I get emails from time to time from young lawyers and law students, asking me how I got to be where I am (which always amuses me, because I never consider myself to be anywhere special). But I’m pretty sure they’re trying to say “How can I be a lawyer but not have to hang out with, like, other lawyers?” Because I’m a lawyer that has never worked in a law firm, knows about as many other lawyers as I can count on one hand, and doesn’t even own a suit that fits. Instead, I get to work with books and writers all day (well, okay, talking about books and writers at least), which is so much more interesting for an old-school nerd like me. Just this week I got giddy when I found a copy of THE ANNOTATED PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH in a client’s office and got to take it home (see—super nerd). And for all that, I’m still pretty smart and pretty knowledgeable, and pretty well-respected (can I say that out loud and not sound smarmy?), and yes, even pretty successful.
So how did I get here? Mostly by trying not to be, ironically enough. When I graduated from law school, I was entirely sure that I never, ever wanted to be a lawyer. I mean, I graduated and I took the bar exam, but then I ran screaming from the state where I was licensed (albeit for many other reasons too complicated to go into in public!) with the intention of never thinking about the law again. And I promptly went into publishing, saying, as most of us do at the beginning, “This will be great because I love to read.” And you know what? Surprisingly, it kinda was. I mean, it wasn’t, too—it’s a business like any other, and you work hard, and you get a lot of your illusions shattered, but the magic of the thing has never entirely left me. I still love the core of it all—the moment when the first copies of a book come in, and you remember when it was all just an idea—and you feel like you were part of making it happen. It really is incredible.
But how did I end up doing the lawyer gig? Funny thing, that. You’ll find, pretty much, that most places you go in the business world, people need attorneys. We’re just a necessary evil, like flu shots and seat belts—annoying, but you regret it when you don’t have ’em when you need ’em. So when I found myself in the middle of the publishing world, I realized that I could be that necessary evil and finally make that awfully expensive piece of paper on my wall work for me (and still not have to buy a suit!). And, more important, by the time I’d come to that realization, I’d been in the business long enough doing other things that I had a pretty solid knowledge of How Things Worked Normally, which both made my job easier and made me not waste a lot of people’s time, and which makes me more popular from everyone’s point of view (it’s all about referrals, baby).
Sure, sometimes it can get a bit frustrating. Being the resident expert at anything can be at times both scary and annoying, as anyone who has been “the guy in the office who knows about computers” can attest to. Sometimes I feel like I’m speaking a language that other people in the publishing industry don’t understand, and I’ve worked on perfecting a layman’s vocabulary of certain legal concepts. And sometimes I get questions that I haven’t the foggiest idea about, and which require an hour of research before I can come up with an answer, when it would probably be answered in 2 minutes if I had someone next door who had more experience than I do. But that’s the tradeoff—either wear heels every day, or sometimes spend more time with Westlaw than you’d like and learn to answer questions without rolling your eyes even when you want to.
So if you want to be me, learn how to make the best Manhattan ever, and take this precious nugget of advice: Find something you love, learn a lot about it, and then figure out how to practice law there. You might have to be creative about your path, and you might have to sometimes go it alone, but believe me: it’s worth it.