Had Enough? Time to Quit and Hit the Open Road!

The open roadMaybe you remember hearing about a law firm associate who quit his job to walk across the country? Wait, did that really happen?

Yes, it did. Meet Tyler Coulson.

He spent eight months walking across the entire country with his dog, Mabel, giving him lots of time to think about life, and the law.

Now he’s here to share what he learned.

Alison: How in the world did you pick your route across the country?

Mabel and I started on the American Discovery Trail, which is a network of connected intra-state trails that runs from Delaware to San Francisco. It’s the only major east/west trail that I know of.

Weather slowed us in the beginning, as did my poor physical condition. Time losses compounded because each day lost to the rain is also a day of conditioning lost.

By Ohio, it was clear that we did not have enough time to make it to the Rockies before winter or, even if we did make the Rockies, we would not make the Sierra Nevada. (See Donner Party.)

In Belpre, Ohio, I looked at a map and chose the straightest way to go left.

From then on, we determined our route based on estimated ease and speed and on information we got from local folks. For example, we talked to local folks a lot in Colorado to learn about the benefits and downsides of various routes over the Continental Divide. We chose our route over the divide at Monarch Pass based largely on information gathered from local folks we met there.

We probably spent most of our time on Hwy 50 and Hwy 6.

The most difficult state to route was Utah, by far.

In Utah, you have to route based almost solely on access to water. And there is no way to get around the fact that you will have to cross 1 or 2 stretches where you’ll have no access to water for 80 or 100 miles.

Having done it, and knowing what I know now, I would probably route my entire trip beforehand if I did it again. However, if anyone is thinking about doing it, I would advise not to bother with routing too much.

It doesn’t pay to think too many states in advance because things will change and you will never be “on schedule.”

Post-walk, you’ve been talking to a lot of lawyers about their lives. What are the three most interesting or surprising things you’ve learned?
#1. Being in the Legal Profession Changes People

Law school and practice really do change the way a person interacts with the world. A lot of attorneys won’t admit this, but it’s true. Lawyer stereotypes are based in truth and there is a reason why lawyers only hang out with other lawyers. (Expect your social circle to narrow considerably.)

Law school is peculiar. It seeks to create a “legal mind” and to teach you to “think like a lawyer.” And it works. It works far too well.

Folks go to law school to develop the tools of legal analysis and, too often, they come out tools themselves.

Lawyers tend to be perversely risk-averse, passive-aggressive and conflict-motivated, needlessly competitive, and competitive in inappropriate circumstances. Lawyers tend to be impatient with everyone, including their families.

In short, lawyers often tend to be rather awful people. And they know it. And they don’t like it.

#2. There are Some Happy Attorneys Out There

There are genuinely happy attorneys—and they are happy either because:

  • they love their work
  • they simply do not interact with other attorneys
  • they really and truly care only about money.

Law students usually think they are going to do something they love. “I’m going into international law!” (Remember 2nd grade when everyone was going to be a marine biologist? Yeah, that’s international law.) “I’m really interested wind and solar farms, and financing such projects!” Ok. (That was me, by the way.)

Look, lawyers all do crap work—that’s what lawyers are for.

It doesn’t matter if you’re doing international law, or financing wind projects, or if you’re a public defender. It’s drudgery and it’s awful; if lawyer work weren’t awful drudgery, then people would do it themselves and they wouldn’t pay an arm and a leg for someone to do it for them.

So the chances of you loving your work are pretty slim—but the closer you can be to something you truly love, the better.

If you love science, do IP. If you love music, do copyright and licensing. If you love sports, do sports law. If you love fire, be a fireman. But don’t count on loving your work.

If you are really dead set on a particular industry—energy or media or whatever—consider approaching it from another angle. Go to business school, or start a business if you can raise the capital, because no matter what kind of lawyer you are, you are still a lawyer.

The happy attorneys (the minority) seem to be happy because they check out at 6 or 7 or 8 and that’s it for the day. They have friends who are not attorneys and they maintain their interests. They are musicians or beekeepers or homebrewers or whatever.

Be aware that law school and practice are very insular experiences, and that negativity is infectious. Law practice is like a dry bag.

Here, let me explain:

When you hike across the country, it’s vitally important to keep your clothes dry—if you don’t, then you could catch a chill or get trench foot or otherwise die. So you keep your clothes in a “dry bag,” which is made of a selectively permeable material that should let air pass through but not water. Nothing is 100% waterproof, regardless of advertising, but once water gets into a dry bag, it ain’t coming out. So if you put one wet sock in the dry bag accidentally, then all of your clothes will get wet and mildew.

That’s law practice. One miserable partner will make a few associates miserable, and those associates will make other associates and other partners miserable, and on and on. It’s a feedback loop. It sucks. Watch out for that.

There are a few people who are happy as can be in law because they care only about money. That’s it and that’s all. The more they work at semi-lucrative positions, the less time they have to realize that they could make just as much or more with less time-commitment if they weren’t so risk-averse. These folks really do not care what they are doing or how their lifestyle is affecting others, because they are only interested in paychecks.

If you go into practice at a big firm, you’ll meet a few of these—work with these guys as often as possible.

That sounds like strange advice, I know, but you cannot underestimate the importance of working with someone who is happy. My best work experiences were, oddly, with the most vapid, awful, horrid, single-minded, greedy, slugs—at least they weren’t boorish and petty like so many attorneys I hear about. But keep in mind that there really are not very many of these people in the world.

#3. The System is Bad and We are the Problem

The systems are all bad:

  • law school doesn’t work right and isn’t transparent enough with its costs or its graduates’ success rates
  • legal practice is bad because of the billable hour and because of general misery and unhappiness
  • the system of delivering legal services is bad because those who actually need advocacy often can’t afford it or simply do not have access to it.

Our economic system is bad and our campaign finance system is bad and our educational system is bad and our health care delivery system is bad and on and on and on. Everything is bad. All our systems are bad.

And who designs, operates, and maintains all those systems?
We do.

Can you talk a bit about what you do in an average day at work, and how it’s similar to (or different from) what you thought you’d be doing when you started law school?

On a standard day, I wake up and brush my teeth and take Mabel out for a while. Then I go to work, either at home or at a coffee shop in my neighborhood. I work until I feel like I’m just about to lose a rhythm with the book, and then I go to the gym for about an hour. Then I go back to work and I work until I feel like I’m just about to lose a rhythm with the book, and then I go to the gym for about an hour.

Sometime in the evening I give up for the day. Somewhere in there I usually take Mabel for a walk, and when I work at home I take a lot of breaks to play with Mabel.

I spend a lot of time on-line researching and building relationships with attorneys who are unhappy in their work, with happy attorneys, and with people who, like me, are interested in adventure. I love absolutely every minute of each of my days and I make absolutely no money.

I will probably die in a poor house and be buried in a pauper’s grave, because I have student loans from law school. At my current income level—roughly $0/lifetime—I will never repay them. I do not care. Lawyers, at least at BigLaw, should remember this:

You can own your time, and it might be the only thing you can truly own; don’t sell it all.

I probably had all sorts of stupid ideas about what a lawyer’s workaday life was like, because every 1L thinks they know everything.

They don’t. No one knows anything.

— – —

Thanks, Tyler! Glad you made it home safely, and I know we’re all looking forward to your book.

If you’d like to hear more from Tyler, check out his website, or follow him on Twitter.

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  1. I don’t agree with all of this (only much of it), but from a pre-law advisor’s perspective, this line is pure gold:

    “Remember 2nd grade when everyone was going to be a marine biologist? Yeah, that’s international law.”

  2. I agree that you have to have a lot non-lawyer friends who will keep you in check if you want to stay somewhat sane and normal.

    I don’t think the system is going to change until people refuse to kill themselves for their careers. Unfortunately law school debt keeps a lot of people in jobs where they’re miserable and they perpetuate the misery of the legal profession.

    • It’s kind of a sad state of affairs. On my positive days, I think things are changing for the better, but most of the time I’m not so sure!

  3. Kate McGuinness says

    I practiced at Big Law for 17 years, 10 as a partner. Tyler conveys the issues confronting lawyers very well. I found his “dry bag” analogy especially apt. I don’t think I knew a single lawyer at my firm who was happy practicing law. In fact, I don’t think I knew any that were happy period. There is a corrosive sense of cynicism that pervades law.

    • Yes, I love his dry bag analogy! That and the marine biology reference combined to make this post one of my all-time favorites. Can’t wait for his book!

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