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Trading Fantasy Jobs For Reality Work

This article was originally posted in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin on March 8, 2013


When my 7-year-old is asked what she wants to be when she grows up, she gives a long-winded exuberant response. “I want to be an Olympic swimmer, or an actress, or a singer, or an astronaut!”

As kids, we develop dreams based on our childhood passions. If lucky, we are told we can do anything we want to do, be anything we want to be.

Yet, as we age, we develop a sense of practicality that pushes many of us to pursue more achievable careers. Instead of chasing my own childhood dream of becoming a professional baseball player, I ended up abandoning my mitt for a briefcase.

I often wonder at what point in each of our lives our glamorous pipedreams are replaced with the acceptance of reality.

Recently, I was watching a television show featuring one of our United States Supreme Court justices. He talked about wanting to be a lawyer since he was just a small child. I chuckled and my kids caught me. They asked, “What’s funny dad?” I told them, “It’s really hard for me to believe that a little kid would dream of becoming something like a lawyer.”

I often hear colleagues discuss why they became lawyers, some crediting the raw pursuit of justice in To Kill a Mockingbird as their original moment of inspiration. Others boast that they chose the legal profession because it would afford them the opportunity to assist the truly unfortunate, folks who could not fight for themselves in a court of law. Usually when I hear one of these heroic “I knew I wanted to be a lawyer since I was a kid” stories, I chuckle. Sometimes, I plain laugh out loud.

The truth is, I think many of us become lawyers for not-so-heroic reasons. Of course the I-wanted-to-be-a-lawyer-to-save-the-world stories are more fun and inspiring. However, in my opinion, most lawyers, if truthful would say, “I became a lawyer because of parental encouragement/pressure” or “Since I was a good student anyways, I decided to continue my schooling.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard, “I became a lawyer because I like money and being a lawyer seemed like the way to get my hands on some.” What’s fun or inspiring about that story?

When asked why I became a lawyer, I think back to my days as a college undergraduate. Graduation was approaching and the job market had seen better days. My parents had always encouraged me to become a professional, so I took the LSAT. I did well on the exam, decided to see what law school could offer me and 20 years later, I find more reasons every day why I made the right decision. I wish I had a more heroic story to tell about my path to becoming a lawyer, but honesty is the best policy. I chose my career based on my parents’ encouragement and it just happened to work out in my favor.

Once I chose law school, the next question I was confronted with was what I wanted to do with my law degree. I considered several ways to put my education to use, but found my competitive spirit – a trait I’d had since the days when I dreamed of major league ball – was a characteristic I might be able to apply here. By becoming a trial lawyer, I could live up to an achievable dream, while satisfying my desire for competition.

So, is being a trial lawyer really like being a professional athlete? Well, kind of, I think; the best athletes make their way to the top because they are the hardest workers and they have not only the will to win (everyone has that), they have the will to prepare to win. The tales of how many practice shots Larry Bird took before and after practice are legendary. The stories of how many golf balls Jack Nicklaus hit each day never cease to amaze me. Athletes push themselves not just physically, but mentally. Similarly, the best trial lawyers are successful because of their dedicated work ethic. They work hard to be the most prepared, to rise above their adversaries and their competitors. One constant in the field of trial law is those who rise to the top always credit hard work and preparation as their primary reasons for success.

Like the top athletes, trial lawyers are also extremely competitive. I’ve heard stories of Michael Jordan betting double or nothing twenty times on a dollar bet so he could finally beat his former Bulls’ teammates at a game of ping pong. I think many of the top trial lawyers have this unquenchable competitive thirst.

Although we don’t all have a heroic reason why we became lawyers, somewhere along the road we found our inspiration, our motivation to keep pushing through the long hours, the middle miles of the marathon. If you take a moment to think about it, you can even find a bit of a rock star, ballerina or professional athlete as you work day-to-day as a lawyer.

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