Welcome back to Thrillable Hours, my interview series about alternative careers for lawyers. After a great Q&A with fellow travel blogger and writer Akila from The Road Forks, I am thrilled (ha ha) to welcome another perpetual traveler, photographer Eric Mohl. Blogging and writing at Trans-Americas Journey, he is a former lawyer turned photog who has had his work published in a wide variety of magazines, from National Geographic to Elle to PC Magazine.
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Interview with Eric Mohl
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?
I never dreamed “I want to be a lawyer when I grow up.” I came from a background where I was expected to have a solid career or be a professional of some sort. However, before even starting law school there were strong indications that the lawyer lifestyle was not for me. Between college and law school I took 2.5 years off—worked for two years, then backpacked around Europe and the Middle East for 6 months. About a month before I was scheduled to return to the US to begin law school I called my Mom from Turkey to say I wanted to continue traveling and didn’t want to go back to school. After many hours on the phone (and quite a phone bill) my Mom convinced me to return and go to law school. Her argument was that I had the opportunity at that moment and law school would be something that would be useful for me in life whatever path I finally followed. So, off to law school I went.
After the bar exam I scheduled a three month trip to Southeast Asia before starting a pretty interesting law job I had lined up. During that trip I realized I would never be happy as an attorney since it is a career that is usually not too forgiving in the time off and freedom departments. I returned to begin my career as an attorney with the goal of working for a few years to save enough money to allow me to do a trip without a scheduled end. After just over three years of working as an attorney in New York City I set off with a one way ticket to India with my not-yet-then wife Karen, not knowing whether or not I would return to law. In the end that trip without an end turned out to be four years backpacking around South and Southeast Asia. It also became the inspiration to do what Karen and I are doing now—which is a long-term working road trip through North, Central and South America called the Trans-Americas Journey.
What do you find most fulfilling about your current job?
My current job is a dream. I’m a freelance photographer traveling The Americas. However, unlike being an attorney, I haven’t figured out how to get rich off it. So, despite appearances, my current job is a dream but not as romantic as most people think. Yes, I’ve been on the road for four years and have had umpteen amazing experiences and have seen a ridiculous amount of things between the Alaskan Arctic and Guatemala where we are now. However, this isn’t a vacation or even a short term trip like I’ve done in the past where there wasn’t much to do but live, experience and travel. Our current Journey is a working road trip which means in order to put gas in our truck we need to earn cash. The unglamorous side of a working road trip are the days spent in a cheap, not necessarily pleasant hotel room, pitching and writing stories, editing photos, updating our blog….these are my new billable hours.
Do you have any advice for professionals who are interested in leaving private practice but concerned about what is out there?
Generally in our society in the US,we are conditioned or expected to lead a certain type of life—get an education, have a career, get married, buy a house, buy cars, have kids and, if you’re lucky, a summer house and nice vacations. This never ending rat race of having more and one upping the neighbors rarely leads to peace and happiness by itself. At best, one sets off in this direction saying I’ll live my bucket list when I retire. But what if that time never comes? Life is meant to be lived, so live it no matter what definition of life you subscribe to. That definition might be the scenario set out above, and that’s fine (someone has to do it). Whatever path you choose, walk it without regrets. For me, I knew a fulfilling life needed to incorporate exploring the world.
That said, I came to this realization at a stage in life when it was still easy enough to make the changes that I wanted. No kids. No mortgage. No car payments. Many professionals come to the realization that they MUST make a change of life after these commitments exist and that makes things much trickier. But most life decisions are not easy and they all require sacrifices. It sounds trite, but you have to follow your heart and live your dreams. You might have to give up the BMW, the summer house and some of those fancy dinners, but if the payoff is worth it to you than those are small price tags. If you don’t have those things to begin with (like me), then the change from lawyer to happy pauper-hood is that much easier. Who knows? If you’re lucky you might not need to give those things up in order to be happy. I needed to sacrifice those things and I’m happier for it.
How did your legal education inform the way you see the world today? Do you still identify yourself as a lawyer?
Only with the word former preceding it. I would think the New York & New Jersey court systems would agree. Surely I’m not an attorney in ‘good standing’ as they haven’t seen my dues in well over a decade.
What do you see for yourself in the next five years?
Unless something goes dreadfully wrong, more of the same. It’s taken us more than four years on this Journey to get through the US, Canada, Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. I expect it’s going to take at least five more years to get through the rest of Central America and South America. Hell, we’ve only done five of the 23 countries in The Americas in more than four years on the road, so you do the math.
What do you have to say to those who tell me lawyers can’t have fun?
Lawyers can have fun (but those moments are usually against the law or at least against bar regulations). Of course lawyers can have fun. The real issue, however, is living your dreams. Sadly most lawyers I know are well-versed in the having fun department but don’t know much about following dreams. Though, those that have found a way … ROCK.
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After graduating from Brooklyn Law School, Eric Mohl practiced law for 3+ years and in 1995 left to pursue a passion in outdoor and travel photography. Since 2006, Eric has been freelancing from the road as part of his ongoing Trans-Americas Journey — a 200,000+ mile working road trip through North, Central and South America. His work has appeared in National Geographic Adventure, Escape, Outside, PC Magazine, JANE, Action Asia,Elle, Asian Geographic, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Toronto Sun and The Dallas Morning News. Follow Eric’s Trans-Americas Journey on Facebook and Twitter.