's) that I'd have more to say as a writer. I think I've come more into my own. What you are living & experiencing right now (even if it feels like nothing is happening) is informing your writing in ways you probably have no idea. The suffering you've gone through is what will build character in your work (to paraphrase/draw-from a verse I know.) *Reading Like a Writer* is a great book I have been looking at, by Francine Prose. Maybe you'll enjoy it as I have.

  4. Hi! =)

    That's a great observation. As I read this post, I thought about the many many times that I've "resolved" to change this or that about myself but never ended up really changing... and then I'd feel guilty that I hadn't... I think what you wrote about that those authors said is true... like we think we want to change or we think we want something.. but then, we don't change and we don't do that thing we wanted. I also think we have a lot of conflicting desires and wants... it's like what Paul says in the book of Romans, we don't do what we want to do, and the thing we hate, we do.

    OK. I'm rambling now... but hurray for re-assessing your values. It's so easy to fall into the lie that a comfortable life (materialistically speaking) is a happy life but it is SO not. =)

  5. ACK. that was me above. not Jin. we use the same computer at home.. he he

  6. It is ironic that the way you go about rediscovering yourself is very lawyerly. Issue by issue, one by one, lineal and logical.

  7. You're so hard on yourself! I was really impressed by you just reading your reaction to those evil people at Paul Hastings. There is something authentic and real inside you, and it is strong enough to express itself even in grief. Let it out. Give yourself time, to watch the Bay, stroll around the City and breath. Rushing around seeking the causes of difficulty changing when you have not given yourself enough time to do so will block the changes that will otherwise flow naturally. You're good: you just need to believe it.

  8. I was a newspaper reporter. I was creative and, occaisionally, agressive. I got a great deal of satisfaction from my work. What I didn't get was: (1) enough money to pay rent on more than a 1 bdrm apartment, let alone ever dream of owning a home (and don't even think of saving to send a kid or two to college); (2) the respect of the people I covered; (3) the respect of the public who I always thought I was trying to serve; (4) realistiic opportunities for advancement or job security. The industry self-destructed under my feet and before my eyes.

    So I quit and headed to law school. And it was a good decision. And, even though I'm a lawyer now, that's not all I am. We aren't defined by our careers unless we want ourselves to be, and if those holier-than-thou creative artistic types want to pigeonhole you, well, then, maybe they aren't as creative and open-minded as they fancy themselves.

    The law touches every aspect of our lives. Writing a brief is boring; reviewing documents is boring; but being a part of the legal universe is exciting.

  9. I've been following your blog, but not commenting, cos I'm also a Korean-American daughter who went to law school. But actually I work at a non-profit and even though I'm still struggling with what I want to do, I actually like being a lawyer a lot, but I admit that I'm a freak and I was lucky. Not that it's all perfect, but such is life.

    I've also seen tons of people who either hate law school/being a lawyer and people who've made their way out, so I've got lots of hope for you. Besides, some of that heartache and insight into the darkness of people, i.e. big law denizens, will prolly give you much fruit to plunder for your writing~ And the immigrant child angst I relate to completely, always. So keep writing!

  10. I was actually sort of sad to read your message.

    And I'm going to comment on this from an outsider (Australian) perspective - I practice in NYC but did law school in Australia.

    Firstly - I think US law students (or post grad students for that matter) are so insanely competitive, work too hard and actually do too much overachieving. In contrast, working after this can seem so mundane (but at least there is the bank balance and a tonne of work to keep any lawyer busy), and I guess working now that you're not working it seems like you're not productive. I think you need to take a step back and just breathe and stop taking measures on how you're doing - it's not good for the soul.

    I actually like being a lawyer but I don't think it defines me at all. It may be because in Australia the majority of students do a law degree as an undergrad combined with another bachelors (2 degrees at the same time), we don't feel as pigeoned holed because we have time to get out of it because we graduate from it so early (around 22 or 23). Anyway, whether someone does it postgrad or as a bachelors, a law degree doesn't define someone. I found pigeonholing a wider practice in the US than in Oz.

    I actually like being a lawyer. But whoever meets me will always know more about all the other projects or interests I have that may or may not have anything to do with being a lawyer. The more precise way of looking at it (and it took me a while to get here) is - I work as a lawyer, but I am also a music promoter, amateur fashionista, sporting fanatic and occasional designer (that's not my tag line.. but just explaining that). But don't hide or be ashamed of being one for fear of being pigeoned holed. You need to now project yourself in a different way. Don't even bother saying 'i'm a lawyer'. You can say 'I'm a lawyer by trade', being a lawyer pays the bills, or don't even say it. Just talk about projects you have started. e.g I have a good friend who is a photographer by nite, lawyer by day (very senior in their job too). I know a few others doing other things too on the side. You'd never guess that, they wouldn't hide it, but they just don't play into stereotypes and don't really talk about their jobs - there is plenty of more interesting things to talk about other than being lawyers.

    Anyway good luck and I hope you figure it out in your own way.

  11. I think it's maybe better to look at life in chunks.

    You seemed to enjoy your life for most of your time at PH. So it wasn't wasted. If you were happy then, then you got to spend some years that were, if not perfect, then at least enjoyable. (Lot of "then"s in that sentence.) Ultimately, it came to a less-than-perfect end, but that doesn't mean it was time wasted.

    It might be hard to figure what constitutes a non-waste-of-time today, but that doesn't mean it can't be done. At the risk of sounding condescending, don't beat yourself up over the path you took - it didn't end the way you wanted, but you seemed to have enjoyed the journey. (God, does that sound hackneyed and lame.)

    Now you'll take a different path. You've already fulfilled other peoples' dreams - your parents'. Now that you're older, and more self-aware, and not burdened by some of the concerns you had, you can choose another path that will probably not be perfect (because few peoples' paths are), but which you will hopefully enjoy, and maybe find even more enjoyable than most of your time at PH.

    In other words: I'm not sure your time at PH was "wasted." I think it's hard for people like me (us?) not to think there's some master plan to which we should adhere ("My plan is to stick with Big Law,"My plan is to find a plan for the next step," "I am angry at myself for not having decided on a path left," etc.

    I'm self-critical too (at least, *I* think you're being self-critical, but maybe I'm wrong - armchair pshrink), but I feel I understand that self-criticism, because I see it in myself, and wish I didn't have it, and wish you didn't have it, either (even though I don't know you).

    You shouldn't be too mad at yourself for anything you've done or are doing; maybe you didn't make perfect decisions, but partly, you are where you are, and I'm not sure how much time you "wasted." You lived a life that, at least parts of, made you happy and satisfied you. Today, that life no longer does. So what? You can find other things to do that will hopefully satisfy you, hopefully with the greater insight and knowledge that comes with more life experience, freedom from parental influence, etc.

    Bottom-line: You deserve everything can get in life, and you shouldn't beat yourself up over anything you've done, anything you're doing or not doing, and anything you will do. I don't know you, but you seem like a nice, thoughtful, kind, caring person. Those are good qualities to have, and I wish there more people who had them.

    Sorry for such a rambling email - I just really love your blog, and maybe you'll find this useful, and maybe it deserves to be placed in the trash asap.

    Person who's been to many of the same places in Israel that you went to - if you went there, I hope the Masada trek (if you skipped the cable car) wasn't too arduous. It has killed me at least twice in my life. :-)

  12. I read your post with interest--just remember that it is going to take time. Lots of time. I left BIGLAW almost four years ago after four years of practice. My leaving was, well, mutual. It wasn't that I was a bad lawyer, in fact, looking back in retrospect, I was a really good lawyer--I just hated being a lawyer and everyone knew it. Luckily, I knew what I liked about being a lawyer and ended up in a administrative faculty position as a law school--get this--counseling law students. That's right--career services. I liked the people contact, I liked helping people, I liked the "academic" side of the law. And I'm as honest with them as the day is long--I hope that I've saved some of them from the mistakes I made in choosing my "lawyerly" path--the decisions that the profession makes seem almost inevitable.
    I'm happy with my choices now, but it has taken the past four years for me to get really happy with my decision to leave the practice of law. For the first two years I second guessed myself and dealt with the self-esteem issues that occur when you "lose" a job--but then realized that it truly was a blessing in disguise. Sure, I took an insanely large pay cut, but I can truly say I'm happy.
    I wish you the best of luck in your pursuits--you will find your way--it just might take some time. Your identity is frozen up in the box that law school and the legal profession in general put around you--wait till that box gets a bit wet and bust on out girl!

  13. Thank you for all your comments. I love hearing about your experiences and thoughts.

    11:05 -- Thanks for your suggestions!

    Marz, thanks for the book recommendation. I've been meaning to read it -- so thanks for the nudge.

    9:19 -- thanks for the encouragement. I sometimes wonder if I am my own worst enemy. I really need to work on that.

    9:37 -- I totally understand where you're coming from. Had I followed your course, I may very well have ended up where you are now. And it is important to remember that we don't have to be defined by our careers, although I believe it often shapes us despite ourselves in the way we think, the way we behave, etc.

    Jae Young -- you are a lucky one! Thanks for reading.

    4:59 - Thanks for the Australian perspective.

    10:33 -- You are right. There are many aspects of being a lawyer that I appreciated and enjoyed. It's good to be reminded of that -- and to see it as something to build on rather than dismiss. It was one way of getting where I am today, and where I am today ain't so bad.

    8:08 -- I loved reading about your change of direction, and it is good to hear that it takes some time to get to a place of stasis. I feel so rushed to figure it all out. Thanks for the reminder that not everything works at microwave speed.