The first three months after quitting – my Q1 of post-BigLaw life – was a period of adjustment. I traveled, decompressed, reflected, established a routine – and felt uneasy with my lack of productivity. Productivity was not an issue for the second three months. Q2 was about trying out new things, improving myself, and refining my interests. Practically speaking, my schedule has been filled with classes.
I have always been interested in being some kind of advisor. In fact, one of the aspects I loved about law was advising clients. But I prefer advising on relationship issues rather than legal issues. I had explored coaching a bit while I was living in London and thought some coaching skills, such as active listening and goal clarification, could come handy in relationship advising. I decided to check out a more advanced “Personal Coaching Skills and Practices” class offered by NYU’s continuing education school.
The course was a disappointment. It was intellectually anemic. While repeating overly simplistic mantras such as “don’t have scarcity thoughts; transform them into abundant thoughts” and “we all have the answers to our lives inside ourselves,” the teacher did not impart many practical skills to us, contrary to the course description. After being forced to drink the mumbo-jumbo feel-good Kool-Aid, I was glad when the course was over.
While I think the class was generally a waste of time, there was a worthwhile part: weekly practice sessions with a classmate coach and a classmate coachee. I always looked forward to these sessions with my classmate coach, a patient and wise man, and my classmate coachee, a senior executive looking for personal enrichment. From these sessions, I learned an important lesson about human interaction: people all want to be heard and understood. Sometimes, it is nice to slow down from the daily grind, to express our thoughts to someone with the insight to help refine our aspirations.
One interesting observation from the class: five of my twenty classmates were either lawyers or ex-lawyers. They were all hoping that a coaching career could be an alternative to law and several of them cited autonomy of schedule as one of the top attractions to becoming a coach.
I had better luck with my second class to become a mediator through Safe Horizon. Safe Horizon is a non-profit organization that provides free alternative dispute resolution services to the New York City community. I was first attracted to community mediation because of the human drama of conflicts. I admit that my initial motivation was hardly high-minded. I have always been intrigued by conflicts – from the genesis of a conflict, the diverging interests, the emotional undertones, the escalation, to the eventual path of reconciliation.
The basic 40-hour in-class training, like all “continuing legal education” (CLE) classes, trudged along, hammering away on the principles of mediation, which could have been explained in less than 10 hours. But 40 hours is what’s required to become a court-approved mediator in New York state. The $1,300-class also gave me enough credits that I don’t have to worry about CLE requirements for the next two years. (I still plan to keep my law license active; fulfilling CLE requirements is much easier than retaking the New York bar exam.)
After the in-class training came the good stuff – the 12-week apprenticeship. Along with three other classmates, I worked with an experienced mentor to first role-play and then observe and mediate actual cases. We would receive specific and no-bullshit feedback from the mentor. It took me a while to get use to mediating because it requires different communication skills than lawyering. It is less about making sense of events and logic, more about uncovering hidden motivation and interests. I learned to soften my relatively assertive speaking style to be more empathetic. I learned to set aside my prejudices to remain more neutral to the parties. These things are all easier said than done.
In an apartment building noise dispute case I observed, the two neighbors stormed into the conference room avoiding looking at each other. As the complainant rattled on about her side of the story with increasing anger, the respondent impatiently tapped her feet faster and faster. The case seemed unresolvable until the mediator asked a few well-chosen questions to tease out the fact that the respondent had tried various insulation methods to minimize the noise and that the complainant had tried using a white noise machine to mask the noise – facts that were unknown to the other party. Realizing that the other party had spent money and energy to try to solve the problem was a turning point. No longer did they each assume they were being victimized and taken advantage of.
The parties started to look at each other; their positions softened. Noise was no longer the big issue on the table. Instead, they came up with a system in which the complainant could effectively communicate any noise problem to the respondent. It turned out that the complainant’s real interest was seeing some response to the complaint even if the noise was not mitigated and the respondent’s was to get reassurance from the complainant that the complaint would not be frivolous. The case was favorably resolved.
I realized that during my six years in BigLaw, I was lucky to have worked with highly intelligent and motivated people. I took this for granted thinking the world outside BigLaw also operated on the same high caliber level. The world doesn’t. It is messy, inefficient, and illogical. And that is okay. Through observing and mediating real cases, I learned that just because people are irrational doesn’t mean they don’t have emotional logic, and just because they can’t express themselves clearly doesn’t mean they don’t want to be understood.
I saw firsthand the power of mediation in facilitating emotionally difficult conversations to de-escalate conflicts. In addition to learning some valuable skills, I feel good knowing that after I finish my apprenticeship, I will become a volunteer community mediator helping people better understand themselves and each other.
Most recently, I added improv as a third course to my schedule. I was talking to a good friend, also a recovering lawyer, about my Johnson O’Connor aptitude test result and how I wanted to censor my ideas less. She recommended that I should try improv and raved about her experience taking Improv 101 at UCB Theatre. I never acted before, nor do I want to be an actor or comedian. I have always thought myself as somewhat conservative, stiff, and serious. But since Q2 is about trying out new things, hanging loose and being out there, what could be a better venue than improv?
With high expectations, I attended my first Improv 101 class at UCB. I am the oldest person in the class of 15 students. Most of my classmates are into performing arts and have done a little acting here and there. They are the epitome of young, attractive, talented but cash-poor hipsters pursuing their artsy dreams.
Right off the bat, we started doing skits. The instructor would give a one-word suggestion for us to improvise and act out the scene. My first time was terrifying, not so different than the time during my Q1 road-trip I tried the high ropes course in Montana. I thought my ideas would be stupid and my acting would be embarrassing. Must I really assume the role of a slave-driving pimp daddy? With clammy hands and a racing heart, I threw myself into character, berating my trash-talking hooker (played by a male classmate). “Show off your tits and ass to the customer, ho!” Words rolled off my tongue, without preparation, without censorship, without self-consciousness.
Since my first class, I have assumed the role of a prudish evangelical on the verge of being de-flowered, a cuckold gold-digger wife full of wrath, a crazed Billy Joel fan wanting a piece of his ass, and a baby delighting in smearing my own poop all over my face. I look forward to play other roles, whatever they may be.
I have already signed up for Improv 202. There is much to be learned that relates to life off-stage. I am learning valuable skills such as setting the scene clearly and succinctly at the start of an interaction, spotting patterns and quirky dialogue to advance a scene, and being flexible to accommodate and follow others’ leads. And above all improv is helping me becoming more instinctive and creative, something I now realize I need more after years of habitual and premature dismissal of my own ideas believing that I was an executor rather than generator of ideas as a lawyer.
I set out to stretch myself at the outset of Q2. I wanted to explore my interests and learn some practical skills with the hope of becoming a more empathetic, more tolerant, more spontaneous person. But Q2 was not only about fun exploration. I have also devoted a lot of time to other activities, including animal volunteer work, managing our family investments, and doing some due diligence on a possible local business venture. More on all this, plus my focuses for Q3, in my next installment.