These days, John Ragosta worries about keeping his bees alive in the cold and unpredictable Virginia winters.
“It is very sad to open a hive in early spring and find thousands of dead bees with their heads stuck into cells searching for a last morsel of honey before they die,” John laments.
Just a few short years ago, John’s life as a partner at Biglaw left little time to devote to his beekeeping hobby. But twenty years into a career that had given him much joy, a sense of mission, and financial security, John decided he had sipped his last morsel of honey in the law. It was time to start anew elsewhere.
A master of reinvention, John would enroll in a PhD program in order to pursue his twin passions in history and teaching. But his story is not one of running from the law. Rather, it is a prescription for a wholehearted life: Give passionately to the law, but acknowledge when it is time to leave and evolve.
Potential and Possibility
John is a man accustomed to pursuing multiple passions. He decided to go to law school while still in college, but for a time he imagined himself a scientist or even a theater geek. “I was a physics and chemistry major,” John explains. “But then I spent a lot of time in the theater department.” (It would ultimately turn out to be time well spent because John met his wife there.)
He saw college as a time to experiment with possibilities, and so he rejected the traditional path of most pre-law students. “I knew I wanted to go to law school, but I also had this sense that I didn’t need to study history or political science, which I could always read on my own. I wanted to do something – learn something – that you just couldn’t pick up on your own. It turns out it was a very wise decision.”
It was wise because it allowed John to chase his passion for variety, which taught him much about himself. “I concluded I could be really good at a number of things,” John said.
But having allowed himself the freedom of possibility, John was able to enter law school with no regrets.
Life as a Lawyer
After graduating from the University of Virginia law school in 1984, John headed to the Washington, D.C. office of Dewey Ballantine, where he became an international trade lawyer.
“I loved what I was doing,” John said. “I thought it was important and significant work. I loved the people I was working with. I had good cases. I was very lucky.”
John would also prove to be very good at what he did. He quickly rose to prominence in D.C. legal circles, and by 1992, he was an equity partner at Dewey with a large office overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue (just a few blocks from that oh-so-famous house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue).
He worked with leading U.S. corporations and industry associations representing them before U.S. agencies, Congress and the White House, as well as regional and international trade organizations, including NAFTA and the World Trade Organization.
For John, this was a period of incredible growth and passion, but it also called for an enormous commitment of time to the job. Working until the early hours of the morning was certainly not unusual. “I don’t regret that. I never felt we were doing it to demonstrate how macho we were,” John insists. “The clients needed it.”
But the day would come when that investment of time and energy would have consequences.
On Leaving the Law
For John, the first inkling that it was time to quit his law practice came from an unexpected source — his own body. “I can remember walking home at two a.m. and feeling it in my body that this was wearing me out. It had reached the point where it was affecting me physically and psychologically.”
Beyond the physical toll, John also became disenchanted with the dispute system in which he worked. “As lawyers we are serving justice, but I began losing the sense that we could achieve that for our clients,” John remarked. “I became convinced no matter what we did we couldn’t win. We were winning our WTO cases when no one else was, but we were losing our NAFTA cases! Our clients deserved to win, but I couldn’t seem to fix it. This was really painful for me.”
Despite the hiccups, John wasn’t interested in running away from the practice of law. But he began to acknowledge there were other things that interested him at least as much as being a lawyer. “I really wanted to do what I’m doing now learning history and being an academic. If I hadn’t had that, I probably would have stayed.”
Life After Law
So, after twenty years of being a top lawyer in a city of lawyers — and commanding a staff of secretaries, assistants, and eager young associates — John decided to become a student.
He enrolled in a masters program at George Washington University and went on to a PhD at the University of Virginia.
“My father was gone by the time I left the firm. I know he would have supported me, but in the back of his mind he would have thought ‘Are you crazy? You have a bunch money and a large office, and you want to leave that to become a student?'” John admits with a laugh. “But the world is not like that anymore. I feel extremely lucky and blessed that we have this ability to move on. We have the choice.”
Having made his choice, John proceeded in his new career with all the passion and commitment he brought to his legal practice. In short order, he published two well-received books on religion and early American history, and he is busy at work on a third.
Although his present career as a history professor has little to do with his old, he nevertheless believes his life as a partner in Biglaw helped him to succeed in academia.
“I’ve had frustrations as a PhD student and a Postdoc,” John admits. “But I have the advantage of having been a successful partner at a Wall Street firm. The fact that I was successful [in a prior career] is a powerful thing to have in my pocket. In some ways, it made it remarkably easy for me to leave.”
What surprises John is that more successful Biglaw partners don’t leave.
The life of a law firm partner is filled with traditional measures of happiness, among them power and prestige, not to mention financial security. Why would anyone ever leave?
But John has a different perspective. For him, the measure of a successful career is to make a meaningful contribution and then head elsewhere to do it again. “Anyone who sticks around for 10 to 20 years has to have found something that is fulfilling and makes them happy in the job,” John acknowledges. “But after 10 to 20 years, you have the financial wherewithal to leave while others don’t.”
How about all the money one would be giving up in leaving? John’s response to the money question is simple: “After you’ve made a certain amount, do you really need that house in the Hamptons?”
He and his wife had always kept their financial good fortune in perspective so as to avoid the trap of the golden handcuffs. “Liz and I never spent money like drunken sailors. We never owned a Volvo. Never vacationed for a week in Paris. We weren’t living poor by any stretch of the imagination, but it was always in the back of my mind that I better not be spending at that level because I won’t be making it forever.”
Advice For Lawyers-in-Waiting
So, what does John say to the next generation of eager students who flock to his office seeking advice on whether to go to law school? What does he say to his own children, both of whom are now in college?
“Students come to me and say ‘my parents want me to go to law school.’ I tell them that’s the worst possible reason to go. Some of them want to go to make a lot of money. I tell them go to business school if that’s what they’re looking for — they’ll make more money and have lawyers working for them.
“I tell my kids and my students the same thing: There’s only one reason to go to law school, and if you are not there for that reason you need to get out. The only reason to go is because you are there to save the world. We all define that it in different ways, but you have to believe the law is in service to justice and that is what you are doing. If you don’t have that, the market won’t support you and you won’t be happy.”
Bees and Happiness
As a beekeeper, John Ragosta is always tinkering with his environment to create the proper conditions for his hives to flourish. The bees must be protected from the extremes of weather, from beetle infestations, and from a precipitous drop in life-giving honey. When the environment is not ripe, the consequences are often fatal.
On one particularly bad day, John opened a hive only to discover most of its inhabitants were dead. “I found a half a dozen dying bees as I cleaned the frames. One stung me on the inside of my hand: The last effort of honor to protect a dying hive.”
Creating the proper environment in which to thrive in some ways is like raising bees: you need some sunlight, not too much wetness, nourishing food, and protection from one’s enemies (internal and external).
For John, that prescription is easily filled with just a few essentials. “I like gardening and taking care of my bees. I love teaching because I’m dealing with people who are excited and into it. I just love being around my students.”
John sees his transition from law firm partner to history professor as a move from one hive to the next rather than an escape to something “better.” It is a grand adventure — but so was his time in the law.
“Look, there’s a difference between lawyers who practice 20 years and those who left after just two or three,” John said. “The people who left after just two or three years should probably never have been lawyers. If you are just running from the law, it won’t work. You have to be running to something. If I had simply quit, that would have been very different.”
In reflecting on his new life, John has no regret for the time he spent in the law. But he is equally at peace with his decision to leave. “It was not a mistake for me to be a lawyer. It would have been a mistake for me to stay.”
John’s Top 5 Quick Tips
- Master the art of reinvention.
- The only reason to be a lawyer is because you want to save the world. If you aren’t in it for that leave.
- Find the proper environment for you to thrive
- Don’t let the golden handcuffs get you
- You can learn a lot from bees!