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Alternative Careers for Lawyers: Vance Woodward, Writer

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There are many alternative careers for lawyers, and many ways to make money in the legal industry without practicing law. Vance Woodward is a lawyer, but he is also a writer, author, editor, and blogger. He has written for various publications including The National Law Journal and The Legal Intelligencer, and he is currently a columnist for The Daily Law Bulletin. His other writing interests include travel, personal finance, and legal news.

As a writer, I have to admit that I have never been much of an advocate for writing as a career choice. As a lawyer, after all, I had to write briefs for my law firm, and I had clients who were lawyers. But that was before I became a travel agent, a profession that allowed me to use my writing skills to help a growing number of clients to find the best travel deals for their needs.

I grew up in a legal family. My father is an attorney. My grandfather was a lawyer. My great grandfather was a lawyer. My great-great grandfather was a lawyer. My great-great-great grandfather was a lawyer. My great-great-great-great grandfather was a lawyer. My great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather  was a lawyer. My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather   was a lawyer. My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather  was a lawyer. My great-great-great-great-great-great-great

Thrillable Hours - Careers for Lawyers Q&AReturning to Thrillable Hours, my interview series on attorneys’ alternate jobs. 

Vance Woodward, who worked with me as a summer associate at Paul Weiss in New York in 2001, is the next in my series of Thrillable Hours interviews. Vance contacted me on Facebook a few months ago to say hello and tell me that he was leaving his job to travel for a time and establishing a blog in the process. His weblog is half travelogue and part personal thoughts — in Vance’s case, about psychology, engineering, and science – like many travel blogs. I believe his scientific expertise distinguishes the site and his perspective, and as a former colleague, I was (ahem) delighted to have him as an interviewee for this series.

*  *  *

What prompted you to quit full-time private law firm practice in favor of working on a contract or consulting basis?

Well, I didn’t really like my work! But, to be honest, I’m still not quite “there.” In other words, since leaving my firm position, I haven’t made a cent. But I believe that’s a positive thing since it allows me to write about what I’m doing in real time. Here’s some background: It was the year 2009. I was 34 years old and had been out of law school for eight years. I was a litigator who had never tried a case and aspired to be a trial lawyer. I genuinely wanted to go to trial, and I wanted to go to a lot of trials. Trials, on the other hand, were uncommon due to the nature of my practice area: corporate / commercial litigation. Almost everything calms down. Aside from the never-go-to-trial issue, I had all of the typical reasons for disliking company life: monotony, lack of recognition, firm politics, and emotionally stunted coworkers.

For me, the most important thing was conquering hurdles. To be fair, my last act of leaving wasn’t very tough. I had no partner, no children, no mortgage, no debt, and some money when I quit my work. In summary, it was very simple to just take off. I recognize that many people’s circumstances are more complex than mine. On the other side, I did come to a point where I was able to leave. I had put money aside and so forth. And I had my own set of problems to deal with. For example, I’ve had two marriages that would never have enabled me to accomplish what I’m doing today (nothing particular about the girls, but rather the inertia I felt). I purchased and sold real estate at a loss (something I’ve seen many people struggle with mentally). I’ve squandered money on ridiculously dumb stuff (that’s another story – ed. WE WANT THIS STORY). By confronting these issues and striving to overcome them, I was able to tip the balances in my favor and leave my stable employment.

What about your trips makes you happy that you didn’t have in your previous job?

Traveling brings me joy in a variety of ways. It feels wonderful, for example, to be free of my emotional baggage. A cloud lifts away as I depart on my journey. It’s as though physically leaving a place shifts all of my issues into the distant past. Furthermore, having some intellectual knowledge that we live on a world with zillions of fascinating nations, cultures, people, cuisine, and so on is one thing. Experiencing such things with your own senses is a much more visceral experience. Traveling also makes me realize how similar we are everyone. You may get the idea from watching and reading the news that the whole world is full with disasters, crime, drugs, illness, terrorism, hunger, death, poverty, suffering… did I mention disaster? The rest of the world seems to be completely insane. That notion, however, is completely false. There are plenty of cheerful individuals around, and the world isn’t overrun with gloomy turmoil. It makes me glad to see how pleasant the world is for the most part.

I didn’t acquire any of it from working at a company.

Vance WoodwardIn Tikal, Vance is on his travels.

Do you have any recommendations for professionals who want to leave private practice but are worried about what’s out there?

As I previously said, I’ve taken the jump, but I haven’t yet begun to fly. This is what I did and continue to do to deal with my fears about quitting my law firm job:

  • By failing, I succeed (or try to, anyway). To put it another way, I set absurd objectives for myself. Here’s an illustration. A few years ago, I was interested in filmmaking. So I ordered around 10 books from Amazon and began reading them. Why are there 10 books? I purchased 10 because I was afraid that if I just bought one book, I would not read it. But I’d feel pretty stupid if I purchased 10 books and never read any of them, right? That is why I purchased 10 books. Even if I didn’t manage to read them all, I’d make an effort to read at least some of them. I read maybe five or six of the novels straight immediately, as it turned out. Sure, buying one book would have been less expensive and less embarrassing than not reading it. That is why I purchased ten. One of the cinema books I read, by the way, was an autobiography by movie director Robert Rodriguez. “I thought I’d have to produce around 10 terrible movies before I could make a good one,” he says in it. So I simply went to work with the goal of finishing those 10 terrible movies so I could start producing excellent ones.” It’s another another example of success via failure. I suggest establishing some crazy objectives for individuals who wish to improve their lives.
  • After that, I read and study. I read to fuel my drive to change, acquire new tools for transformation, and let go of a strong need to collect things. A few books in particular pushed me over the edge: Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near; Chris Guillebeau’s A Brief Guide to World Domination and 279 Days to Overnight Success (both free); and Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Work Week. These were the last books I read before deciding to go it alone. And I began to read a few blogs, like yours and Chris Guillebeau’s, that inspired me in the same manner. I also learned about Kiva and The Khan Academy at the same time. It astounded me that individuals so much younger than me were accomplishing such incredible feats. Those websites motivated me to get out of my rut and seek for something more meaningful to do with my time. In addition to Karol Gajda’s Ridiculously Extraordinary, A Guy Named Dave, and Erica Douglass’ sites, I now follow Karol Gajda’s Ridiculously Extraordinary, A Guy Named Dave, and Erica Douglass’ site for life-change / reject-materialism inspiration. In any case, there are a plethora of blogs that provide free and excellent motivating and instructive material.
  • I realize that many individuals do not have a lot of time to read. In such scenario, I’d suggest starting a modest project: set aside the news, entertainment books, TV remote, and PS3 for a time. Read change-your-life books and blogs for a while with the additional time you now have. Make a goal for yourself. Do it for four weeks, or until you’ve finished 10 novels. If you think of it as a short-term project, it will be simpler to get started. If you still want to watch TV or do anything else, you can always go back to it later.
  • That leads me to my second point: I deceive myself. As I previously said, I may start a project while convincing myself that it would be less than it is likely to be. I didn’t really do this, but I think I’ll make a commitment to myself to avoid all distractions until I’ve completed reading 10 life-changing books. But, actually, I’d be doing it because I know it’s the sort of habit I’ll have to maintain in some form or another for the rest of my life. “How about I simply go to the gym today?” is the thought. “It’s just today.” Or, “I’ll simply give up a drink, a cigarette, or a 1,000-calorie frappy whappy for a day.” It’ll just be for one day.” When it comes to making major changes, you might say it’s all about concentrating on what’s going on right now. Another technique I use to deceive myself is to envision the worst-case situation and then ridicule those worries and phobias. One of my objectives is to establish my own solo practice while still having time to concentrate on other projects. I also haven’t had a single customer yet. Here’s the thing: I don’t convince myself it’ll all be OK and that everything will be fine. Instead, I convince myself that I’ll have to work for customers for 70 hours a week for a year before I even get a bite. Actually, it’s going to be a lot worse. Everything is about to go horribly wrong. I’m going to lose everything, including my money, friendships, and sanity. I’m going to turn into a toothless drunk and sleep in the gutter next to a 7-11. After that, aliens will abduct me. Maybe I’m crazy, but it feels that doing so helps me understand the truth: everything will be OK. This is something I would suggest to others. Go above and above. Consider the most outrageously bad scenario you can think of. Then, in any case, pursue your objectives. In a nutshell, deceive yourself.
  • Last but not least, I take action. Anything! We’re all aware that there’s a feedback loop between your inner and outward selves. A negative attitude leads to poor choices, which in turn leads to a negative attitude, and so on. However, the opposite is also true. The only solution (there’s that word again) I’ve found is to just… just… DO something. I compel myself to begin going in a certain direction. Whatever path you choose, momentum will always grow. I’ve previously launched two blogs. The first entry is usually the most difficult. It seems to be very important. It’s humiliating to simply say anything out loud. “Hi, I’m beginning this blog about my life and what I’m doing,” my first post on my current blog states. I really hope you like it.” My aim was (and continues to be) to offer high-quality, helpful information regarding technological singularity and how to change your mindset. And I began by saying, “Hello!” Clearly, the initial submission did not meet the criteria for high-quality, helpful material. It did, however, get the ball moving. I would advise doing anything if someone wants to stop going down and start moving up. Make a list of all the things you want to do and tape it to your television. Examine the back cover of a life-changing book. Take a stroll and consider what you want in life. Go on a run. Consume a nutritious meal. Instead of a Coke, go for water. The goal is to start moving in the right direction. The momentum will continue to grow.

Happy RobotHappy Robot is overjoyed.

How has your legal education influenced your current perspective on the world? Do you still refer to yourself as an attorney?

My most significant learning, I believe, is that reality is either pluralistic or dualistic. For my undergraduate degree, I studied chemistry and was used to the notion that exact questions need precise solutions. This mentality appeared to be prevalent even in the arts courses I studied, such as sociology and anthropology. That was, at least, my mentality. It’s all OK if you spit back the textbook’s “proper” response.

Law school was a unique experience. Exams in law school are more about analysis than answers. That’s when I realized for myself that there are few, if any, absolutes in life. True, some responses are more accurate than others. However, there are few absolutes in life. I realize that’s a bit of a stretch. It isn’t specific: “I acquired a solid work ethic.” But it had a big impact on me. I believe I am less cynical as a result of it, and the world makes more sense to me.

However, I continue to refer to myself as a lawyer. I’m not so much rejecting the lawyer as I am rejecting being trapped in a position I don’t care for.

In the next five years, how do you envision yourself?

I want to do something beneficial for the environment that I also love. And I’d want to be able to support myself while doing it (make a little money).

I see myself operating my own plaintiff-side law firm, maybe concentrating on intellectual property or class lawsuits, but certainly focused on trials! I’m going to open my own coffee shop, wine bar, tanning salon, laser hair removal facility, and fitness center. I’ll have released my autobiography as well as a number of informational goods on topics such as the technological singularity, altering your life, and changing your mindset. I’ll be writing about the same subjects on my blog, perhaps making a difference in a few people’s lives. I’ll be operating a website that offers free, high-quality legal continuing education. I’m going to start a new kind of online dictionary/grammar that supports artists and their work. I’ll also have a webpage with vintage yearbooks on it. (Feel free to use any of those suggestions!) For the time being, I’ll keep a couple more “secret” website ideas to myself.)

My first answer to your inquiry was something along the lines of, “Oh, well, I view myself as an entrepreneur.” But, you know, I guess I’ll have to take my own advise and set some absurd objectives, right? In addition, I wish to lead by example. Now that I’ve informed the world about my ambitions, it’d be humiliating if I ended up back in someone else’s legal practice, toiling away in vain! Let’s see whether I can succeed in spite of my failure.

That being said, even if I fail miserably at everything I want to accomplish, I can always return to working at a legal firm. Even in the worst-case situation, it’s not that terrible. I’m a patent attorney that is licensed to practice in New York and California. As a result, I believe I’d have a lot of choices.

What would you reply to people who claim attorneys aren’t allowed to have fun?

Racing LureWhat happens if you catch the racing lure?

That is, after all, an issue for a lot of us. It reminds me of a scene from… I’m not sure which movie that was anymore. Perhaps it’s Snatch. In any case, the protagonist is telling a story about dog racing off-screen. The dogs are chasing a fake bunny that flies across the screen in front of them. And the narrator informs us that every now and again, a dog catches the creature, which completely destroys the dog. Lawyers are a lot like the startled dog, standing there dumbfounded because what we’re eating isn’t what we expected. The good news is that, unlike the dog, we can leave the track and go play in the park whenever we choose.

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Vance has worked as a corporate commercial litigator and a patent attorney in the past. Vance would never want anybody to know that he wants to be a benign space pirate who slings guns and swashbuckles. Matey, Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr Right. Vance is now traveling across Latin America, diving, learning Spanish, blogging (on the technological singularity, the future, philosophy, and his adventures), podcasting, and writing two books. Regardless of whether anybody really reads the book, his aim for each one is to get at least 10 smiles.  

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