Welcome back to Thrillable Hours, my interview series about alternative careers for lawyers.
This interview came about because I was reading the travel site Roads and Kingdoms, and came across a great piece called “When Cabbies Eat Like Kings“. When I got to the bio, I saw that the author was a DC-based lawyer, so I emailed Nate from the site to ask if the author would be interested in an interview. He was, and here he is!
As I noted during my interview with Lucie (also still practicing law, but in Geneva), the aim for this series wasn’t only to focus on lawyers who had left the practice of law, but also ways that practicing lawyers could be more happy with the work they do. Sung supplements his lawyering with writing, and I thought that would be a great case study for those of you practicing (or going into practice) but not ready or interested in turning away from the profession altogether.
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Many of the Thrillable Hours interviews are with lawyers working in new fields or public practice. As a self-proclaimed “lawyer by day… striving author by night”, how do you balance your creative work with the demands of legal practice? What kind of legal work do you do in DC?
All lawyers are given an equal amount of time within a day: twenty-four hours. Some lawyers may use half or more of those hours to bill clients and secure a path to partnership, and the remaining hours are probably used to recover for the next billing day. Some lawyers use a twenty-four hour day like one has twenty-five or twenty-six hours, scooping up stray minutes here and there to mold them into something useful and productive. I strive to be in the latter group.
Law practice is demanding, both physically and mentally. I consider myself a morning person, meaning I do my best thinking and writing before the lunch hour. Obviously, as a practicing lawyer, I’ve sold those hours to the betterment of the firm. I practice international trade law at a DC law firm, a field that has a rather rollercoaster-like schedule; near all-nighters at times yet clear waters at other times as well. To the best I can, I try to get a lot of reading and drafting done when the coast is clear.
On a more daily note, my daily commute on the Orange Line of the D.C. Metro serves as my reading slash thinking capsule. Oddly enough, given how crowded the Orange Line gets during rush hour, I’ve been able to get a lot of reading done to and from work. A recent book I completed during my commutes is Nikos Kazantzakis’ Journey to the Morea: Travels to Greece, an epic travelogue that cloaks travel with history, culture and philosophy; books like these are effective in poking my idle legal brain to start thinking like a writer and not a lawyer. A lot of what I write about is influenced from what I read, so I often highlight, flag and take notes on the Metro. Then after work, I go back and review my notes and start drafting my pieces if anything seems worthy.
Writing bits and pieces here and there is not easy for me, but constant note-taking and reading a variety of different genres always keeps my mind on edge, so when I do have the time to sit in front of a computer, I’m ready to creatively regurgitate. [Ed. Would be curious about note-taking techniques – Evernote? Online Google Drive? By Hand? SO MANY QUESTIONS]
What do you find most fulfilling about your current jobs?
When I entered law school, I had absolutely no idea what type of law I wanted to practice. Thankfully, through several internships and great mentors, I discovered an interest international trade, a complex area of the law that encompasses both international relations and economics. Knowing that the memo or motion I drafted, or even that miniscule case I found helped save my client millions of dollars is always gratifying.
I started “i am not a lawyer” because I wanted to write about topics outside of dumping margins and free trade zones. I first knew I loved writing on my blog when a series I did about my experience taking the New York Bar Exam (written exactly one year after I took the exam in Albany) received positive feedback; other test takers could relate to my post and future takers said reading about my experience was a helpful mental preparation. The topics I write about on the blog have shifted, but having the freedom to write about what I truly care about, freely in my own voice and style, is not only fulfilling, but also keeps me sane. The permeating stereotypes about lawyers – paranoid, angry, unhappy, egotistic, greedy, dry – disgusted me, and I had no intention of living such life. In a way, I wanted to show that not all lawyers fit the stereotype, that not all of us glorified puppets mindlessly chasing money; hence the title of my blog. A lawyer with multiple dimensions, interests, textures and colors. That’s what I’d like to achieve through the blog.
By pure chance, I ran into this incredible online travel magazine Roads & Kingdoms. It had everything that drove me, including travel, food and culture. The idea for the magazine was part of something I’d hoped for my own blog (one day), and the writing was top notch. Naturally, working with co-founders Nathan and Matt as a contributor has been thrilling. An expansive readership, the site’s layout, masterful editing, including photography and videography – everything about this experience has been rewarding and humbling. Importantly, Roads & Kingdoms has given me the first true taste of what it would be like to be a “writer.”
Do you have any advice for professionals who are interested in branching out from traditional private practice but concerned about what is out there? Would you suggest attempting both as you are doing, or choosing one path over another?
One part of me – the merrier, less cynical side – would like to tell you to quit your job on the spot and go pursue your dream, travel the world, eat great food and write about it. The other part of me, on the contrary, knows the reality of bills to pay and a family to feed. Ultimately, as horribly law-school-y as this sounds, it depends. On two things.
First, passion. What are you truly passionate about? I’m not talking about mere hobbies. By passion, I mean what do you get chills thinking about. What can you do for days on end with three hours of sleep and still want more of. If one path is definitely screaming “passion” over the other, one should seriously consider taking that path, and that path only.
Second, strength. What are you good at? I may think I’m a good cook, musician or artist, but by good, I mean “good enough to pay the bills.” If I have burning passion for something, but if that passionate path has no realistic way of providing a living (at least at the current point in time), then maybe one should wait. Reality hurts at times. Maybe one should wait and hone that passionate path until more realistic opportunities present themselves.
A common truth in all of this is simple: you will not know for sure until you try. “Concern” will always be with us. What differentiates “creators” from others is who gets off their ass first. Branch out with both caution and passion and sensitively monitor where that takes you. Maybe one day it will lead you to another plateau you’ve never imagined.
How has being a lawyer influenced the way you write at home and abroad?
One thing I do not regret about going to law school is that the three-year ordeal has rewired and restructured my brain and thought process. Few will disagree that legal education enables us to think logically, carefully observing and dissecting issues and problems. Writing is no different. Logic, observance, and dissection are critical elements of sound writing, regardless of genre. I must admit that my writing voice changes on any given day, and honestly I do not think I write with a particular style that can be labeled. My profession as a lawyer adds particular ingredients to my writing; I often try to slow down my thought process in a logical manner, breaking each “frame” down to extract what I want to say.
Also, you write what you read. As lawyers, and as law students, we read great volumes of material. Legal reading may not have the purpose of focusing on the author’s particular style or voice, but compare to my college years, law school did re-train my eyes to read longer and faster. And on a semi-related note, during law school, I really wanted to read non-legal stuff, but never really had the time to do so. After the bar, I guess I had the time to finally read real books and without the pressure of having to outline every single page. But the ability to read quickly for content and neatly organize the main points in a coherent manner, I owe that to our profession.
What do you have to say to those who tell me lawyers can’t have fun?
As I often say, (most) lawyers are assholes. Stop being an asshole, and you will start having fun. A mentor once told me that good lawyering is “worrying.” Horrific, but it is hard to argue against that predicament. Our profession makes a living by taking on others’ problems and charging them for solving those problems. Whether you are in litigation or deal-making, “good” lawyers, like master chess players, think two, three steps ahead of their foes to deliver a legal victory for their clients. Translated, this can also mean that “good” lawyers “worry” two, three steps ahead; everything that may go wrong, every statement and its counterstatement, every motion, every document, every morsel of mental energy. Although it may have an illusion of exhilaration, this is not fun. If you’ve ever sat in a downtown D.C. café and observed the pedestrians wandering the sidewalks, you could probably pick out the lawyers; they look unhappy.
To have fun, you need something to take your mind off the law, completely. You need to “create” something. A close friend of mine once told me that lawyers are not fun because we don’t read poetry. At first I found this odd, as it was coming from a history major. But the lack of creativity in our profession is indeed a primary reason of the lack of fun. Sure, creative legal arguments do exist – my student comment was about prostitutes, condoms and the spread of AIDS. But in practice, a smartass lawyer in court could very well receive a smack down from a not-so-impressed judge. The very nature of our profession revolves around the adherence to strict rules and regulations, tight boundaries that are relentless and unforgiving. Creativity is the polar opposite of such characteristics, and lawyers need to find their own creative muse. Be it writing, singing, painting. Whatever it is, we were born to create and you are doing yourself a tremendous disservice by spending all your hours drafting motions no one will remember in sixteen weeks.
In his book “Status Anxiety,” author Alain de Botton, in explaining the connection between anxiety and one’s dependence upon one’s employer, showcases Bolton Hall’s notion that people could “win their freedom by leaving their offices and factories and buying three acres apiece of inexpensive farmland in middle America.” In other words, true happiness can be better obtained when one works only for oneself and not for others. Sadly, it is becoming increasingly difficult to “make it” as a self-employed entrepreneur, and lawyers’ anxiety is ever so closely linked to the pressure of producing for others. Maybe we should all buy three acres of farmland apiece.
Create something that will last. I choose to write because words last; they float and travel, wander around, with lasting impact.
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Sung is a lawyer but he is not a lawyer. While paying the bills with his JD, he writes about food, travel, culture and philosophy on his blog i-am-not-a-lawyer.com. He is also a contributing writer for the online travel magazine Roads & Kingdoms. He resides in Northern Virginia with his beautiful wife Rachel. If Twitter is your thing, follow Sung @theoriginalsung