Leaving the Law

leavingWhen I was 29 years old I left the practice of law for a while.  I had lived for a time in Washington D.C. and decided that becoming a bartender was the way I could find work anywhere I wanted to live, so when I followed a woman I was involved with back to the Bay Area, I enrolled in the Golden Gate Bartending School.  I recall to this day with great fondness, old Mac McLaughlin hiking his chubby body onto a bar stool with the San Francisco Chronicle splayed out before him, ordering various cocktails which I made from liquor bottles filled with colored water.  I’d make my Manhattans and Mai Tai’s while Mac would keep up a constant banter, “So, Mr. Joe, what do you think of that People’s Temple thing, there?   That’s sweet vermouth you need…”  When I had my private practice for many years afterward, I hung my Diploma from Mac’s school along with my other sheepskin on the wall.

Upon my graduation from bartending school, I went looking for jobs and, predictably, experience counted for a lot in a fairly tight market.  I finally landed a job in a bar which was attached to an old, institutional Italian restaurant, “Bellini’s” on Telegraph Avenue right on the border of Oakland and Berkeley.  It was a pretty dicey area and a pretty dead bar, but on those few nights when we had a nice crowd in, the concentration required to keep all the orders straight was a Zen experience – hours passed by in seconds.  To this day, I cannot hear “I Will Survive,” by Gloria Gaynor or “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” by Rod Stewart without being shot back to that dark, often empty, bar and the mindnumbing number of times the owner put those songs on the jukebox.

One Friday night, on a particularly busy night in the bar, the front door swung open and in walked a guy dressed in jeans, a sweater, and with his entire head covered in gauze.  Gloves covered his hands and when he sat down at my bar, the conversation level dropped to a whisper.  He pulled out a steno pad and pen and wrote, “A beer please.”  I asked if domestic was ok and he nodded his assent to that question and, also, whether he wanted a Bud.  He introduced himself as “Mickey” and wrote that he had experienced an allergic reaction to painting his apartment and couldn’t talk and his wife had told him to get out of the house and go to a bar after being cooped up at home too long.  I asked him how long he was going to look like The Mummy and he wrote “No Mummy Jokes!”  Mickey was a delight and his company brightened my night.  About an hour into his visit, he wrote me the question: “Where did you go to high school?”  When I told him, he asked if I knew a particular woman with whom I had gone to high school and law school.  Suspicion flooded my system as I looked into those eyes and asked, “Who the f*** are you?”  He shrugged, said he had to go to the bathroom and when he emerged, bandages unrolled, he turned out to be one of my dearest friends from law school who lived in Santa Barbara.  Steven Faulstich wanted to come see me as a bartender, but didn’t want me to know it was him, thus no voice and no face.  Definitely one of the greatest things anyone has ever done for me.

As the weeks went on, and I would say to patrons of this neighborhood bar that I was a lawyer, but had decided to try something else, these working class people looked at me in disbelief and even some disgust – finding it incomprehensible that I would take this incredible opportunity to be a lawyer and just piss it away.  It got me to thinking and, out of respect for these people as much as for any other reason, I returned to practice for another 8 years before I finally went back to school to earn my Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy.  Still, it took me another 10 years to fully disconnect from the practice, as I had great anxiety about what else I could do – having more experience in a field for which I was temperamentally ill-suited than for anything else.  Slowly, as I gained experience and confidence in my writing and therapeutic work, I was able to fully detach and have since enjoyed the happiest years of my life.

My experience is certainly not unique.  Now and again I read of others who have made this transition.  The most recent is a wonderful column by Bob Markowitz in the New York Times  entitled “Abandoning the Work I Hated.”  Enjoy – and for all you disaffected lawyers out there, take hope!