The struggles of a 30-something lawyer in a world of instant success
A foreign lawyer I really wanted to work with came down to visit Delhi from Singapore. We had earlier spoken of the possibility of working together and I was willing to break an arm and a leg for it. When he was in Delhi, I organised drinks at the newly renovated Oberoi on Golf links with a few upcoming lawyers in my circuit. It was a great evening: good cocktails, just the right amount of breeze in the air and free-flowing conversation. I was getting a giddying feeling that I was in the right place at the right time: I knew this great bunch and this great bunch knew me. Surely, I was on my way up. If I just kept at it and worked hard for another five years or so, I’d bag a seat at the table of success and all the aces — money, fame, influence — would be mine to hold.
These positive thoughts were coming to me as clear as the crisp autumn breeze that night while the best version of me spoke to the foreigner: I come from Punjab, a well-known family… work can get taxing in India, but I find time for the things I love… I am learning Spanish, my husband and I have recently invested in a hospitality venture together…
I notice he isn’t saying much so I pause. “Why do this then? Seems to me like you can do whatever you want with your life, something really fun… why be a lawyer?” he asks.
Was it my pesky inner-voice again or did he really say those words? It had to be him, because now everyone at the table was looking at me. I recover quickly, “for the love of the law, of course!”.
Approving smiles everywhere. Except the foreigner. He didn’t seem fooled. He was a man in his fifties with more white hair than all the rest of our years combined. He simply nodded. The chatting continued, the evening drew to a close and everyone went home.
You may have guessed — I am a Delhi-based lawyer. I turned 31 this year. Hitting your thirties often has an element of finality to it. By now you are expected to have all the answers: what you want to do, who you want to be with, where you want to live. The profession of law however does not comport to this time-out. If you are a practicing lawyer of thirty-something and you know what you’re doing you most likely inherited your practice from your dad. For the rest of us, we’re putting our time, relationships, entire lives, on the table in the hope that our blind bets will throw up aces when the cards are face up. My contemporaries have different analogies to hearten themselves: ‘think of it as a pyramid. We are at the broad-based bottom right now and there are lots of average competitors. In the next few years the average peeps will fall away and only a handful of the good guys will make it to the top… and it’s all daisies at the top!’ or, ‘look, this is the top of the shit pile. From here on, it doesn’t go up, it only comes down. Keep at it and you will hit the ground. The goo will dry up in no time… and it’s a cake walk after that!’
I thought of the evening on the way home and for days after. The foreigner’s question stuck in my head. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t asked myself this very question a million times over. The trouble was it had never been thrown at me from the outside. That gave credibility to my pesky inner-voice and made it difficult for me to muffle it with distractions. To add to the confusion, the inquirer was someone accomplished and aware of what it felt like to be successful in the way that I wanted to be so badly. I couldn’t help but think that if he thinks there are more ‘fun’ things for me to do out there then there really must be. Maybe I should just ditch this whole legal thing and look for fun things to do. Is the universe giving me a sign?
Daisies? Cakewalk? What is all that, what are we really in it for?
Someone who can afford to do something else and still chooses the legal profession is first and foremost driven by the desire to be an elite professional. In other words, s / he wants to be a smart cookie with a cause. Ever wondered why so many coke-slurping climax scenes in the movies play out in the hallowed halls of a court-house or in the corridors of a hospital? It is because when the lawyer puts the bad guys behind bars or the doctor saves the hero it gives validation to what is right. It reinforces our subconscious belief that, in the end, something greater than ourselves (the legal system, god) will set the record straight. Lawyers, doctors, teachers – the elite professionals – inevitably end up believing that they are messengers of that greater good. The more successful they become, the more they are convinced of their god-like purpose on earth.
But being successful in that way and earning the god-complex takes time. When I get there, I will probably be old and white, having spent the spunk of my 30-year-old-self watching the world go by from a law library’s window. The only ones who will enjoy my success will be my over-entitled kids and they will have no notion of my sacrifices. Maybe I will have influential friends, a train of starry-eyed juniors, lavish parties, all to regain my relevance in the world, but they won’t make up for the time I lost along the way. A trade-off made worse by the fact that instant success would always have been within my reach. In a time of internet sensations and virtual stardom all you need is a small amount of privilege — some money, some good looks, some education — to start your own travel, fashion or food blog and become famous or ‘influential’. I watch the internet starlets and wonder why I couldn’t have just done something simpler with my life. Why not just start a youtube channel or spend my days uploading pictures on Instagram? I can afford the exquisite holidays, good clothes and expensive food that millions of people want to ‘follow’.
But then, what would I bring to the lives of these ‘followers’? It is absurd, quite honestly, to be admired only for looking good and living well. And by who? Those who don’t have the means to do the same? In the end, it all adds up to making yourself feel a little better than the rest and the rest feel a little worse about themselves for no good reason. That can’t be my purpose in life. It can’t be enough to be recognised for something that requires no accomplishment or skill. If I want to add any value to the world and leave it a better place than I found it then I need to stop chasing these frivolous accomplishments. I need to commit vision, execution and time to my career. I need to accept the humdrum-ness of life and trudge through it knowing that there is no instant recognition and no end in sight.
Are these the idealistic rantings of a dull professional with mediocre skills and envy for the rich and famous? Am I trying to justify my irrelevant life? After all, what is a life without recognition: who wants to be part of the toiling, faceless, millions? (The irony is not lost on me that this is a blog, after all!)
All valid questions. Questions which blur my conviction in the choices that I have made and transport me back to the terrace of the Oberoi with that same question hanging in the air… “why are you doing this?” .