Eric Reed, the Wandering Lawyer (Part 1)
By Awovi Komassi • May 16, 2014•Careers, Other Career Issues
Eric Reed is a former financial litigator turned journalist. He is an avid traveler, a huge Michigan Wolverines fan and lifelong nerd. Eric is also engaged to an endlessly patient woman who tolerates him leaving the country every few months and hanging posters of Iron Man and University of Michigan flags on her walls.
Below is my interview with Eric Reed, the Wandering Lawyer.
- Can you tell us why you chose to study Law in the first place?
I went to Law School because I enjoy studying how things work. The law is a spectacular intellectual challenge. Especially in common law countries, where it consists of hundreds of years of problem solving all layered on top of each other. Studying the law is like tinkering with some fantastic machinethat changes from every direction you look at it and brilliant minds have spent generations building. It would, admittedly, be easier if they had left clearer instructions behind.
- How was your legal career before quitting Law?
Before leaving, I practiced with the White Collar and Securities group at a “Big Law” Law firm. While I’m sure it would take you all of 45 seconds on Google to find the firm, I generally prefer to avoid names.
I worked there for two years, and developed pro-bono specialties in both landlord tenant law and human trafficking issues. Before joining the firm, I also spent time on a deferral where I helped to run a school building NGOs in Cambodia.
- What did your work consist of back then as a financial litigator?
What can I say about « Big Law » that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? My work was fairly straightforward and consisted mostly of legal research and writing memos. Add in a lot of document review and you pretty much have the job of a junior litigation associate at any big shop in the country.
I signed on for the same reason that anyone else does: it’s an outstanding place to start your career and the money was excellent. The advantage of graduating into a big firm is that it leaves almost every door open. The pedigree will keep your resume strong enough for almost any other job down the road. The salary also makes manageable student loans which, in America at least, are borderline crippling for anyone who doesn’t get a six figure payday straight out the door.
Otherwise the lifestyle of a big firm is a terrible one. You work dizzying hours for generally unappreciative people and even when out of the office the smart phone keeps you on call. It’s like being a surgeon, except instead of saving lives, you make incremental gains in endless lawsuits between outrageously rich companies.
It’s a job worth taking, if you can be absolutely sure that you’re going to leave. Unfortunately, the ranks of mid and senior associates at big firms are stocked with lawyers who swore that they’d leave after “just a couple of years.”
- What do you think it takes to be successful as a financial litigator? What do you think one needs in order to excel at what you do?
I would actually say the same thing it takes to excel at any field in the law: attention to detail; As a lawyer you simply cannot cut corners; ever, full stop. You work as many hours as necessary to make sure that you have covered every issue and checked your work thoroughly, because that one opinion you skimmed in order to make happy hour could be the one that decides the case. I’ve seen it happen before.
Forget what you’ve seen in the movies, a prepared lawyer will beat a talented one almost every time.
- So, that day came, you decided to leave the law. Do you mind taking us through the process and what made you realize you wanted to try something new?
Honestly, I always knew that I would leave. Before attending Law School I worked as a cub reporter for a central Connecticut daily paper. The hours were long, the deadlines demanding and the work even occasionally dangerous. I once had a conversation with my editor that ended with “I know it’s a drug house, that’s why I sent you there!”. It was hands down the best job I’d ever had, and I knew I wanted to go back someday.
Beyond that though, a lot of law students go through what I call the second year slump. Annually you see a lot of 2 Ls who hit a wall. They’ve finally learned enough to realize that they just don’t want to be a lawyer. I think it comes from simply not knowing what the 9-5 of practice really is when you sign up (or 9-7 or 8-10 or what have you). That intellectual adventure I mentioned is a wonderful thing while studying and teaching the law, but the reality of practice is long, tedious and stressful. I went through that myself, eventually realizing that as much as I love the law as an idea, I would never love practicing it.
After that it was only a matter of time before I pulled up stakes and left. As they say, life’s too short not to spend it doing something you love.
- How would you describe your new life?
As a freelancer I work for myself. That means considering my work from a business building perspective, setting my own schedule and doing something that I love. As a journalist, I get to do something that I feel really makes a difference in the world. It’s never been more important for journalists to be good at what we do, and I’m thrilled to be a part of that.
This job has also given me the freedom to travel because of tools like e-mail and Google Voice I can work from anywhere that has an internet connection. That’s turned out to be huge for me. In my first year of law school I discovered a passion for long term travel. I love getting to know places and cultures for more than just a few days on vacation here and there. Spending long stretches around the world would be all but impossible as a lawyer, but as a freelance journalist I have the flexibility to do just that. All I need is a laptop and wifi and I can work.
- How did you transition from your old life as a practicing Lawyer to your new life as a « globe-trotter »?
After leaving practice, my fiancée and I decided to spend eight months traveling the world. We split our time about evenly between southeast Asia and Europe, traveling almost constantly except for about a month in Greece. During that time I started writing again and sending out pitches. It was an adventure we’d been planning for several years anyway, and a great opportunity to transition from one career to the other.
- Do you sometimes miss the Law?
Sometimes. I miss the thrill of courtroom battles and I miss helping people directly, on the infrequent occasions that I could do either. I think a lot of lawyers will tell you that their hearts are in their pro-bono work, and for me that was absolutely true. That part I miss, as well as the intellectual challenges of studying law. (I really can’t emphasize enough for any of your readers considering Law school how little that education relates to the practice. Law schools teach us how to be professors, not lawyers.)
The realities of practicing for a living though? No, I don’t miss those for a second.
- How come your blog is entitled the Wandering Lawyer? Do you still consider yourself a Lawyer?
Yes and no. I keep on top of developments in the field and maintain my competence to practice. My fiancée and I still move around every year or two, but once we get someplace we plan on staying for a while I’m going to get relicensed so that I can resume volunteer work. It’s one of the frustrating things about being a lawyer in America that your license is tied to your state, and is expensive to both get and maintain. If you move, especially as a young lawyer, that $1,000 bar exam and several hundred dollar annual fee becomes so much wasted money.
For now I’ve allowed my old license to lapse though, since I won’t be returning to my previous state of practice and don’t feel like cutting a large check every year for a piece of paper I legally can’t use.
- Would you do anything differently if you had the chance to go back in time again?
Honestly, no. I met some of my best friends because I attended Law school, I am getting married because I attended Law school and got hired as a journalist because I attended Law school. For me, it’s worked out great.
That said, my story is the result of a lot of dumb luck and I wouldn’t recommend that anybody else try it. I started at a fairly low ranked school and by a series of extraordinary coincidences managed to transfer to the University of Michigan (UM). At UM I was fortunate enough to land a job at a great firm that helped me pay off my debts. During my second year I took a semester off to travel, pushing my graduation back from 2008 to 2009.
When the financial crisis hit the class of 2008 suffered huge layoffs, but those of us in ’09 got deferred with jobs waiting on return. I took the time to go work in Cambodia and, thanks to getting to work late one boring morning in Siem Reap, got an e-mail that led to a trip where I met my current fiancée.
Like I said, I have no regrets, but in large part that’s because I kind of won the lottery. Several times over.
-Thank you Eric Reed for granting us this interview! How can the readers connect with you?
Anyone who wants to reach out can find me through my website, wanderinglawyer.com. Just go to the contact form. I usually write back, although it can sometimes take a little while if I’m swamped.
Awovi Komassi is the founder of letudiantendroit.com, a website aimed at law students.
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