On Mid-Life Career Changes: What I Did Before I Became A Lawyer

by Jamison Koehler on June 25, 2012
U.S. Capitol Building

Ten years ago this month, I walked out of the Ronald Reagan Building carrying a single cardboard box. Having just resigned from the federal government, the box contained all I had to show after an 18-year career:  a coffee mug, photographs, some personal papers, and the plaque they had just given me at a going-away party.

The last thing I did before I left the building was to go over to the Deputy Administrator’s office to say goodbye to Linda Hilwig.  Linda had been the first person I saw when I reported to work 18 years earlier. I fancied the notion of having her also be the last.

While I was saying my goodbye to Linda, the Deputy Administrator and her chief of staff stepped out into the anteroom with what was obviously some urgent business. They nodded at me politely but it was clear that I was intruding on something that needed to be done. So Linda and I concluded our goodbye, and I stepped out into the hallway with my cardboard box. It was enormously liberating to think that the Agency’s problems – whatever had the Deputy Administrator and her staff in such a tizzy – were no longer my problems. I was now a free man.

I had been promoted to chief of staff shortly before I submitted my resignation. There was not a piece of paper or a decision that went out from that part of the EPA that I did not have a hand in. Before that I had been director of the Office of Technology Cooperation and Assistance. My boss told me she knew the moment my wife and I returned from a secret visit to Philadelphia to check out houses that I would be leaving. This was before even we knew it.

I know that there were many people who thought I was crazy for leaving my secure government job with its salary and benefits. But a couple of older people with a few years left before retirement told me they wished they had the courage to get out years ago, back when they still had that fire in their belly and could have tried something different.  I have to admit, said one of the guys, that I have been mailing it in for the past 4 or 5 years, just waiting out the time until I can retire.

Women told me how lucky my wife was that I was willing to give up my job for her career:  “My husband would never do that,” they said. Tell that to my wife, I responded.  Men told me how lucky I was to be married to a woman who was able to support the family financially on a single income. I kept that to myself. I wanted my wife to think I was making this tremendous sacrifice to her.

Every day of the next six months was in fact like a snow day for me. I spent the first couple of weeks overseeing our move to Philadelphia. Mostly I hung out with our three children. They were still at an age at which they sought out my company. Now I could give it to them.

Philadelphia is a great city – tough and gritty, with neighborhoods and character, and people sitting out on the front porch of every row home on a summer day. We were also able to afford much more house, moving into an 80-year-old house with seven bedrooms and an acre of land.

I loved the anonymity of our new city.  Although each of our kids had a lot of friends in D.C., the only people we knew when we first arrived in the city were ourselves.  I remember the first soccer game for our older son — then a 6th grader at their new school.  It was something out of a Disney movie:  a new kid, eager to gain acceptance, scores a last second goal to win the game and the other kids surround him, patting him on the back and chanting his name.

The parents had been standing on one side of the field, behind the bench, cheering the team on. I stood on the other side of the field, watching the game between kicks of the soccer ball with my younger son, then a first-grader. I felt the same way when I first began to practice at D.C. Superior Court. The friends will come. For a while it is nice not to know anyone.

I asked our older son recently whether he remembered that Disney moment from his first soccer game, and was surprised to hear he had completely forgotten about it. Maybe it never happened at all. Maybe it was one of those things you make up in your mind, the brain filling in memories where nothing is there.

If you asked my wife how long I was at home with the kids, she would tell you a year and a half.  I would say four or five years to include the time I spent at law school. I scheduled my classes during the day so that I could still drop them off at school and be there when they got home. Our house abutted the playing fields for their school, and they would often bring friends home after school to eat from our pantry and to wait for their parents to pick them up from school. There is nothing more satisfying than a house full of children.

But six months of snow days can be a lot of snow days. You can only do so much grocery shopping, laundry, cooking, and driving the kids around before the shine begins to fade. After a while I had the feeling that, though the children were thriving and my wife’s career was taking off, I myself was standing still.  A certain restlessness began to settle in.

It is not easy to re-invent yourself.  It is not easy to start over.  I went from working in one of the nicest offices in a showcase government building (somewhere in the government archives is a photograph of me sitting behind my desk on the day the Ronald Reagan building opened, looking pretty uncomfortable with the EPA Deputy Administrator and head of the General Services Administrator posed for the photographer behind me) to sharing a desk in the law library with three other lowly law interns at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia.  And it is no fun to feel like an idiot again.

But the hardest thing of all was when I would step into the office of an Assistant U.S. Attorney.  I was used to people stopping their conversations when I poked my head into a room, because my time was viewed as valuable back then.  But nobody values the time of a summer intern.  Nobody is much interested in hearing what you have to say.  And, as it turns out, your jokes are not very funny either.

A change of career is a good thing, I think, although I have to wonder if I am just telling myself this because it is the decision I made. Our younger son, who just took a course in psychology in high school, would call this the “self-justification effect.” At the same time, with people living longer these days, it is hard to imagine why anyone can do the same thing for so many years, no matter how attractive the career path when it began. It is not much fun getting older. Hopefully, a new challenge can breathe life back into tired old bones.

We moved into a smaller house when we returned to D.C.  Partly this was for financial reasons. Partly it was because we realized that, with two of our children now away at college, we no longer needed so much house. We treasure the remaining year we have left with our last child still at home. In the meantime, our house is awfully quiet.

I updated my resume recently to apply for the D.C. Court of Appeals list of court-appointed lawyers. I used to devote an entire page of the resume to the years I spent with the federal government. Now all the experience, all of the things I did with an eye toward beefing up my resume to advance my career, have been condensed into a single “catch-all” category.  After all, you wouldn’t want to have an 18-year gap on your resume. The category describes what it was I did before I became a lawyer.

5 Comments on “On Mid-Life Career Changes: What I Did Before I Became A Lawyer

  1. Great post, really hits home with me because I also had a career change. From journalist to lawyer, although I’m hoping for one more: lawyer to stay-at-home writer.

    Your post reminds me, though, how awesome this country is. When I was making the change, being the oldest student at UNC then Duke, trying to sell myself as an intern like you did, everyone I met was totally supportive and encouraging. Meanwhile, back in England, a good friend was doing the same thing and got a lot of raised eyebrows and rejections. I have always found the US to be a place where, if you want something and work at it, you can probably get there and get a few pats on the back on the way.

    Switching careers was the best thing I ever did (met the wife at law school, can’t beat that, eh?!) and I hope you feel the same way.

  2. Mr. Confidential: Thank you for that perspective. I might take a few things for granted sometimes. As for the empty nest thing, I can see from your site that you spend a whole lot of time with your kids. But that doesn’t make it any easier when they grow up and leave.

  3. I’m from philly myself. Whne you where up there what neighborhood did you live in and where did you go for cheesesteaks? I lived in W. Mt. Airy and went to either D’Antonios in Rox or Jim’s

  4. Mr. Freedman: We lived in East Falls, and went to either Chubby’s or D’Allessandro’s for our cheesesteaks.

  5. Pingback: The Law Lies in My Heart | Koehler Law

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