May 2016 Bar Bulletin
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May 2016 Bar Bulletin

Taking a Sabbatical: The Chance To Audition a New Self

By Larry G. Johnson

 

The pressures were too great, the rewards so few. So after 20 years of a stressful litigation practice, I decided to take an indefinite sabbatical from it all, maybe forever. That turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made, even after unexpected twists.

If you are inclined to take a breather from the law or just chuck it all, my tale may offer you some encouragement and guidance.

The first step toward liberation is to take an honest appraisal of how happy you are and how much you can afford to do without; if you are willing to take a cut in pay, your range of choices is significantly bigger. Also, fundamental change often requires an ability to absorb some short-term sacrifices in addition to a taste for adventure and risk. Above all, real change requires leaps of faith.

If you are in mid- or late career, you may have forgotten it was indeed a leap of faith that got you into a life in the law in the first place. You no doubt imagined what it would be like to be a lawyer. Like me, you probably anticipated and fantasized it to be some glorious thing, only to find out later that lawyering was something much more mundane.

In the ’60s and ’70s, the big buzzword for rebellious youth was “being relevant,” i.e., getting politically engaged. When I was just about to finish my Ph.D. thesis at Harvard in Germanic languages and literatures, it dawned on me that an academic ivory tower life would be a cop-out, not “relevant,” so I quit that and went to law school.

I pictured myself becoming a civil rights or criminal law courtroom warrior, fighting for the downtrodden and abused. But with the weight of student loans and the need to help support a wife and newborn child, that idealism was elbowed out by economic necessity. I did have occasional fun in the sports-like jock atmosphere of wins and losses in trials fought vigorously over money, ego or power, but that soon waned as my disdain for a wasteful and sclerotic judicial system grew, accompanied by self-loathing for my cynical, selfish involvement in that very system.

A defining moment soon arrived: During a contentious and tedious marathon deposition, a seasoned lawyer, blowing cigarette smoke out an open window, groaned in fatigued resignation, “I am way too old anymore for this crap.” I thought, “Everybody is too old for this crap.” I saw in my mind’s eye the cases that came and went in blurred successions of bankers boxes and Expando files, inevitably to be forgotten in dark storage somewhere like so many abandoned corpses.

So, following my too predictable mid-life crisis and divorce, I shut down my practice and packed my few possessions worth keeping into my Subaru and left Seattle for Minneapolis, the city where I grew up and where my brother and his wife were to put me up in a room the size of a closet. Actually, it was a closet.

I immediately signed up for a two-week course in bartending at the Minnesota School of Bartending. I had always thought I’d make a great bartender and had long secretly wanted to be one. I saw myself as a “Cheers” kind of bartender who’d listen well to people’s sorrows or misfortunes while soothing them with alcoholic libations. A working man’s psychotherapist.

After two weeks of learning and memorizing scores of popular drinks and simulating their creation from former booze bottles now filled with variously colored waters, I passed the final exam (with occasional prompts and hints from the examiner) and got my Certificate of Mixology. It hangs today proudly on my office wall right next to my M.A. from Harvard (I enjoy telling people which of the two degrees did me the most practical good!).

One of the big selling points pitched to me by the Minnesota School of Bartending was its 90-plus percentage rate of placing graduates with jobs. I immediately got a 20-hour-a-week job as a singing bartender in a newly opened Italian restaurant/bar, an addition to the Romano’s Macaroni Grill chain. I thought I would be a good fit for the job since I could sing different songs in Italian, the most important one being the Italian version of “Happy Birthday.” I was often asked to sing that at tables where a birthday was being celebrated, and that garnered me a lot of tips.

On the application form for the job, I was careful to list as experience only the jobs I held while attending college (janitor, lab assistant) or that required only a little fudging, such as my limited experience in working behind a bar in a lodge owned by my brother-in-law in Colorado, where I often pitched in by pouring beers during the busy season. But even as I was filling out the application in a construction trailer parked outside the restaurant not yet ready to open, it became clear I was going to get the job after being asked if I knew any Spanish. I said I did, and the 24-year-old Mike, soon to be my boss, exclaimed enthusiastically, “Hey, that’s great, you can help translate with the Mexican cooks, we can never figure out what they’re saying!”

Mike liked to order me around a lot as he did with all the help, mostly in useless ways, but chiefly to assert his authority, but I enjoyed the simplicity of the job. It was so clear what you needed to do, and I liked the customers with their small talk and the pretty waitresses I could flirt with.

It was so pleasantly stress free and therapeutic. I would put in a decent night’s work that was physical and rote, then I could hang up my apron at the end of the day, clock out and drive back to my brother’s house, where we’d watch TV, drink beer and mess around on the Internet. In some ways, it felt like high school all over again.

The main negative was being broke. Since 20 hours of bartending a week didn’t make me enough money, I eventually got three other part-time jobs: on Mondays during the day I was a docent in a piano museum in St. Paul; on Tuesday and Thursday evenings I taught adult German classes at a German cultural center, the Volkshaus, in St. Paul; and on Wednesday and Friday afternoons I taught a computer class to paralegal studies students at the Minnesota School of Business, a for-profit office vocational school. I now had four jobs, four different versions of me trying out different kinds of stuff.


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