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Finding a niche in life, work, and livelihood

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The economy goes up and down throughout history. Even when the economy overall is booming, a significant portion of people in the world suffer financially. When the overall economy is struggling, numerous people still do well financially. The factors causing a sizable percentage of people’s financial fortunes to be opposite the tide of the overall economy are many, and are the topic for another blog article. Today’s blog article is about improving one’s prospects for earning a living in the law by finding a niche in life and the law.

One day, a more senior associate at my first law firm came into my office, in 1990, and recounted: "Yesterday, I walked into name partner Z———–‘s office, and told him I don’t feel I have a niche at the firm. He replied that I have two months to find a new job." I doubt the name law partner decided this termination from the top of his head. The decision either had been made and not yet communicated to this associate lawyer, or was being considered by the firm partners handling the decision, and the associate’s niche conversation possibly made the termination decision easier to make.

This lawyer had already been at the firm a few years. If he wanted to stay at the law firm (did he?), he might have considered finding a niche at the firm, rather than dropping a bomb of "I don’t feel I have a niche" to a partner. If he was willing to put in the time, he could have not only sought his niche by seeking it with the partners and others at the firm (and with the firm’s clients), but he could have also made more of an effort at bringing clients to the firm, publishing articles that would have underlined areas of knowledge making him more worthwhile to the firm, and networked through local professional associations, attended relevant local business conventions, and networked informally to have made him more valuable in the eyes of the law firm.

This senior associate proceeded to tell me he was actively looking for a new job, but preferred not to work at a law firm anymore, and asked if I had any suggestions. What suggestions would I have beyond what already was likely obvious to him, in this city, Washington, D.C., full of opportunities with public interest organizations, trade associations, corporations, and government agencies?

What was my niche, I asked myself. I obtained invaluable regulatory and pretrial litigation experience at this law firm with some very bright and helpful teachers. However, I was yearning to give back to society and not just earn a paycheck from a law firm earning most of its revenues from financial institutions and transportation companies. I could have sought a public defender (helping equal access to justice along the way) or public interest job earlier, but let myself be lured by the much higher pay at this firm, with an ideal of working in the private sector and doing substantial pro bono work. Some of the best law firm pro bono work was at some of the largest law firms, those generally requiring the law school grade rank (for instance the top 20%) and law review experience that I was not able to provide them.

I reviewed my financial obligations and needs more closely and realized that I would not suffer financially to take a paycut — to a certain extent — to follow my dreams more, and joined the Maryland Public Defender’s Office two years after starting law school. This was followed five years later by joining a civil litigation law firm for two years, where I tried over fifteen jury trials and several bench trials and honed my deposition skills and further honed my in-court and written persuasive skills. Then I became my own boss fourteen years ago, where I have benefitted tremendously from the experience in my prior work.

By now, I have found a very satisfying niche. It starts with my practice focus of criminal defense, drunk driving defense and First Amendment defense. For me, this is about defending the Bill of Rights daily, which has been my obsession for decades. I also found a way over a decade ago to do work for the adult entertainment industry — including for adult video stores, strip clubs, adult webmasters, and escorts — that usually involves First Amendment defense, criminal defense or both. My love of languages assists me with dealing directly with Spanish and French-speaking clients without needing an interpreter when we meet in person or by phone.

I learned not to let naysayers get in my way. Numerous people told me that earning a living doing retained criminal defense is challenged by the huge percentage of criminal defendants who obtain public defender and court appointed counsel. Numerous people told me of the advantage I would have in being a prosecutor before doing retained criminal defense; I refused to prosecute. Many others told of the formidable obstacles earning a living defending civil liberties.

Potential and actual clients sooner or later learn whether their lawyer enjoys life, enjoys the work s/he is doing, likes the client, and is willing to bust the lawyer’s butt to fight for the client. When all those questions are answered with a yes, that is a strong niche for success in life and work.

I have heard people talk about doing things they do not like in order to get ahead professionally, including staying in a room with a client smoking a stinky cigar (or acting sexist or racist), attending boring and even irritating social and professional functions, and joining country clubs and other organizations that do not interest them. I remember interviewing for a straight commission job selling life insurance out of college where the interviewer excitedly told me how one promising new insurance agent was networking at the Kiwanis club (my eyes glazed over at that) and where a newer agent told me how psyched he was about the job, and that with such a high turnover in life insurance sales, it was essential to be psyched. I was not psyched. I interviewed there in case my preferred jobs did not pan out, and also in consideration of the good income I might derive. A few weeks later I got a job working as a financial auditor at the Irving Trust Company in Manhattan, then one of the nation’s largest thirty banks. I was psyched about that job. The work sometimes was not exciting, but the new things I learned and new people I met by going to new parts of the bank every two to three weeks for a new audit was very interesting — in addition to living in the middle of the Manhattan playground — topped off by a business trip for nearly a whole month to Japan and Hong Kong.

I know someone whose parents paid the college tuition of him and his siblings only if they majored in accounting, to insure a positive financial return on their tuition investment. If a person wants to be an accountant, that is just fine. However, to take overly safe decisions throughout one’s life is only so much of a life.

Wayne Dyer makes a good point when he says that we all come from abundance, so why can we not lead an abundant life, in all ways (not merely by having a safe educational and work career that yields high grades and good income)? He points out that non-human animals find a way to provide for their needs through a natural rhythm and cycle without stressing out. Humans can do the same. This does not mean that hard work does not increase one’s chance of success. It does mean that when we find our niche in life and work, we have more energy, inspiration, and ability to succeed in life and work.

The Dalai Lama has spoken of finding a way to be happy right now, no matter where one is in life and work. I agree. As a response to those studying accounting to earn a living even if they abhor the idea of being an accountant, Bill Evans underlined how when we take care of the music, the music takes care of us. When a lawyer takes the best care s/he can of clients while always improving as a lawyer, his or her law practice will take better care of the lawyer.