This is an excerpt from my book, A Lawyer’s Guide to Creating a Life, Not Just a Living: Ordinary lawyers doing extraordinary things.
Are you pre-programmed? Yes, pre-programmed, with what you should do, with no room for what you want to do? Is your comfort zone killing you?
Has complacency set in? Are you just going through the motions? Is complacency sucking the oxygen out of your dreams, your courage, and your passion?
I have the great privilege to work with lawyers and I know all too well the answer to that question isn’t good.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The legal profession is a traditional one, and consequently, it tends to create traditional environments, procedures, and expectations. Yet there are lawyers who have broken the shackles of tradition. It takes guts to swim upstream. It takes courage to believe in yourself when you have little evidence that it will be successful. It takes wisdom to apply the skills you honed practicing law in a different way or another environment.
Whether you are looking to build your practice where you are, find a new firm, or start your own firm, move from public sector to private sector or vice versa, or just stop the madness, you can make it happen!
Candace Duff has broken the shackles of tradition with guts, courage, and wisdom. You will be inspired by her journey. Candace Duff knew what she should do and knew it wasn’t enough, but she found a way to do what she wanted to do and stepped out of her comfort zone. Candace Duff is a mediator, attorney, arbitrator, and a published novelist aka L.J. Taylor.
Black: Tell me about your early influences.
Duff: Well, I decided to become a lawyer when I was twelve years old. I went from visiting nurse to spy to lawyer. There weren’t any lawyers in my family. I probably got the idea from TV and books. As a child, I was a voracious reader. I read all the books in my parents’ collection, including quite a few inappropriate ones. I used to read twenty Harlequin romances a week, when I was in high school, much to the chagrin of my math teacher.
I always had a creative side, though. I loved to sing. I loved to write. I wrote poetry and song lyrics. There are even some of my poems in the high school yearbook. And I even tried to write a science fiction novel when I was thirteen years old. It has heavily based on Star Wars—back then Star Wars was a hit and really huge, so there’s a hero, there’s a princess and all.
Black: Did your family play a strong role in guiding you?
Duff: I had a very strict mother, and she stressed education. You know, if she knew you could get an A, you couldn’t come back in that house with anything less than an A. She also stressed having a profession. You had to be a doctor or a lawyer..
She downplayed hobbies. Being a writer and being a singer—those were hobbies, those weren’t professions to her. In fact, my mother had a beautiful voice herself. She sang like Nancy Wilson. And there were a few recording studios who had courted her, but she declined, because, you know, back then you just didn’t do that. You raised your family, you finished nursing school.You didn’t go off into the sunset to try to become a singer, and she taught us the same thing.
Black: Did college fuel your creative side?
Duff: After high school, I got into Vassar College. And Vassar College opened up a whole new world to me. It allowed me to explore my creative side. I was an actress in the Ebony Theater Ensemble. I was a singer in the gospel choir. I was even a dancer back then, although I couldn’t do ballet to save my life.
After Vassar College, I went into law school, and I didn’t write while I was in law school. In fact, I couldn’t even read fiction books. In law school, all you read are legal tomes. You do so much reading it pretty much turns you off from reading anything else.
Black: So what happened after law school?
Duff: After I left law school, I ended up getting a job at Greenberg Traurig. Greenberg Traurig is an international firm—top one hundred. And so while I was there, I focused on becoming the best lawyer that I could be, because there were so few African American lawyers in the firm that I really wanted to be a good example. Later in my career, I focused on making partner and I worked a million hours, and there wasn’t time for anything else.
Black: Did you find any time to write?
Duff: I took a vacation every year and during my vacation I would go to writers’ conferences. I really liked the Maui Writers Conference, because it was in Maui, so how could you go wrong with that?
And I would dream. I would dream of writing a book.And there were so many people there, so many writers there, I would get all this intellectual stimulation while I went and I would dream about writing a book, but I just never had the time.
Black: And how was the rest of your life moving along?
Duff: I made partner at Greenberg in 2001 and I said, now what? September 11th happened later that year and I realized I had no personal life at all. All I had done was work, and I was restless. I misinterpreted my restlessness as a desire to get married. So I accepted the first proposal that I got, and married the first man who asked me. My ex wasn’t very supportive about writing. He told me that even if I became a bestselling author, I could never stop practicing law, because he wanted to make sure that money came in steady. Needless to say, that didn’t last very long, and he and I were divorced two years later.
My sister became unable to care for my niece. I ended up raising a fifteen-month-old baby by myself. Here I was, a professional woman—a single mother, suddenly—working at Greenberg with a fifteen-month-old baby. I’m surprised my niece is still alive!
I had no time to write. I had no time to go to writers’ conferences and hone my craft. I had no time for anything but to work and take care of my niece.
Black: When did things start to change?
Duff: My first “aha” moment came two years later. My niece was reunited with my sister and I had become a construction law expert and I practiced primarily real estate litigation, representing developers, but then in 2007–2008, the market crashed. Banks weren’t lending. Real estate wasn’t being sold. Condos weren’t turning over and suing developers. People who had differences in real estate and construction thought it was better to settle than to litigate the issues. The cranes had stopped.
Like so many other attorneys, I had to reinvent myself. So I started doing work that I wasn’t in love with, and I did that for a while. Until one day I asked myself, is this what you want to do for the rest of your life? And the answer was no.
Black: I bet that was eye-opening. What did you want to do?
Duff: I had two dreams that I had kicked to the curb for the first fifteen years of my practice. I wanted to be a published novelist and I wanted to enter into public service, specifically I wanted to be a judge at the time. And I decided right then and there that I would start taking steps to make those dreams come true, to make that happen.
I started attending writers’ conferences again, and I joined Romance Writers of America, and I downloaded every single writing seminar I could find. And I learned about something called National Novel Writing Month, where basically maniacs from all over the globe, including Kazakhstan, sign up on the website and they vow to write 50,000 words between November 1st and November 30th of every year. I did that. I began writing a novel a year until I had four manuscripts written, and then I researched agents and editors and I started sending out my work.
And, you know, Steven King, in his book on writing, says, if you’re sending out your work to agents and editors, you need to be ready to paper your wall with rejections. Truer words were never spoken, because I got enough rejections to paper my walls. But over time, the rejection letters started getting nicer and nicer, and longer and longer, where they said we like this about your work, but you need to work on that, maybe character development, or we like the pacing in your work and we love the characters, but you need to work on something else. But I was impatient and I wanted it to happen sooner.
Black: What happened to the second dream, of public service?
Duff: I applied for several judicial positions in state and federal court, and there were times when I got really close. The governor even interviewed me once. But I was beat out by other worthy candidates who had been trying for years.
When the hiring freeze lifted in state and federal agencies after the downturn, I applied for public service positions at these government agencies. But they kind of wondered why, after twenty years of practicing in a big-time firm, I wanted to go there. They wondered whether I was looking to retire, and they had the ability to hire younger people at a lower cost, so I didn’t get those jobs.
Black: When did the idea of becoming an author really take hold?
Duff: Finally, in 2013, after attending the San Francisco Writers Conference, where they had a lot of seminars on self-publishing, I took a good look at my life. My mother had just died the year before, half my life was gone, and I wasn’t any closer to achieving my dream of becoming a published author. I decided to move into an area of law that would give me more flexibility with my time, that would enable me to do work that I loved, and to pursue my dreams, to become a mediator and an arbitrator, and to self-publish my novels. As a result, in June 2014, Duff Law Mediation and Waterview Publishing were born.
I had a lot of hurdles I had to overcome, and some of those hurdles were internal. They were emotional. They were things that I believed, and they stopped me from—or they almost stopped me from—moving forward.
I believed that following my dreams was foolish—that I could never survive on my own. I was never a big business developer at Greenberg, and networking wasn’t my most favorite activity. In fact, I’m actually kind of shy. You probably won’t believe that, but I was afraid that if I left the institution at which I had spent my entire legal career, I would flounder and fail. Well, that didn’t happen.
I also believed that I wasn’t the greatest fiction writer. Agents liked my pitches, the rejection letters did get longer and more positive, but they didn’t represent me, they didn’t agree to represent me once they got my writing submissions, and that made me believe that I wasn’t good enough. I now know that’s not true. I also believed that my work wasn’t mainstream enough to interest a broad audience.
Black: So what made you think that?
Duff: There was a time when I went to this San Francisco Writers Conference and I submitted the second book in my romantic suspense series, Dreams Differed, to a big-time editor. I pitched it to her. She told me—I was sitting at a table with ten other people—because my heroine was African American and coming out of jail in the first scene of the novel, that my book wasn’t mainstream enough. She said, “Honey, the only people who want to read about black people getting out of jail in the first chapter of your book are the black people.” That discouraged me, because I thought, “Oh, who am I going to sell my books to?”
My books weren’t necessarily urban fiction, so I didn’t think I would fit into any particular niche. Little did I know at the time, my book appealing to African American women was actually a great thing. I learned later that the biggest reader of romance, of all types of romance, is an African American woman. She was helping me figure out my market. I didn’t realize that at the time; I thought she was just being negative—and maybe she was—but,hey!
I also believed that the only legitimate way to get published was through an agent and a traditional publishing house. You see, back then, self-publishing had a stigma to it. People were publishing in what they call vanity presses and vanity books, but self-publishing hadn’t reached the heights that it’s reached today. So I thought I was doing something that wouldn’t be acceptable. But the bottom line is, self-publishing—that stigma is almost gone. And if you look at the bestseller list today, a large percentage of the books are self-published. And if they aren’t self-published now, they started out that way, and then big presses snapped them up. It’s now become a very viable way to go.
Black: So what have you learned along the way?
Duff: Now that I’ve been out on my own for a while, I’ve learned so much. And one of the biggest things that I’ve learned is that you’ll never be happy until you take a chance and make an effort to follow your dreams. If you don’t take a chance, you’ll always be asking yourself what would have happened if I had taken a chance, if I had tried.
I haven’t made a ton of money yet, but I have never been happier. I also learned that it’s possible to pursue my dream of becoming a published author and make a living at the same time. I went from thinking I wasn’t cut out to be a business developer to starting and running two businesses in two different industries that are slowly but surely starting to gain traction. I published books in several different media all over the world. My mediation and arbitration practice is growing every day. In fact, I just went ahead and sent out an estimate for a $15,000 arbitration and no one has even blinked an eye. That could have never happened two years ago.
Black: Describe your career as the author L.J. Taylor.
Duff: My first book, Just Dreams, has more than 65 reviews and 4.5 stars on Amazon. All of my books have good ratings on Amazon. And if you look at my reviews, they’re pretty overwhelmingly positive.
I get emails from people all the time who have read and enjoyed my books. I even got an email from a woman who said she was going through a really horrible time in her life and that reading books have helped her escape. If I can do that for somebody, then I’m doing the right thing.
My books are read by men and women—people from all races and all walks of life and countries all over the world buy them. They’ve been bought in Australia, South Africa, Europe, India, and they’re on Amazon, iTunes, Kobo Books, and Nook. You can find them in any places where books are sold online. The stigma that used to be associated with self-publishing is pretty much gone.
Black: How would you describe your life today?
Duff: My life today is very different than it was back then, when I was at the firm. I’ve published three books over the past couple of years under my pen name, L.J. Taylor. I now have more control over my schedule and more time to write, and I’ve never been happier.
Candace leaves us with inspiring thoughts.
Ask yourself: Is this what I really want to do with my life? Challenge your beliefs, because sometimes you will find that you have outgrown them, and maybe they weren’t valid to begin with.
Take every opportunity to hone your craft, no matter where it takes you. Not a bad gig, when it takes you to a writers’ conference in Maui, right?
Listen to your gut; it’s telling you something isn’t right. Candace listened to her gut many times along her journey.
Rejection. Rejection doesn’t mean stop what you’re doing. Learn from it and find another way to proceed.
Take a chance. Does your thirteen-year-old self still have dreams that speak to you?