Fox News is doing an upcoming feature about the most interesting people in each borough of New York City and representing Manhattan will be Nathan Sawaya, a lawyer-turned-Lego sculptor, who is known worldwide as the “Brick Artist.” The former Winston & Strawn associate and NYU Law graduate, who now creates art primarily from Lego bricks, started sculpting while he was practicing as therapy. “Some people went to the gym at the end of the day. I’d want to create something.”
Sawaya initially sculpted items out of clay and wire, and even produced an early series out of candy. “And then one day in 2000 I just said, what about this toy I had as a child?” So Sawaya built items out of Lego and posted them to his Web site. When BrickArtist.com crashed in 2004 from the traffic, he realized it was time to leave the firm, after almost five years, to pursue his passion full time. [Watch Sawaya's appearance on "The Colbert Report."]
In the current transformation of the legal industry, lawyers, law students and most legal professionals are reevaluating their roles. The economy is prompting them to consider their alternatives and is forcing them to determine where they are finding the greatest level of satisfaction. Some, like Sawaya, have made that journey and their experience offers a number of lessons to help guide those who remain.
Alex Wellen, author of the newly released novel, “Lovesick” (Three Rivers Press, 2009), which offers a humorous look at the adventurous transition from engagement to marriage, felt about television the way Sawaya felt about art. The former patent associate at now-defunct Pennie & Edmonds and Temple Law graduate relocated to San Francisco to produce his own television show on cybercrime for TechTV, a network created to feed the insatiable hunger for Internet-related content in the late 1990s. While there, he wrote “Barman: Ping-Pong, Pathos and Passing the Bar” (Three Rivers Press, 2004), which is a memoir about the period between his third year of law school and passing the bar. [Read Ari Kaplan's review.] The current Washington, D.C.-based deputy political director for CNN overseeing the network’s integration between TV and the Web has just published his first work of fiction.
Like Sawaya and Wellen, many lawyers and law students enter the profession because of their intellectual talent and expectations. “I thought about what I should be when I grew up and law school seemed to make the most sense,” Sawaya says. “It is what society expected.” Of course, entering the law is often easier than knowing when the time is right to make a change. For Sawaya, it was a surge in popularity for his work and for Wellen, it was the emergence of a new industry.
For Sean Carter, it was all just a joke — literally. At Brown University and later at Harvard Law School, Mesa, Ariz.-based Carter was the funny guy. Friends encouraged him to try stand-up comedy and he rejected the notion outright. Avoiding his destiny in the funny business, Carter spent the two years following his 1992 graduation from law school as a stockbroker, an insurance salesperson and a software programmer. “I did everything but practice law,” he recalls. Realizing his need to pay back his student loans, Carter spent a decade practicing corporate securities and M&A for large law firms and as in-house counsel in Los Angeles. In his thirties, he could not resist the microphone and began touring comedy clubs in Southern California on the side.
That concept of an on-the-side career (or “slash” as coined by another prominent lawyer-turned-author, New York Times columnist Marci Alboher, in “One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success” (Business Plus, 2007)) is a common theme for legal professionals considering a transition. Many test their alternative pursuit while still employed or practicing their professional craft.
Carter’s side gigs caught the attention of a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, who profiled him in a September 2001 cover story for the Lifestyles section called “Lawyer Turns Comic.” Carter published “If It Does Not Fit, Must You Acquit?: Your Humorous Guide to the Law” (Lawpsided Press, 2002) a few months later. That led to a syndicated legal humor column, which appeared in general circulation newspapers in more than 30 states and as a weekly feature for the American Bar Association e-Report.
He began touring local chambers of commerce and rotary clubs giving speeches and selling a handful of books at each stop. And, after over 100 programs in six months, the lawyer who made $250,000 per year when he left the profession was officially broke. Carter notes that most professionals fail to take the risk to pursue their passion due to financial reasons, but encourages them to reconsider. “I would never be doing this if not for economic reality punching me in the face,” he says.
When an audience member invited him to give a presentation at the Riverside County Bar Association for a $500 fee, the most he had ever made for speaking at that point, he realized that teaching his form of ‘comedic legal education’ was his calling. Today, the self-described Humorist-at-Law is a highly sought-after speaker who makes over 100 presentations nationwide (for much more than $500) to legal groups on topics related to, among others, legal ethics, stress management, constitutional law and legal marketing. “You will never find out your niche until you are put into a position when you have to,” he says.
In addition to financial concerns, the law is all many feel they know. They believe that there is a major difference between telling jokes to law school classmates and being paid thousands to entertain thousands, or between assembling Lego models for children and creating a portrait of the President for Newsweek magazine out of the toys.
Wellen faced that obstacle and understands its foundation. “Lovesick” took him six years to write. During those six years, he covered a marathon presidential primary and a historic election for CNN, and saw the birth of a son. He wrote late at night and on most of his vacation days. He even persuaded his wife and mother to read countless drafts. “And I hate writing,” he jokes. That said, the Emmy award-winning television producer highlights that “there can be almost nothing more satisfying than seeing a finished piece of work. [Listen to Ari Kaplan's interview of Wellen.] He offers this advice: “I say to anyone that wants to write a book how important it is just to continue writing every day and thinking about the story that you can tell better than anyone.”
Although Wellen is the only novelist, all three are authors. Sawaya is often asked by children to sign “The Art of the Brick: A Pictorial” (Nathan Sawaya, Inc., 2008), at his museum show, which is currently touring North America. He has his first gallery showing on Sept. 17, 2009 at the Flinn Gallery in Greenwich, Conn. He advises, “ You have to feel it a little bit in your gut, and just know now is the time. For me it just made sense that I had a shot and I took it.” Carter is more emphatic: “You have a great obligation to do the thing you were put here to do.”
Sawaya, Wellen and Carter engaged in self-reflection to make difficult choices and take calculated risks. Now they are informing, inspiring and entertaining people across the globe. You can do the same while you practice or in lieu of practicing.
The truth is that three lawyers walked into the bar association, they just also happened to be an artist, a writer and a comedian as well. Lucky for us they recognized their versatility.
Ari L. Kaplan, the principal of Ari Kaplan Advisors, is a lawyer and author of the Amazon.com bestseller “The Opportunity Maker: Strategies for Inspiring Your Legal Career Through Creative Networking and Business Development” (Thomson-West, 2008). Visit AriKaplanAdvisors.com for his special report: “Five Ways to Find Opportunity in a Faltering Economy.”