Life After Law
I am here to tell you that there is life after law – or any other profession for that matter. As an attorney who no longer practices law, I have something to share from my experience. I will admit that it wasn’t an easy transition for me, in part because it was not entirely a matter of choice. A combination of chronic illness and incurable blood cancer convinced me that leaving the practice of the law was the best way for me to survive cancer and live as fully as I can for whatever time I may have.
Major life decisions are often precipitated by events which are beyond our control. Leaving a job or giving up a profession is difficult. Our identities are tied up in what we do and the sense of competency that we develop. If we derive a positive sense of self from what we do professionally, it is hard to leave that persona behind and move to the next stage of our lives. And of course, there are the overriding practical issues of income, retirement benefits and health insurance. I leave the discussion of the financial issues for another day, though I acknowledge that I am fortunate to have a defined benefit plan and social security benefits.
I practiced law for almost thirty years. For most of my career, I was an Assistant Attorney General for the State of New York. I represented state agencies in appellate courts and argued cases involving a wide range of complex legal issues. In my last position, I worked in the Attorney General’s Consumer Frauds and Protection Bureau, reviewing consumer fraud settlements and litigation throughout upstate New York, speaking widely about consumer issues, and handling my own cases.
When I first took a leave of absence, I agonized whether I was sick enough to stop working, even though my doctors recommended that I do so. All of the lawyers I knew continued to practice through their cancer treatments and never even considered giving up their law practice. That made my decision more difficult; I felt like a wimp. However, every time my sick leave was about to expire, I would get another infection, or my cancer would get worse. It was as if my body was crying out for me to recognize that I was too sick to continue working. It was only after several extensions of my sick leave, that I finally accepted that I was not healthy enough to go back to work.
Many people feel that their profession is the most important aspect of their identity. Continuing to work in these circumstances may be the best way for them to heal and even thrive. Understanding what it is that is essential to one’s survival as a human being is crucial. I came to understand that I could not heal my body, mind and spirit and still practice law.
Being an attorney gave me a sense of purpose and a strong identity. However, once I became ill, the cost of practicing was too great for me to continue. While I have lost a part of myself that felt competent and purposeful, practicing law required me to submerge other parts of myself. In addition, it took too much of my energy once I got sick.
It has been incredibly healing to allow the awkward, tentative, and vulnerable parts of myself to come to light. I have had the opportunity to explore my creative side, pursuing expressive arts in small circles. Writing poetry and essays about my cancer journey and other life experiences has been crucial to my healing. I have explored collage and other visual arts, and make jewelry.
There is still a part of me that mourns the loss of identity, prestige and purpose that came with practicing law, as well as the monetary benefits. But I know that the creative and vulnerable parts of me would not have been able to express themselves if I had continued to practice law. Most importantly, I have the time and energy I need to heal my body, mind and spirit.
Many of the baby boomer generation will have to continue to work long past what we used to think of as “retirement age.” I hope that they do not lose the opportunity to explore other parts of themselves ignored for professional achievements and the demands of family life. There are many rewards to a slowed down life.