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?
Continue Reading An Interview With Lawyer and Novelist Candace Duff