Remember Green Acres, that fish-out-of-water comedy wherein Eddie Albert drags Eva Gabor out to live on some tumbledown farm in the middle of nowhere? She’s a Park Avenue socialite, but he’s the husband and the penis-haver and it’s the 1960′s – so what he says, goes. If he’s jonesing for fresh air and farm living, she has no choice.
I don’t remember much more than the theme song and opening credits, but the concept – giving it all up, packing your bags and fleeing for the sticks, spouse (and maybe kids) in hand – resonates with my lawyer clients. Some are beginning to sound like aspiring Eddie Alberts.
I’d like to say there’s a great lawyer return to the land on the way – driven by a love for nature and the outdoors. To some extent that’s true. But mostly, it’s a product of desperation. The big themes are escaping biglaw misery, seeking adventure, looking for a healthier lifestyle… and fleeing school loans.
One client’s story weaves these themes into a magical tapestry of personal growth, spiritual awakening and debt avoidance.
He was suffering modestly at a big law firm in L.A. Then he got posted to an office in Asia, where he happened to speak the language. There he discovered how bad bad can be. The US office dished out standard-issue biglaw brutality. Nothing could have prepared him for the Asia office. The cruelties committed by the local staff and attorneys would make Hieronymus Bosch wince. In their laser-beam-like focus on punishing my client for speaking their language and attempting to work in their homeland, they achieved new plateaux of sadism on a weekly basis. He developed insomnia, migraines, then panic attacks – and was fired a year later, without comment.
That’s when the Green Acres theme began playing in his head.
I’m not sure where he got the idea, but for whatever reason, he bought a 500 square foot cabin in the middle of nowhere, snug against the 49th parallel. Then he wrote a blog about woodcarving. And that’s about all he did – that, and shovel snow.
Ten months later he remembered the $150k he owed in school loans and back taxes from his Asian debacle, packed his bags and caught a ride to New York City – and doc review. Foreign language doc review pays better than regular doc review, but it’s still doc review. Working with the burnt-out remnants of lawyers is refreshing after working with actual lawyers – and at first it was amusing to get paid to peruse an Asian businessman’s emails to his mistress, then click “relevant” “incriminating” and “privileged.” But even assuming steady work, he didn’t see how he could pay off his loans within a decade.
His solution? Hitch a ride back to The Great White North – and his rustic cabin. There, he could find public defender work in the local courthouse – and wait tables. He calculated that $30k per year would be enough to cover food and fuel – but insufficient to attract the attention of his creditors. Not even a bank addicted to the lifeblood of youth can squeeze that blood from a stone. In his free time – which is most of the time, at this point – he wood-carves. For whatever reason, he finds that more exciting than doc review.
Voila. All you weeping, tooth-gnashing, garment-rending lawyers out there who constantly ask me – what can I do now? Here’s a solution. Green Acres is the place to be!
If you’re a true daredevil, you can fly the coop bigtime – take it beyond a meek retreat back-to-the-land, and embark on grand adventure.
For role models, you have those lawyer-bloggers who regularly up-date us on their fantastic doings. My clients inundate me with links to these guys.
There was the former bankruptcy associate who walked across the country. I don’t remember if he did it for charity, or an up-coming documentary film, or because he was losing his marbles. From the bit I read, I suspect option number three.
I’m not sure what walking across the country costs, but most of the “grand adventure” types are drawing on some unnamed source of cash to pursue their dream.
There’s the former biglaw chick traveling around the world, who started with the Trans-Siberian, and last I checked, was on a vision quest in Thailand. Her spin on the whole thing is “wow! I’m taking time off to grow as a person!” but I suspect the truth is closer to “I was losing my shit in biglaw and could afford to do this.” She assumes we want to hear what it all means to her – ignoring the reality that smoking weed in Chiang Mai with cute Swedish guys is a well-worn trope. We get it. We’d love to blow out of law and into “personal growth” along these lines, too. But there’s the issue of cost…
I stumbled on another former biglaw victim who moved to Italy to work as a free-lance journalist. Once again, how she pulled off this feat remains a mystery – I suspect one involving an Italian husband with a family house.
For those of us who don’t savor walking across the country – and don’t have the money for a year of traveling around the planet or a husband with a house in Italy – the Green Acres experience might, of necessity, play out in a humbler – and perhaps more heartfelt – manner.
You can read about this breed of Eddie Albert – the humbler, heartfelt-er ones – in the “lifestyle” section of the New York Times. The key search terms are “organic” and “artisanal.”
You’ll find the family that lives in a house on fifty acres in the middle of nowhere, Maine. The husband – bearded, lanky, and simultaneously wifty and scarily intense – manufactures driftwood sculpture and furniture. The wife – with braided hair and sensible shoes – home-schools their kids. The family gathers hearthside in the evenings to steam kale and discuss books. It’s all very heartfelt.
Another guy built a treehouse on the coast of Oregon. I can’t remember what he does up there – but stop smirking. He’s not marking up a purchase agreement or replying to a request for discovery, so it’s more fun than whatever you’re doing.
The spin in these pieces is appealing. It requires courage to give up the money, the status, the title – to head back to the land and commit yourself to something crunchy. Lawyers are feeling the pull.
Another one of my client’s got the itch bad. For her, the question is whether her husband, an academic who stays at home with their two kids, is up for abandoning his career and switching to goat farming.
He might be.
“I know this sounds crazy,” she says. “But I want to make cheese. I want to learn how, and I want to make my own cheese.”
“It can’t be that crazy,” I informed her. “You’re the second lawyer this month.”
I’m not making that up. Goat farming – and the manufacture of chèvre – have developed into a miserable lawyer leitmotiv. You can’t riff on the theme without it.
People are trying. Lawyers are talking the talk – even if fewer are actually walking the walk.
Once again, money is the first obvious roadblock on the road to Green Acres. Even Grizzly Adams needed a few buckskins to purchase his log cabin – and stock the pantry full of mac and cheese for the long winter ahead.
The trick to leaving your money troubles behind – and unshackling your peripatetic soul – is abandoning the crazy notion of repaying gargantuan loans. After that, settling into brewing your own buttermilk is a piece of cake.
My client on the 49th parallel is giving it a go – and it might work. At some juncture, as a lawyer with loans approaching two hundred thousand dollars, you begin to sense at a visceral level you’re never going to pay that money back – not in this lifetime. The loans are perpetual – so you might as well cry uncle and give up. Then you can stake a claim out past them thar hills, earn a pittance to feed yourself, and get on with your life.
There are two major steps you have to take right off the bat. First, get rid of your phone. You can’t afford it anyway, and it drives the banks into conniptions when they can’t harass you every day. Second, scale down your lifestyle. Dump any possessions the banks might sink their slimy claws into. My client’s cabin is worth about $40k. Even in the USA, where foreclosing is a way of life, that’s not worth foreclosing on – and, in any case, his mortgage is a few hundred bucks per month.
The ultimate get-away? Leave the USA behind. Head South of the Border – or just across the border. There are lots of off-the-beaten-track spots to explore. I’ve been hearing about Costa Rica, Australia, and India from lawyers I work with.
If your immigrant parents fled another country for opportunity in the USA – well, now might be time to flee back! You already speak the language, and the banks will never find you. Sure, you can no longer work in the USA – the money-lenders would descend like rabid hyenas – but you’re technically not a criminal. You can maintain citizenship and pop in for visits.
Some lawyers are picking a random spot – any spot – on the map. It only has to be far away from biglaw and all-American debt slavery. There’s loads of space in the Northern Territory of Australia!
Farm livin’ is the life for me…
Can it happen? Can you give it up, buy a rustic cabin way over yonder and live like Grizzly Adams (or Crocodile Dundee)?
Once you’ve tasted biglaw, plodding through snow to an outhouse doesn’t sound half bad.
Speaking personally…Dah-link I love you, but give me Park Avenue.
But the honest answer is I don’t know if you can pull it off.
Eva Gabor seemed to adapt. Maybe you can too. And maybe you can convince the wife and kids to come with.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)