Why Lawyers Leave

Leaving the Law: Recovering Lawyers Speak Out
Click on the graphic above to begin the presentation


I love those “tell-all” departure memos people send when they are fed up with their jobs and just aren’t going to take it anymore!


Remember the Goldman Sachs’ employee whose resignation letter made it into the New York Times?


Greg Smith had been with the investment firm for over 12 years, but “I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look students in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work.” Ouch!


But the worst “I-knew-it-was-time-to-leave-when . . .” letter I ever read was from a lawyer who claimed “I am no longer comfortable working for a group largely populated by gossips, backstabbers and Napoleonic personalities.” Double ouch!


A few months ago, I asked two recovering lawyers the same question: When did you know it was time to leave the practice of law? The blogpost that came out of our conversation proved quite popular—racking up over 1,200 “shares” and “likes” to date.


Clearly, I am not the only one who loves to ponder this question!


So, I have now asked 15 recovering lawyers to share the moment they knew it was time to leave law behind.


Their stories are as compelling as they are diverse.


Whether it was for family reasons, or because of nagging physical pain, or even a deep knowing that law practice was no longer a good fit, these lawyers took the leap.


Check out their stories by clicking on the slideshow above.


How A Former IP Lawyer Became The Reigning Queen of Erotic Fiction

Treva Harte writes the kind of romantic fiction that would make the old Grande Dame of romance, Barbara Cartland, blush–before grabbing a flashlight, a pen and some paper for hours of titillating reading in a dark corner somewhere.

Photo credit Jonathan Timmes

(Why pen and paper? Because Babs could use some pointers on how to write romance novels for the 21st century woman! Admittedly, she’s been dead for 14 years . . .)

Harte is the author of at least 54 works of erotic fiction that often carry the legal disclaimer: “Please do not try any new sexual practice, especially those that might be found in our BDSM/ fetish titles, without the guidance of an experienced practitioner.”

You’ve been warned!

Harte’s work has sometimes been called “literary” erotica, which isn’t surprising given her status as an English Literature graduate school dropout. Despite the great writing, her work is nothing if not controversial. One reviewer of a particularly steamy Harte novel—the story of a woman who captures and domesticates wild men to serve as sex slaves in a post-apocalyptic world—puts it bluntly: “I truly believe this is one of those books people are either going to love or hate–I don’t foresee much middle ground.”

The same could probably be said of Harte’s transition from buttoned-down Intellectual Property lawyer to author and publisher of the sort of erotic fiction that rivals 50 Shades of Gray. 

How did she get there?

I sat down with Harte recently to trace her extraordinary career from law to erotica. Probably the first thing you notice about her is her sense of humor. Harte finds much to laugh about in the story of how she moved from the inner sanctum of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office—where she reviewed trademark applications for “Barbara’s Bush”—to the wild world of erotic romance. You can’t help but join in the laughter.


Q&A With Treva Harte




How did you end up going to law school?


As a kid, I absolutely knew I  wanted to be a writer when I grew up. But I worried I wouldn’t be able to make a living at it, so then I thought I would become an English professor. I went to graduate school for English Literature and quickly decided that I hated teaching and I hated literary theory.

So now what? I decided to go to law school. At least it would give me some practical experience.


What was law school like for you?


Horrible. But graduate school had been so disillusioning that I was prepared for law school! The truth was that I didn’t “think like a lawyer,” and I didn’t feel compatible with many of the other law students.

On the other hand, I did meet my husband in law school so it wasn’t a complete waste of time. I also enjoyed my law and psychology classes. I was always interested in relationships, so they made sense to me. I thought I might become a divorce lawyer.


You became an IP lawyer instead! How did that happen?


Lots of folks plan out their lives–and actually, I try to do that as well. But what I plan and what happens aren’t always the same thing! [Harte responds with a laugh]

I was headed to New Mexico, but I met someone in law school, and we decided to stay in the Washington, D.C. area. I went in search of a government job. When I went for my interview at the Trademark Office [PTO], I didn’t think I got the position.

The hiring attorney asked “What do you know about trademarks?”

“Not very much,” I had to admit.

“What about computers?” At the time, computers was a booming field in the trademarks area.

“Well . . . if you give me explicit instructions, I can do do it.” I said.

He laughed before responding “I’d love someone without any biases!”

I was hired. I think they liked my English Literature background. You spend a lot of time figuring out the meaning of words in trademark law.

I stayed at PTO for 20 years. Law wasn’t necessarily my first passion, but this particular agency worked out very well for me. I enjoyed my job, and eventually the kids were off to school and I had more time to write.  I had been on a long writing hiatus, but it felt so good to start writing again–it was the best high ever!


Tell us about your writing life. It sounds like you balance lots of competing responsibilities. How do you find the time to write?


People often say, “If I had time, I would write.” But the truth is I didn’t have time and I kept writing anyway. No one gives you the time, you create it by taking time away from other things. I used to get up early in the morning while everyone else was asleep to do my writing.

Writing is therapy for me. I’m usually working out some issue in my life in my writing, although from a completely different angle. Sometimes, I get an idea and it is so much fun I just have to write it down or the storyline will stick in my head. But if I’m going to keep writing about it, it has to keep nagging at me. When the issue is resolved in my unconscious, I stop writing about it.

I can have lag time in writing a book that lasts up to a month. Sometimes that lag time means I’m done, but at other times I will pick up the story again later and keep going with it. I’m a seat-of-your-pants kind of writer. I’m working the story out in my head because I don’t have lots of time to revise. I love revision and word choice and all that,  but I don’t have time to tweak the way I used to. I try to make it as good as possible the first time.

There are all sorts of approaches to writing. Everyone will do it in a different way. I don’t necessarily recommend my method. It is really frightening at times.


How did you come to write erotic fiction? It seems an unusual genre for a recovering lawyer


Sex is a huge way to discover what human beings are like. You learn a whole lot more with sex than with polite conversation. I look at it as shortcut to how human beings get to know each other. Since I’m fascinated with how relationships work, I’m drawn to it.

I never wanted to write the Great American Novel. I was always interested in romance. In grad school, they didn’t “do” genre literature, which is probably why I lost my writing. I read the Brontë sisters, but really my love was romance. I wanted to write in the genre.

[While at PTO] I decided to find out more about the romance market, so I worked as a reviewer on a website. I found Tina Engler. She had started her own publishing company, and I was interested in starting one myself so I reached out and asked her for tips. She responded that she could really use people to write “spicy” romance novels.

I had no idea what she meant. I didn’t know much about erotic romance or ebooks. She sent me a copy of a Jaid Black story, and I thought “Ohhhhhh! I can’t write that. But maybe . . .”

Why not take a risk? I wrote my first novel in 2001. It was about a virgin who didn’t want to be one anymore. That was as wild as I could get.

It was accepted for publication! I sold well with virginal college boys and Koreans.

I was so excited to publish and get paid. I kept writing in the genre because this was where I could get published. And I could jump from one genre to the next. It was a very niche market.


How did you know when it was time to leave your law job?


I practiced law and wrote novels at the same time for about 4 years–although I didn’t talk about my books at the Agency! [PTO] I was pretty good at juggling, but they kept giving me more balls. Finally, I couldn’t juggle anymore.

I probably would have kept being a lawyer for a few more years. I was pushed into leaving in a way. It happened fortuitously—although I’m not sure that’s the right word. My son had difficulties, and my mom had moved into our house. The publishing company I had started was demanding more of my time. It hadn’t made significant profit, but I saw possibilities. I gave up the day job because I needed to stay home with the family.

Once I did it, I was very happy. But the doing of it was very scary.


You are now an entrepreneur with your own publishing company. Why did you transition from writer to publisher?


Like most authors, I saw how publishing worked at the time and thought, “I can do a better job!”

I did not know how lucky I was when I started. I had some of the background, but not all of the skills I needed to be successful.  For example, I’m not so good at grabbing authors and saying “I love you and your work.” Others are better at that. I’m a terrible salesperson, but authors come to me anyway. We have a reputation, and we get plenty of submissions.

When we first came up with the idea of starting a publishing company, we put together a business plan. We never totally finished it–we probably got three-quarters of the way through it–and that was fortunate. With the way the publishing industry has changed so dramatically, it was a good thing we weren’t rigidly adhering to some business plan.

I networked enough to meet good people, and I came into the business at the right time. Of course we worked hard and learned very quickly, but lots of people do. Sometimes it’s about being in the right place at the right time and being smart enough to know this is what you do next. The field is now getting tougher in all kinds of ways. It’s becoming very hard to get into–like other writing fields.

These days, people will say they are going into “self-publishing.” I say to them sincerely “good luck.” They don’t know how hard it is. For people who want to self-publish, it’s like starting your own little mom-and-pop. They are small businesses. But the statistics for small businesses are terrible. So many of them fail in the first year because the owners don’t have the skills they need. The odds are not good!

I wish I knew the magic formula. I don’t know if I’d retire, but I’d be more comfortably well-off.


Did your legal background help you transition to being a successful entrepreneur?


I spend most of my time these days focusing on contract law. I guess I finally did learn to think like a lawyer! Usually, when things come up to bite me, it’s because they weren’t perfectly clear in the contract. They were clear to me, but I didn’t clarify them in the contract.


What advice would you give to lawyers who want to quit practice to write full time?


When people tell me they want to become full time writers, I say good luck. It’s a scary thing. Law can be scary too—trying to navigate the field, the personalities and all that. But writing is a whole different scary. It has different rules.

I can usually tell when a book will do well. Some writers know instinctively what appeals to the most number of readers. It helps if the book is well-written. But first, what you have to do is get the reader to say “I want this book . . . and I want more books by this author.” It’s a mix of knowing what the reader wants and providing it, and also providing something only you can give.

Writing for fun and the business of writing are two different things. There are points where the two intersect, but they are not the same. It helps if you have a business foundation or a practical framework for how to deal with your writing. Most writers don’t have that. You might have already developed a thick skin in law practice, which helps too.

Making a living in writing is chancy. You hear about the successes because it’s like winning the lottery. For me, the writing was a way to make me happy—what money came, came later. I spent many years with little money. I have a spouse, and that is helpful. He writes too, but in his spare time. When you are not dependent on your writing, you write what you like. When you are dependent on writing for your salary, it’s a different mindset. If you are prepared to take an uncertain return on your investment, then take the leap.

But my logical self says go ahead and write, just don’t give up the day job. Write as much as possible while not depending on your writing for financial support. You need a cushion anywhere you can get it.



Where did the name for your publishing company “Loose Id” come from?


It was a late night, and I was so tired that I turned to my business partner and said: “It’s almost midnight, I’m not even lucid anymore . . . Loose Id!”

And we had our name.




Have You Dreamed of Writing A Novel? Me Too! Let’s Do It Together

file000368977040Even as a child, it seemed natural to me to have fictional characters running around in my head demanding their moment on the page.

I would chat with them on the long walks to school, scribble their lives down on my Do Now page in Social Studies, and draft whole chapters in the evenings when I should have been finishing my Chemistry homework.

Yet none of those stories was ever quite finished.

Around the 100 page mark, I would find myself drifting to another project, another job, another life transition. There was always some reason why I couldn’t finish the latest fictional piece I had started.

This month I am planting my flag in the literary sand and have committed to finishing my current novel.

What makes this month different from any other? Well, November is for writers. It is National Novel Writing Month!


November is For Writers




Ahhh lawyers! So many of us have a secret yearning to break free of our legal briefs to become the fiction writers we were born to be! Why, it’s almost embarrassing (who wants to see a lawyer without her briefs?)

But we aren’t completely out of our minds. It’s so easy to find hope from the stories of other lawyers who’ve crossed over to bestselling fiction writer status. I give you Exhibit A:

But the list of lawyers who have wished to write and have never quite gotten around to it is even longer (and far less illustrious . . . )

Now, if I put together Exhibit B — a list of wanna be writers who don’t write — would your name be on it?

I have to be honest, mine would!

Like many recovering lawyers, I have been writing my fictional opus for as long as I can remember. But also like most such lawyers,  I haven’t actually completed a novel, despite drafting parts and subparts, plot outlines and character descriptions for years.

This month, all of that will change — for me, and also for you if you are willing.

How? Because November is for writers!

Enter NanoWriMo and the quest to produce 50,000 words in just 30 days (punctuated with small breaks for that massive turkey dinner and the equally appalling Black Friday debacle).



NaNoWriMo Away!


crest-bda7b7a6e1b57bb9fb8ce9772b8faafbHave you ever had a crazy goal and decided to turn it into an international movement?

Well, the folks at NaNoWriMo.Org have done just that with their outrageous goal to write a novel in a single month.

Worse yet, they have convinced over 300,000 people all over the world to join them in this impossible quest.

Only, it turns out the quest is not quite so impossible. Last year alone, 310,095 participants successfully completed a 50,000 word novel in a single month.

Since 2006, over 200 novels first drafted for NaNoWriMo have come to life with a traditional publisher; countless more have been self-published.

It really is possible to finally get your novel out of your head and onto the page. All you have to do is click over to NaNoWriMo.Org and sign up. Let the world know you are willing to chase this impossible dream for no other reason than that you want to cross it off your bucket list.

Then, drop a line in the comments below proclaiming your commitment to write your novel. We support you.

In fact, I will be right there with you writing away.




For all of you writers masquerading as lawyers out there, this is your chance!

Put that turkey down! Grab a pen and let’s write.

Legal Thriller: 5 Former Lawyers Turn to The Criminal Life

Lawyers become criminalsJohn Grisham is master of the legal thriller, but even he could not have constructed these improbable plot twists.

In Grisham’s world, the lawyers are often heroes — albeit naive, innocent and reluctant ones. In these real life tales, the lawyers are most assuredly the villains.

They cross into the dark underbelly of the law where evil reigns and happily-ever-after is a matter of degree (of culpability, that is . . .)  Far from fighting the dark forces of evil and corruption, our lawyers revel in them.

But what story doesn’t benefit from a complex and interesting if downright bizarre antihero?

So, without further ado: Once upon a time there were five lawyers …


1. A Time to Kill


Don’t you just hate it when you lose a big court case? Don’t you want to bash someone’s head in as a result?

No? Ok, so maybe you are not as violent as I am.

Luckily for me, I have a vivid imagination. I don’t have to actually bash my opponent’s head in — dreaming about it is enough! Sadly,  attorney Clarence Gomery’s imagination is not nearly as good as mine.

A former Michigan prosecutor, Gomery stands accused of hiring an assassin to kill another attorney.

His descent into the criminal life began in 2013 when Gomery stood trial for business fraud and malpractice. The jury found him guilty and ordered him to pay $315,000. Gomery snapped.

He allegedly tried to hire a local handyman to murder opposing counsel for $20,000. The handyman promptly made his way over to the nearest police station, and former prosecutor Clarence Gomery is now inmate number 9021STUPID.

This may be a function of my own ignorance, but when did  “handyman” become a euphamism for assassin? And why doesn’t a former prosecutor have actual murderers in his rolodex for goodness sake!


2.  Lawyers Behaving Badly



As usual, they like to do it up big in Texas.

This is the story of a drunken district attorney, a zealous prosecutor and equally zealous defense attorney  . . . oh yeah, and a sitting Texas governor who just happens to be a former Presidential candidate.

It begins with a grand jury indictment: The fair citizens of Texas indicted Governor Rick Perry on charges of abusing his power when he vetoed funding for prosecutors investigating  — of all things — public corruption.

Perry turned himself in to authorities, whereupon he received this delightful mug shot. But it doesn’t end there.

Enter David Rushing, a defense attorney, who files suit against the prosecutor charged with bringing Perry to justice. Rushing claims prosecutor Michael McCrum is violating the same law under which Perry stands accused. The prosecutor is bilking taxpayers by charging $300 an hour — or more than three times the highest possible fee rate set by state law.

You might think that would be enough legal disgrace for one state, but then you wouldn’t be a Texan.

The District Attorney who initially sought Perry’s indictment is herself no stranger to criminal charges.

In April 2013, Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg was arrested on charges of drunk driving (that arrest was memorialized with footage from a dash cam. Oy!) She pled guilty and received a 45 day jail sentence.

But Lehmberg refused to hang her head in shame and resign, despite a “pretty please” from the Governor. Perry then followed up on his request with a bit of raw power: If you don’t quit, he warned, I will cut financing to your unit (the ironically named Public Integrity Unit.)

A man of his word, Perry subsequently vetoed part of a bill that would have authorized Lehmberg’s $7.5 million budget.

Lehmberg responded by convincing a Texas grand jury to indict Perry on two felony counts of abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant.

Just how many lawyer/criminals can Texas jails hold anyway?


3. 100 Centre Street


100 Centre Street is the heart of the gritty law and order scene in New York City. It is there that lawyers, judges and criminals converge to seek and to mete out justice (and yes, it is often depicted in Law & Order).

One lawyer describes its hallowed halls like this: “There are lawyers in the building who set up shop in the hallways, accost family members and hustle for business.”

Lawyers Dwyane Smith, Benjamin Yu and Jae Lee fancied themselves above the fray. Rather than accosting poor, unsuspecting defendants in the halls, they allegedly set out to bribe a court staffer (and a cop) behind the scenes in hopes of getting assigned to lucrative criminal cases.

Sadly for them, their reputation around 100 Centre Street began to reek far worse than the stink of unwashed bodies and stale fried chicken that usually permeates the halls.

Soon enough, with the help of a compromised court staffer, the Manhattan District Attorney was announcing the indictment of the three culprits.

So now these three lawyers must do their own perp walk down the halls of 100 Centre Street dodging the hustle of their former colleagues looking for work.


4. The Office Meets Law & Order


quill-dunder-mifflinIn Scranton, Pennsylvania, a prominent lawyer is charged with stealing client funds to —

Wait, Scranton, Pennsylvania? I thought that was a made up place — home to the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company of The Office fame?

Turns out Scranton is just as real as the charges against attorney Anthony Lupas.

Over an 18 year period, Lupas allegedly stole $6 million from client funds to support an elaborate Ponzi scheme. For a time, everyone was happy: investors got their 5% returns, and clients were apparently none the wiser.

But when Lupas suffered a serious accident in 2011 and could no longer keep up the charade, things fell apart.

The one silver lining for our lawyer, if you can call it that, is that the 80 year old Lupas has been adjudged incompetent to stand trial. Plus, Lupas’ clients will get at least some of their money back from a $3 million state fund established to compensate victims for attorney wrongdoing.

(Only $3 million? Is that wishful thinking or are Pennsylvania’s lawyers just head and shoulders above the rest of us in the morality department?)

Hmmm . . . I wonder if Lupas bought his office supplies from Dunder Mifflin?

But I digress–


5. A Happy Ending



I like to imagine that just minutes after the world’s first prostitute was arrested, she became an advocate arguing her way out of her predicament.

Reema Bajaj might just prove my theory.

Bajaj, an Illinois attorney, was convicted of prostitution when she allegedly performed sex acts for as little as $50, some gift cards and DVDs, and even office supplies for her solo law office.

But when the law came calling, Bajaj refused to go quietly.

First, Bajaj reached out to her legal practice clients candidly admitting “I am probably one of the few attorneys who knows what it feels like to be accused and in need of help.”

Then, she negotiated her way to a misdemeanor conviction as well as a three year suspension of her law license (the disciplinary committee claimed she lied on her application because she didn’t list “prostitute” as one of her occupations or “Nikita” — her sex worker alias — as one of her names.)

One might think after all that Bajaj would avoid the inside of a courtroom for some time to come. Alas, no.

In the last round of court filings, Bajaj sued the lawyers who represented her in the criminal case alleging that they had shared nude pictures of her around the courthouse.

. . . I’m not gonna go there!

Maybe our Fair Nikita used her gift cards to buy office supplies at Dunder Mifflin?

* * *

In an interesting twist to the lawyers-who-find-themselves-on-the-wrong-side-of-evil storyline, John Grisham himself recently landed in hot water when he came to the defense of a law school buddy convicted of downloading child porn.

“We have prisons now filled with guys my age,” Grisham lamented.  “Sixty-year-old white men in prison who’ve never harmed anybody, would never touch a child. But they got online one night and started surfing around, probably had too much to drink or whatever, and pushed the wrong buttons, went too far and got into child porn.”

Umm . . . is that really a thing? Sixty year old white guys drunkenly “pushing the wrong button” and landing on child porn sites?

Anyway, Grisham has since apologized for these comments.

As I said, what’s a good story without a complex and juicy hero landing in a pit of darkness every now and again?

The Happy Lawyer: How A 30 Year Veteran Finds Joy And Meaning in Law Practice

PicMonkey Collage-R LarkinsRichard Larkins is a happy lawyer.

The stereotype of lawyers as professional depressives is so pervasive that Richard’s happiness seems almost a radical act.

How can he be a happy lawyer?

“I found an area of the law that fits my personality,” Richard explained. “It’s like a really complicated jigsaw puzzle. I have to figure out the economics of the situation, how the law works, and what the equities are. I also have to understand people’s motivations. Plus, I’m dealing with complex, code-oriented material. It fits who I am and how I like to work.”

Richard is a tax partner at Ernst and Young who has been practicing law for nearly 30 years. Like most professionals, Richard faces countless challenges in his work life. “Don’t make me out to be Pollyanna,” he admonished. “There is plenty of pressure in my job. I still have to bill my time. I still have to demonstrate that I am helpful to my clients. If I’m not getting calls, it means I am not being helpful.”

Despite the challenges — and maybe even because of them — Richard has found happiness in the profession. His happiness is not the stuff of fantasy, luck or willful blindness. Rather, he created happiness for himself by designing a career that plays to his strengths.


A Sexy Career Path?


Richard Larkins discovers accountingBy the time Richard was a junior in High School, he had already decided he wanted to be an accountant.

It wasn’t a “sexy” career, but it was exciting for him.

“I took a basic accounting class and liked it. I’m a neatnik, so it appealed to my sense of order and balance.  Every debit had a credit, and everything had to be in its right place. It’s an ordered system and it made sense to me. I ended up getting a good grade in that class.”

Before stumbling on accounting, Richard thought he might become a journalist. But once he found accounting, the pieces of his life plan began to fall into place.

He attended the University of Washington where, again in his junior year, he discovered a passion for the Internal Revenue Code. “My [tax] instructor, Bill Resler, was really dynamic, and it all came alive for me. At that point, I knew I wanted to be a CPA. I wanted to focus on tax,” Richard said.


Life As An Accountant


Richard’s first job after getting his CPA license was in the tax practice of Arthur Andersen in Seattle.

It was there that he suffered his first career setback.

The problem began when he realized he wasn’t getting the juicy, complex puzzles he enjoyed — those were all being funneled to the lawyers. But why?

In principle, there is a great deal of overlap between the work of CPAs and that of tax lawyers. Both professions can crunch numbers and file forms as well as dispense tax advice. The only real difference is that CPAs cannot represent clients in court, but given that Richard had no interest in litigation the distinction hardly mattered.

Yet, he would soon find that the reality of tax practice was different from these general principles.

“CPAs tend to have practices that focus more on crunching the numbers and filing returns. They can provide advice,” Richard acknowledged, “But the tendency among clients is to go to lawyers when they want advice. So the accounting firms hire thousands of lawyers, and when the really cool questions come in to research they give it to the lawyers.”

After two years of dealing with the situation, Richard opted to go to law school. “I decided I liked tax, but it would be more fun to be a tax lawyer than an accountant.”


Taxation Fixation


Richard Larkins Tax AttorneyRichard arrived at Northwestern Law School with a plan.

“I am generally a planner. The plan doesn’t always go as I envision,” he admits. “But that’s ok. I’m flexible”.

The plan was to become a tax lawyer, so Richard took tax courses, code courses, and general business and commercial law courses.

He dipped his toes in areas others considered more “sexy,” including Mergers and Acquisitions, but quickly realized he did not find the work intellectually engaging. Nothing could shake him from the desire to become a tax attorney.

Then, Richard graduated law school in the middle of a recession.


To Be Or Not To Be A Litigator


Richard Larkins opted out of litigationWhile he was lucky enough to get a job at a prestigious Chicago law firm, Richard quickly learned there was not enough tax work to keep him busy.

He found himself working in the firm’s general litigation practice instead.

The plan was falling apart. Richard knew that he had to make a decision. He could veer off course and commit to litigation, or he could course correct.

For Richard, it was an easy choice: He decided to leave the firm. But Richard worried that accepting another law firm position might land him in the same predicament. There was only one place he could be assured of getting the tax work he craved: The Internal Revenue Service.

The economy was in a recession. The IRS had at least 3,000 applications for the job Richard wanted — and the Federal Government had just ordered a hiring freeze. Despite all that, Richard got the job. It turned out to be his dream job.

“I worked in the national office where all the rules are made. It was a fun job. I got to sit with some very smart people and help decide what the rules were going to be. I was working on issues that mattered to everybody, and not just to my clients. For the first time, I was having an impact.”

He stayed at the IRS for several years happily engaging in tax policy work. But then he got a call from the Department of Justice. He was being recruited to become a special advisor to the Assistant Attorney General for the Tax Division.

It was an exciting opportunity, but once again the job promised to pull Richard off course. The focus would be on litigation, an area not in his portfolio at the time.

But this was an offer he couldn’t refuse. “My boss would be the highest ranking African-American woman in the Clinton Justice Department. And I was being asked to serve as her advisor on all aspects of the Internal Revenue Code. Who wouldn’t say yes?”


Professors vs. Zealous Advocates: Navigating the Legal Terrain


The years at DOJ would prove radically different from Richard’s past experience. His primary job was to run an interagency group to determine whether the Department would appeal certain complex, high-profile tax cases.   Richard’s first warning that things operated differently at DOJ came from the interagency meetings.

“At the IRS, our meetings were very cordial and very professional. But at Justice, people would shout at each other and pound on the table!” Richard remembered with a laugh. While the policy experts at the IRS were known for their deliberative and academic style, the Justice Department’s litigators were more of the traditional “zealous advocates.”

Richard had to quickly learn to navigate this more unpredictable environment. He earned trust by mastering the issues. “People really did appreciate that I was prepared and thorough, and that I had fully studied the materials and really understood their arguments.”

The lessons he learned at DOJ would help him weather the storm of the coming years.


Things Fall Apart


Enron collapse changes Richard Larkins futureLeaving the Justice Department was bittersweet for Richard. He had come to love the frenetic pace of his job.

But in Washington, high-powered government jobs disappear from one election to the next. The change in presidential administration gave Richard the opportunity to get back on track with his career goals.

Now, the goal was to secure a partner-track position either at a law or accounting firm.

He took a job at Dewey Ballantine focusing on financial services, but when the law firm lost its most important client in the sector, it was time to re-evaluate.  He moved on to KPMG for three years before being recruited back to Arthur Andersen — this time, in their national office in Washington, DC.

He had come full circle. Arthur Andersen was Richard’s first training ground as a CPA. It was there that he had made the decision to become a lawyer. It seemed fitting to earn his way into a partnership at Arthur Andersen.

At first, things seemed to be going well. Richard did excellent work, and his relationship with colleagues and clients could not be better. He went up for partnership in 2002 all but assured of a positive outcome.

And then Enron happened.

A well-respected, multibillion dollar publicly-traded company revealed itself to be little more than a shell propped up with fraudulent accounting practices. And the accounting firm that certified Enron’s  deceptive  securities filings was none other than Arthur Andersen.

Enron would quickly fall into bankruptcy, and millions of investors and employees lost everything  they owned in the process. The once-respected multinational conglomerate was now the punchline of endless jokes on the late night comedy circuit. “Wouldn’t it be great,”  Dennis Miller quipped,  “if all of Usama bin Laden’s money was tied up in Enron stock?”

But Enron’s legal troubles were no laughing matter to the senior managers who orchestrated the company’s demise: They soon faced criminal prosecution and lengthy prison sentences.

Arthur Andersen’s downfall would not be far behind.


Things Fall Apart: Take Two


On March 14, 2002, the Justice Department announced the first ever indictment of an American accounting firm.  Arthur Andersen faced obstruction of justice charges for shredding certain Enron-related documents. The jury issued its guilty verdict just three months later. The conviction would later be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, but the damage had already been done.

While Richard’s division had absolutely nothing to do with either the Enron scandal or the acts leading up to Arthur Andersen’s indictment, it would prove of small comfort as the firm buckled under the sheer weight of the dual scandals.

“I was there on the very last day when they turned out the lights,” Richard remembered. It was a shocking end to a promising dream. But Richard had little time to mourn as he joined the 36,000 Arthur Andersen employees scrambling to find new jobs.


A Long And Winding Road


For a man who likes to make careful plans, landing in such foreign territory was a contingency beyond imagination. While Richard knew his specialized knowledge was sufficiently in demand that he was certain to find a job, the real question was whether he would have to postpone his dream of becoming a partner.

He met with several accounting firms and received two job offers; but as for partnership, he was assured only that his candidacy would be considered “in the normal course.”

He began to resign himself to the fact that he would have to start over to achieve his partnership goal. He had just one interview to complete before he could move ahead with the next phase of his career.

The meeting with Ernst and Young’s managing partner would turn out to be the biggest surprise in a year full of surprises.

Richard walked into the partner’s office expecting the usual pleasantries preceding a grueling interview. Before he could even sit down, however, the partner remarked: “I understand your issue is partnership. It’s done. You come here, and you’re a partner.”

After an interminable silence,  Richard could only reply “let me take a seat!”


Finding Happiness in the Law


Positive psychology and the lawThe legal profession is facing a crisis of unhappy lawyers.

For some, law was simply a bad choice and the best decision would be to leave the profession. For others, the possibility remains to find meaning, purpose, and even happiness in the practice of law.  But how?

Richard Larkins’ experience provides at least one possible response.

While it is easy enough to discount one person’s experience as “anecdotal,”  in truth the research on happiness is bearing out Richard’s intuitive approach. Martin Seligman, the preeminent expert in positive psychology, has studied the demoralization of lawyers in the profession. His research suggests three main factors accounting for the problem: pessimism, low decision latitude, and participation in a “giant win-loss enterprise.”

Seligman defines pessimists as those who view negative events as stable and pervasive — “It’s going to last forever, and it’s going to undermine everything.” Those with low decision latitude believe they have little choice or control in their work lives. And a “giant win-loss” enterprise refers to the winner-take-all approach of most legal disputes.

According to Seligman, many lawyers suffer from all three factors. In other words, these lawyers see their problems as all-consuming and unlikely to change. They feel powerless to affect change at work. And they believe “law is a big business in which billable hours, take-no-prisoners victories, and the bottom line are now the principle ends.” Such a worldview breeds unprecedented levels of unhappiness, depression and anxiety in the profession.

Part of Seligman’s prescription for change suggests a course of action people like Richard have already adopted for themselves:

Every law firm should discover what the particular signature strengths of their associates are. Exploiting these strengths will make the difference between a demoralized colleague and an energized, productive one.



Richard Larkins found happiness in the law by having a plan.  As early as high school, Richard was discovering and honing his “signature strengths.” After college and law school, he set out to design a career that played to those strengths.

Richard’s plan could not protect him from life’s messy unpredictability. He had to learn to bend and reshape the plan so that he might take advantage of unexpected opportunities and regroup from unforeseen failures.  But for Richard, having a plan is the only sure path to success . . . and happiness.

“I am not a ‘let’s just see what happens kind of person’,” Richard concludes. “At any point in time, I have a plan. I’m flexible, but I have a direction I think I’m going. I have interviewed countless law students, and I am always surprised at just how few of them have a plan.”