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Lawyers love to complain: the hours, the tedious work, the pressure to bill, and yes, even the meager salaries. Despite these familiar laments, how many lawyers have the gumption to quit? Not many. But there are exceptions. In this new column, we’ll take a look at those who gave up the security and prestige of the legal profession to pursue their dream jobs. In most cases, the transition wasn’t easy or pretty — though most escapees swear they’ll never go back to the law.
In her loft showroom in New York’s Tribeca district, Nancy Murphy sits at her classical Chinese table. Her work space is defined by a set of majestic lattice doors. Beyond the doors are fine Ming altar tables, delicate bamboo daybeds, Wei dynasty stone epitaphs, and an assortment of earthenware. Incense and candles burn in one corner, while the sounds of Tibetan chants permeate the cavernous space. But despite the piped-in serenity, Murphy is hardly Zen-like. She’s got the spiky short hair and dark attire of the typical denizen of the downtown art scene. And when she speaks — which is usually at a quick clip — she exudes the nervous energy of, well, a New York transactional lawyer. In fact, Murphy was a corporate associate at two powerhouse firms: Shearman & Sterling, and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. She calls Skadden Arps the “proximate cause” for her career as a dealer in Chinese furniture. She became obsessed with Chinese antiques after she moved to the firm’s Beijing office in 1993. Five years later, Murphy’s hobby became her profession. She quit law, she says, because “I didn’t want to wait until I was 60 to do what I was interested in.” Besides, she adds, “after 12 years of practice, I knew what I would be doing for the next 10 years. I saw China go from an extraordinarily backward country to an accelerated economic power.” STARTING POINT:She got into Chinese design when she opted to live in a traditional courtyard house in an old Beijing neighborhood rather than be “ghettoized” in the capital’s expat high-rise district. For three months she and her then-husband remodeled their house: “There was no heating or plumbing — it was just walls and windows.” Then she scoured the antique marts to decorate it. LIGHTBULB MOMENT:“People from New York would come to my home and say, ‘Oh, my God, this is gorgeous.’ And it really wasn’t that gorgeous; it was standard stuff. But the reaction was always so extraordinary that I thought, ‘Hmm, maybe there’s an opportunity here.’” PLOTTING HER ESCAPE:Though Murphy was putting in New York-style “hellish” hours at the office, she started collecting antiques and hatching plans for a business. “No one — foreign or Chinese — had just one job. Everyone had a sideline. The partner I worked with opened a restaurant in an art gallery. A woman in a very high position in an embassy got into dealing porcelain. It was a very dynamic, entrepreneurial environment.” TRANSITION PERIOD:Almost none. Murphy went from lawyer to shopkeeper in just over two months. In fall 1998 she gave notice to the firm, returning to New York with two ship containers’ worth of Chinese antiques. A few months later, she rented the storefront loft in Tribeca and opened up shop. CRAZY MOVE?Murphy admits there are easier ways to get out of law. Most lawyers make a transition, she says, by joining a client’s business. “But for me that would have meant running a power plant, because that was what I was doing in China for the last three years.” OTHER WAYS TO SOFTEN THE LANDING?“I could have taken the money and not invested in inventory right away. I could have taken [business] courses. I could have taken an internship at Christie’s, though [internships would be] hard for lawyers — we’re too educated, too old. That would really feel like going back to kindergarten.” THE TOUGHEST PART:“Being in retail. I had no experience at all. When you’re a big corporate lawyer you tend to feel you can do anything. I had a very steep and rocky learning curve for two years.” INCOME DROP?“You don’t really need as much money as highly paid lawyers think they need. I went from making six figures to making zero. But the discrepancy in income was so much easier than I imagined. So if I couldn’t go to Nobu [a trendy New York restaurant], it didn’t matter.” As for her nest egg: “I invested my money [from practice] and cashed out in ’98 and ’99 at the top of the market.” THE ODDS OF SUCCEEDING:“You have less of a chance in my field [than law] because it’s a smaller pool. There are hundreds of partners in New York. But I think it’s much easier in terms of the toll it takes on you as a human being. I assume there are partners who love what they do, so for them it’s an unmitigated pleasure to make partner. But in my experience, it’s grueling.” NOW STRESS-FREE?Hardly. “The market for Chinese antiques is saturated.” Besides competing against old-line dealers, she has to contend with new arrivals from China who peddle exquisite fakes that defy detection. GLAD YOU WERE A LAWYER?Yes. “I can relate to my clients. I have a very high-priced store. So when clients walk in, I have the education level and the confidence level to talk to them. Working at a large firm gives you the self-assurance.” WHO’S BUYING HER STUFF?Those well-heeled partners from Skadden or Shearman? “I always thought my former law firms would be a source of business, but it turned out not to be. People who do serious collecting are not the lawyers or the bankers. My conclusion is that they just don’t have the time.” Submit your Escapees nominees to [email protected].

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