Thrillable Hours: Akila McConnell, traveller and writer

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Welcome to the next installment of Thrillable Hours, a series devoted to highlighting lawyers (and former lawyers) doing unconventional things. This week’s interviewee is Akila McConnell, who is passionate about travel and food and who, along with her husband, runs the excellent blog The Road Forks. I had the pleasure of meeting Akila and Patrick in Siem Reap and they took me for what was easily one of the most delicious eggplant dishes I’ve eaten. (One does not forget these things.) Akila practiced law for several years in the United States before quitting her job to travel, write and eat  (in equal measure) around the world.

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What made you decide to follow a less conventional path than typical law school graduates? Was there a particular moment that catalyzed the decision for you?

In a way, I took a very conventional path. I had always wanted to be a writer but as a first-generation American who had experienced poverty first-hand as a child, I was entirely uninterested in being a starving artist. I thought that law school was the perfect compromise: a career in which I wrote and still made money. I finished up law school and went to work at a big law firm for four years. Unfortunately, though I loved the firm in which I worked, I realized very quickly that the work lacked the creativity I craved. I applied for federal clerkships because I wanted to take the time to reassess my legal career and was offered a one-year clerkship on the 11th Circuit with a judge I respected and admired.

I spent a great amount of time assessing next steps after the clerkship: should I return to my firm, apply to smaller firms, work as a contractor, or jump into academia? While I was pondering my future plans, a daily morning radio show began featuring a woman who quit her job after a terrible break-up with her boyfriend and left to travel around the world for a year (this was before Eat, Pray, Love). I was fascinated. My husband and I traveled several weeks every year, maximizing our vacation time as we could, but I had never considered the possibility of traveling long-term. That evening in 2007, I got onto my laptop and began researching round-the-world trips. Originally, Patrick (my husband) wanted to travel for just three months but, through much cajoling, I convinced him that a year was the bare minimum to see the places we wanted. The plan had always been to return to the United States after a year and work full-time.

Once out there, we fell in love with the open road. Hard. Now, we are perpetual nomads and work while we travel. I do technical and freelance writing and my husband consults on software architecture. I am also developing a new career, a career I had always dreamed of but never before had the gumption to undertake: novel writing. I am *almost* done with the first draft of my novel, titled Moonlight Falters, equal parts environmental legal mystery, Islamic mystical fantasy, and old-fashioned love story. It is about a lawyer who encounters the supernatural in his work and personal life and the ways that faith, mysticism, and justice interweave in modern society.

Office In Ko Tao - The Road Forks One of many offices on the road during Akila’s travels.

What do you find most fulfilling about your current job?

I write. Every single day, people pay me to spew black-faced letters onto my computer screen and I am as happy as I have ever been (more about my technical writing here). I despised taking depositions, talking to clients, and managing discovery and document review because those things pulled me away from writing. I used to stretch out the time I spent writing motions and briefs because I wanted to write all the time. Now, I make much less money but every project I undertake is one I enjoy.

Tofu in Kyoto The Road ForksTofu soup from Akila’s time in Japan.

Do you have any advice for professionals who are interested in leaving private practice but concerned about what is out there?

Believe in yourself enough to classify your alternative choices as investments rather than risks.

We attorneys are generally risk-averse, careful folks – after all, that’s the reason why our clients pay us, right? We choose law school because the three years of time, money, and work spent there is a safe investment. We choose private practice because it is a safe investment of our time and work; we know that once we work in Big Law, we can get jobs anywhere else in the legal arena. But, when we consider alternative paths, we label them as risks which cause us to second-guess ourselves and our choices.

Before we left on our round-the-world trip, I considered the trip as a “risk”: it was risky for us to quit our well-paying jobs in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, risky for us to create a gap in our resumes, and risky to spend our savings on a trip rather than buying a house in the down-real estate market. After spending the last 18 months on the road, I realize that we did not take a risk. We made an investment in ourselves by choosing to take a career break, working while traveling, and developing new careers. Right now, the money I lost by leaving private practice is the foundation of my investment in my future career as a novelist. I am not a novelist yet, but I believe in myself enough to invest the time, effort, and money it takes to develop that career.

The Road Forks Thrillable HoursAkila, taking risks.

How did your legal education inform the way you see the world today? Do you still identify yourself as a lawyer?

Whenever I enter a new country, I write “lawyer” on the occupation line. This is in part because explaining “writer” is trickier and in part because I will always consider myself a lawyer. I understand life, in its infinite variations across this strange and bizarre world, through my understanding of the law. When we think of injustices and triumphs across the world, they are often tied to laws and legal systems. For example, we were recently in South Africa where I was continually confronted by its past legal repressions such as Apartheid and the township systems, and I appreciated how much of the triumphs in that country occurred outside of the law, through violent and non-violent protests.

What do you see for yourself in the next five years?

- Traveling. We are leaving for Europe in July and will be spending the next 15 months there and, after that, our life is very much up in the air.
- Writing. I hope to be finished with this novel by this summer and will start on my next novel then. Hopefully, I’ll start selling these guys, but if not, I still plan to write.
- Possibly lawyering. I haven’t given up on being a lawyer and, if we return to the United States, I might consider doing contract legal work or teaching legal writing at a university (something I have done in the past and enjoyed).
- Enjoying life, most of all.

What do you have to say to those who tell me lawyers can’t have fun?

(Ummm, really, who says this to you? ‘Cause the first time we met you, you had just come back from dancing with the governor’s son in Cambodia. Ed: Um, I thought what happens in Cambodia stays in Cambodia?) To answer to your question, though, I would say that they need to meet more lawyers. Every lawyer I know works harder and plays harder than the average person, almost as if to prove to the world that we are supermen and women.

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Akila McConnell’s mind (and waistline) expands as she cooks, eats, and travels across the world with her husband and two dogs. She is currently in Savannah, Georgia, where she is partaking in too much macaroni and cheese and fried green tomatoes. Connect with her at The Road Forks, Twitter, or Facebook.

23 comments to Thrillable Hours: Akila McConnell, traveller and writer

  1. Once again, great interview, Jodi, and great answers from Akila! I wish you the best of luck on your new writing career – and you’re right, making an investment in yourself can’t be risky.

  2. Another great interview session. I’m so happy that you finally find passion in what you do. Not many people are able to say that they love their day job.

    • Thank you Jill! It took me a while but I’m getting there —- thankfully, traveling gave us the time to figure out what we love doing and why we want to work.

  3. Akila,

    After reading this I admire and respect you even more. You took a leap of faith against “risk” logic and are living into the corners, while some only touch the middle. You’ll be published in no time! And Jodi, high-five for another terrific interview. :)

    • Jeannie, thank you, thank you, thank you. I am seriously blushing right now. You are so positive and encouraging and I am so thrilled that we (virtually) met. Now, we just have to meet in real life. :)

  4. wow! great interview! i certainly learned a lot from this one! :-) good luck!

  5. An interesting read, particularly the part about seeing the world through the eyes of a lawyer. Law, like accountancy, engineering and politics, is often written off as boring yet the effects of these professions on the world at large are profound – and often inspiring.

    • Thanks Abi. I agree, and that’s part of why I wanted to do this series. It’s great to see the diversity of thought and the paths these former lawyers chose. Thank you for reading!

  6. What an inspiring story, and terrific insights, Akila. (great interviewing, Jodi)

    I’m going to be pointing a lot of my clients to this interview. You’ve totally conquered that “I’m not enough” monster that a lot of attorneys lug around with them. Brava!

  7. Inspiring interview! Thanks Akila and Jodi!

  8. I love the story that you(Akila) and your husband are writing for yourselves. It’s encouraging to hear that your “risk” worked out so well. It gives me encouragement. I travel a lot but have the safety net of an employer paying for it. Of course that means that they get to tell me when and where to go.

  9. Jodi, it’s great to learn more about Akila. And, my god, lawyers do write well…

  10. At the risk of killing all the positivity from compliments above, I would like to ask Akila- do you have any regrets? What are in your mind some negative aspects of being a vagabond traveller? Like for any career, is there a honeymoon period for this new career of yours and if so, what happens then?

    • Hi Heena, don’t worry about killing the positivity – these are practical questions I get quite often, and I’m sure Akila does too. Thanks for reading!

    • Heena – I am so glad you asked these great questions. In response to your question about regrets:

      Regrets: None.
      Worries, Concerns, and Apprehensions: A Million. Every Single Day.

      The very hardest part of striking out and doing something different is the constant second-guessing. After all, I gave up a lucrative, successful career to try something completely new, entirely difficult, and without the barriers to entry I had previously built up (that is, a law degree made me something special in the job market . . . as a novelist, my law degree matters not.) And, I see that constant uncertainty as the the biggest negative aspect of being a vagabond traveler/digital nomad. Will I make enough money in a particular month to pay my expenses? Will I get enough jobs? Will I be able to sustain this lifestyle long-term?

      On the one side, these are all very tough questions, but, I see these questions and worries as the same questions and worries that ANY entrepreneur undertakes when starting a new business or career. I imagine that when Bill Gates hacked out his first Windows software in his garage, he wondered whether he was doing the right thing by quitting college and endeavoring to create something no one had built before. It is a risk . . . but his investment in himself paid off. I have to hope that the same will be true in my new career.

      The honeymoon period is less of a worry to me because, finally, for the first time in my life, I feel certain that I am doing what I am meant to be doing. I have had a lot of jobs over the last 15 years and never completely enjoyed any of them unless I was sitting at a desk and writing. Now that I am writing full-time, I feel more fulfilled than ever before. And, if after some time, I decide this isn’t right for me, I tell myself that I have a great fall-back career option . . . that of lawyering!

  11. I love this series of yours!

  12. Hi Jodi! Fabulous interview.. i did not know you lawyers were such a thrill seeking bunch! very impressive.. kinda puts us pharmacists to shame.. mwuahaha!

  13. Great post – I really enjoy your series showing lawyers follow unconventional paths. I see parallels with myself too, because one aspect of legal work that really attracts me is the writing. However, I like the fact that you can break up writing with other work in between – it is not something I’d be able to do 24/7 without a break, no matter how much I love it. I hope to eventually write on the side as well through blogging and academic work, keeping my love for writing alive.

    Also I love that we share the same name (almost)!

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