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Lucas Homer / January 06, 2020

7 min read

It's Not Too Late

I left my legal career behind and became a developer.

It's that time of the year when everyone reflects on the past and writes a blog post about it, and I want in! I'm going to ignore the past year, though, and instead I'm reflecting on my past career in law, my current career as a software developer, and why the hell I'd do the first one and then quit to do the second one.

A note -- I’m not that special. You might be a second-career dev like me. Maybe third career? AWESOME. I’ve been digging this podcast because it’s full of wonderful stories like mine (and maybe yours).

The Question

"That's quite a change, what made you make the switch?" That's essentially the question I always get. From recruiters to coworkers to friends and family, folks always want to know why I left my career as a lawyer. I'd ask the same thing if I were them too. The short answer is, "I didn't like it and I wasn't happy so I did something about it." For the longer answer, though, it usually helps if I broaden the conversation to discuss "passion," and how my understanding of that word has evolved.

I entered college as a music major, following my passion for music. I played, listened, wrote, ate-slept-breathed music. Two years in, however, and though I loved a lot of things about my music commitments, I also excelled in other courses, and felt I might be happier in the long run if I pursue a career that affords me things like financial stability, healthcare, and intellectual challenge. I mean let’s also be real. I wasn’t at Juilliard, and I wasn’t the best at my music school either. I was better at other things that had a little bit more opportunities than "jazz musician in the 21st century." I wasn’t willing to sacrifice for my art. To law school, then!

As a lawyer, I helped average people stand up to powerful corporations to get money owed to them for their hard work. And I felt great about that! But at the same time I felt bored with the formulaic writing, frustrated by the relentless fights with adverse counsel about irrelevant topics meant to drain legal resources, and ultimately pretty morbid about my future as a lawyer. I had no three or five year plan of where I wanted to be. Every time I thought about changing jobs within the legal field, I felt the same kind of indifference. I had a decent living (Fun fact! Most lawyers are not super rich like the characters on legal dramas.), and my job challenged me to think critically and analytically. I still felt uninspired, though, because I had no day to day creative engagement in my work.

Quarter Life Crisis

So there I am, nearing the end of my twenties. I got used to endless creative engagement, then I went to the other end of the spectrum. If only there was a way to be creative, analytical, and collaborative. When I finally asked myself that question, that is the point at which I finally asked the right question. Not “what topic am I passionate about?” I am passionate about a lot of things, and two of them are music and public policy (Major nerd alert sentence, I know. Then again, I have a blog now so no one should be that surprised.).

Instead, the better question was what kinds of acts or processes do I like to do? Essentially, what kinds of things would I want to do day in and day out and still be happy? I am not only passionate about music, I’m passionate about being creative and building things, be they songs or software applications.

The more I learned to code and what the day to day job of a developer included, the more I realized how much I wanted to make the switch. It was my chance to follow my more abstract passions -- creating, solving, honing a craft -- and be happy each day. I felt liberated.

You might be wondering what my actual process was to start learning and then get to the point where people pay for my code and not my legal advice. That's a larger topic, best saved for another blog post. Or three.

Lawyer vs Developer -- They’re Not That Different, You Know

After they ask why I made the switch, it's usually followed with some sort of "wow, that's a big change." Yes and no! There are a LOT of differences in the day to day of the two professions, but honestly, there are also way more similarities than you'd think.

The skills I gained as a lawyer have translated to programming in surprisingly wonderful ways. Some more straightforward skills any good lawyer has, like effective verbal and written communication, are essential to life as a developer. When I represented clients who often times had no prior involvement in any sort of lawsuit, I had to explain technical legal concepts in an accessible way, and I also had to interpret their questions and concerns back into a technical legal lens. Similarly when translating business requirements and creative designs into application code, I speak many languages to maintain consensus across the development team.

More unexpected to me is the similarity in mental modeling and logic concepts. To be an effective lawyer one must hold and be able to navigate complex mental models. Following a statute’s many definitions and applying its rules to your particular facts often resemble Boolean logic or data structures like stacks and search trees. If you know the law applicable to your client’s circumstances, you should understand all angles of the issue and anticipate the other side’s argument. In much the same way, when building an application, you must understand the tools available and the limitations present in order to anticipate possible bugs, performance trade offs, and what is ultimately the best path to delivering stable code that meets the client’s requirements.

Finally, one broader lesson I’ve taken from my time in music school, into law, even to my minor obsession (healthy habit I swear!) with long distance running, and ultimately to programming, is that it’s all the same: Practice. They call it “practicing” law for a reason. It’s about committing to a lifetime of learning and improving. Whether preparing for a recital, drafting a legal brief, or building a new feature, you’re breaking large challenges into smaller, manageable pieces. You’re iterating over the problem, honing, and testing.

My point is really this: you have to love the process as much as the end product. I will admit I didn’t end up loving “the process” as a lawyer, but it’s made me appreciate how much I do love practicing software. It marries the creative and analytical skills of my previous endeavors in a way that I wouldn’t have imagined. If you were to tell my jazz nerd self of ten years ago that he’d be gleefully writing code in ten years, he’d roll his eyes so far back in his head you might as well have said, “Oh you play jazz, so do you like Kenny G?”