Welcome back to Thrillable Hours, my interview series about alternative careers for lawyers.
Today’s interview began with one of the many pitches I receive as a blogger, one that asked me if I’d have any interest in participating in a commercial shoot for a big company. When I said no, the reply I received was a surprise: that she understood, but she also wanted to recommend her dad for my Thrillable Hours interview series.
As I’ve said many times, the best part about managing this series is how the interviews come through, many of them recommended by readers. This was a new one! I’m happy to share John’s interview below as he talks not only of being creative about work outside and inside the law, but provides tips for living that kind of life for those who crave it as he did.
A small housekeeping note: I’ve built an alternative careers for lawyers landing page with books and articles, as well as these interviews. I hope to add to it as more information comes out of a changing profession.
I hope you enjoy this interview!
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Interview with Jonathan Morse
What made you decide to move away from pure private practice into practicing law with room for art creation? Was there a particular moment that catalyzed the decision for you?
I’m coming at this from a different perspective, as someone who obtained an MFA in Photography prior to law school and once starting to practice continued on in both genres, so to speak. At the time it was thought there was a left brain/right brain dichotomy, and that creative people used one side while the other was used for logical and detailed thinking. That turned out not to be true we now know, and both sides of the brain communicate and correlate in the processing of every problem including and maybe especially with the creative ones.
I was awarded the Massachusetts Arts and Humanities Foundation Photography Fellowship a month before starting law school. My first year therefore included a major photographic project using those funds for a year-end exhibit at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We must not limit ourselves or put boxes around our various skills; let them flow together and become more than the sum of their parts.
Having spent a summer in Santa Fe, New Mexico I decided to relocate to what was considered a creative city and even now is bolstering its reputation as part of the “creative economy”. This choice was made because I knew I would be wearing two hats, as both artist and lawyer. While now we are familiar with the idea of being a hyphenist, it was important for me to know at the outset that I could do it all in a town that prided itself on its creative inhabitants, where actors might be realtors, doctors made music, artists ran their own businesses of all kinds, and stockbrokers produced theater. After trying several small firms it made sense to become a sole practitioner, enabled of course by the omnipresence of digital technology.
My message is that we are all capable of doing many things and there is time in the day to make a buck and pursue our calling, whatever that may be. Many artists, actors, musicians wait tables, design websites, work as production assistants or in galleries and museums, drive for Uber or…lawyers can multitask too! Remember Wallace Stevens, insurance executive but also one of the most profound and renowned poets of the twentieth century. Don’t let your day job keep you from your calling, and you can do them both well.
Do you have any practical advice for professionals who are interested in private practice or working on passion projects but who are concerned about what is out there?
My suggestion is to take career steps that enable your self-control, meaning that notwithstanding the understood needs of clients and the system which any remunerative situation entails, find your niche where you are always reminded about your creativity: be a solo, make your workspace your artspace, engage with fellow professionals in both fields on your own terms. In your choice of employment make sure your boss or colleagues know who you are and what else you must do creatively; if there’s no fit work somewhere else.
Many states (New York, California and New Mexico I am familiar with) have Lawyers for the Arts programs that benefit everything you are doing, so take a class or teach one. Join an art group that meets to discuss and enlarge your ongoing work, and make sure each day you have done something that advances your vision.
I have taught Digital Imaging for Fine Arts and Studio Practice at the Santa Fe Community College. Community colleges provide many opportunities for adjunct teaching (yes, the pay is not great) and that gets you out into an art or media department. Structure your work week so you can carve out this time which is important to you. Or curate a show or turn your office into a gallery/studio where you can invite the public to see what you are doing, have an opening, or be an intern at a museum or arts organization.
By interacting with the arts community you will be prepared and know if or when it’s time for you to take your next big step, which won’t feel like re-invention but more like going live. And by surrounding yourself with your artwork you will always be in inspiring surroundings, and everyone coming to your office from the UPS driver to a client, a gallerist or the local arts reporter, will be touched by your creations.
What do you find most fulfilling about your current work?
Getting to do it all, solving all sorts of problems creative and business, mixing creativity into the blender of everyday experience. Move from an adversarial mindset into an alternate dispute resolution mindset. Meet all kinds of people through all your activities, and you will be surprised how that boring person down the hall turns out to be a writer, a composer, an actor or maybe just a thinker.
The creation of art and the insistent pressure of its attendant monetization can be reconciled…stay true to your goals while expanding the path towards them. For me, when I sit down at the computer (my iMac collaborator) with ideas but without intention, letting the images develop in real-time, creating an image that’s never been seen before, that’s the most true and connected I can be.
Do you think the skills you developed as a lawyer / in your legal training helped when you started working on your art?
Artists must spend a lot of time on “the business of art”, and the organizational, communications and research skills that lawyers use every day are invaluable. Essentially you are running two businesses, and wearing your art hat you still need to present a clear and persuasive view of who you are and what you are doing, work with galleries and make submissions, keep records and do your taxes.
Art and law intersect all the time, most notably in the areas of copyright and fair use, contracts and general business law. Galleries appreciate artists who get their work in on time, prepare their resumes and artist statements clearly and concisely, and if you host your own exhibitions the complexity of publicity and self-promotion will come easily. That “real-world” part of your experience is invaluable in fostering the creative success you wish to achieve.
What do you have to say to those who tell me lawyers can’t have fun?
Well I guess I would say they are talking to the wrong lawyers! I know some who are mountaineers, art collectors, actors, singers, travelers and artists! And wonderful parents of course. Keep smiling.
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Jonathan Morse received his B.A. from Yale College, his M.F.A. in Photography from the State University of New York through the Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester and his J.D. from Boston College. He is a solo practitioner and a digital printmaker. His artwork is in many public collections and has been widely exhibited, most recently at Hulse/Warman Gallery in Taos, New Mexico. More than a decade of print work can be seen at J Morse Art.