Go back Silent hours, my interview series about an alternative career for lawyers.
Lebawit and I have made their way many years ago, but this month I picked up our email string to describe it on a legal nomad. Just as fellow lawyers turned to Katie (now working at National Geographic) and Erin (a New York journalist) writer, Lebawit fed the elegance of her words. As an alternative career for lawyers, writing is a natural pivot.
Originally from Ethiopia and grew up on the coast of Ivory Coast, Lebawit speaks four languages and is at home exploring. Her name means a woman with her heart, and given her background, it's no surprise that the corporate office is not enough to suppress thirst for life.
I hope you like her conversation!
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Alternative Career for Lawyers: Questions and Answers with Lebawit Lily Girma
What made you choose to follow a less conventional path than typical law school graduates? Was there some time she decided for you?
I knew soon as a second year of law school that I should take an unconventional journey. I had ideas on the practical application of international public law and mixing travel in this way. I have always liked to travel and wanted to follow my father's footprints in terms of work in international development. That's why I went to law school. But there was little career guidance that differed from the traditional way of law firm, and I had to think about my finances.
So at the beginning I went on a conventional journey. I have an affiliate position in a prestigious business company. I was delighted with the learning opportunities and I hoped it would be best.
For several years I was unhappy. I joined the company just after September 11th and the development, the transaction I wanted to do was become non-existent. Finally, I had to work on what was available: regulatory energy.
I was good at that, but I hated the subject – it was difficult and boring, and it was also a variety of practice. I wanted to, but I did not know how to get out. What else would I do? Where would I go, another company? On the weekends I will deal with books on alternative legal careers; there were so few. I would be brainstorming, but I would end up exhausted … and right back to the table on Monday.
In my work, I have been dealing with immigration pro bono cases, fortunately billed, and they have made me feel like I'm making a difference in someone's life. And then, in holiday days or long weekends, I travel overseas with my friends. To Rome on Thanksgiving, Barcelona to the New Year and so on. At least I could afford those trips.
Finally, at the beginning of my fifth year of practice, it struck me. I sat in the office in the morning in January, looking out the window and looking at the pedestrian traffic and the surrounding concrete buildings. I thought, "In ten years you'll still be sitting in this chair, miserably with your work, and your life will pass you around."
It was such a stunning feeling.
I decided there and now that I was about to prepare for my departure. Even if I did not know what to do next … I had to get out. I started to repay the debts faster and saved even more aggressively. As soon as I decided and took small steps to him, the next steps followed.
It took me a long time to realize my family. And that was also because I helped my parents. But I also think that part of it was in line with cultural and social expectations.
What do you do most about your current job?
My work of the travel writer and author of the writer is so much fulfilled.
I love the fact that I have a lot to help support local businessmen through their books and photos. I receive messages from local companies that thank me to the visitors they receive, and that's nice.
I have been on the field for a long time in my various destinations and I'm exploring my books about Belize, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. And I'm constantly learning and rotting as a human.
It is also filled for the readers to meet or hear that they have an unforgettable trip through my guides. Some of the emails are so emotional they're leaving me.
I'm going to travel slowly and have access to some incredible places as a writer's guide; it is a privilege.
Traveling inspiration is another full-featured aspect. Those people read my work and looked at my photos, then the book and go to a place they never knew before was a huge one for me.
No two days are the same and I manage my own time – that's invaluable.
And of course, living in the Caribbean region for work and avoiding Washington DC winter is a great bonus.
Do you have any advice for professionals who are interested in leaving conventional private practice but have what's out there?
Be bold because it can be done.
The first step is self-analysis, exploration and speaking with others. Kick deep to find out what you are doing and what your abilities are. Perhaps what you want to do does not exist yet. And if so, that's fine. Research, talk to other professionals, friends, contacts; ask them what they think is good. Connect to the networks, read and start working there (wherever it may be).
You do not have to invent everything immediately and you can not. Sometimes I realized I had to come up with that magical answer or the word about what I was going to do next. That did not happen. The answer comes after a number of steps. So, what is important is to take a step, one small task at a time. The next step then unfolds until you are guided in the right direction. Sitting and clutching your mind with worries and speculations will make you feel worse.
I started by deciding that I needed a break from seven years of practice and it took several months before I traveled and cleaned my head. I decided to learn photography (because I loved her) while I was studying. I've read a lot about what equipment to buy before leaving and how to shoot. That was just the first step. The rest went on, bit by bit. It did not happen overnight and it required a lot of faith.
So I say, go for it because you only have one life. And if you've come so far that you've been through a law school and a bar, then you have the brain to do it.
How did your legal education inform you about how you see the world today? Still seeing yourself as a lawyer?
One lawyer, always a lawyer, I think! Yes, I'm proud to be identified as a licensed lawyer. there is an incredible value of legal education. It's one of the best decisions I've ever made. I use my legal background all the time, even as a travel writer, whether I review my publishing contracts, contracts for external writings, photo licensing or knowledge of how to handle a particular environment and people abroad.
It also gave me the opportunity to observe, to be detailed and accurate. This is so important in traveling. Engage in the world around you, learn how to talk to people and understand their culture and struggle. Being a lawyer will never disappear. It's a set of skills that make you very sharp and analytical. And that's an incredible thing when you're on your way.
As far as informing about the way I see the world today – it comes from my diverse education. I was born in Ethiopia and Ethiopian parents, but we moved when I was barely a year old in Cote d'Ivoire, a former French colony. I was born around several cultures between home and school, and I spoke four languages when I was 14 years old, including Spanish. It all came a lot when I had to live in other countries, including Belize or the Dominican Republic, to work with my guide. Being an expat and going to school in Africa, Europe and the US – gets a real worldview. The adaptation of the Caribbean and Central America to work was then easy.
What should I tell those who tell me that lawyers can not talk?
I think he's wrong! Attorneys work hard, but they know how to enjoy life (even stress) and have a great sense of humor. When I was in the law firm, I found time to enjoy myself and travel. And in the last five years as a full-time writer, I have more fun and adventure than I can do with my work – in Belize, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Cuba, Haiti, New Zealand … he can not remember that he is sometimes bored. Last year, my reader sent me an email and said I was a "fun maximizer."
Lebawit Lily Girma is an award-winning travel writer, editor, photographer and author of several Caribbean handbooks for the publishers of Moon Travel Guides, including Moon Belize, Belize Cayes, and the Moon of the Dominican Republic. Originally from Ethiopia, Lily is referred to as a "culture barber" in four languages, living in eight non-US countries, including Belize, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. Her articles and photos focused on the Caribbean region were published in AFAR, CNN, BBC, Delta Sky, The Guardian and more. Lily receives the 2016 Marcia Vickery Wallace Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism from the Caribbean Tourism Organization. You can find it on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
Lebawit Lily Girma, the author and photographer, first appeared on the legal nomad.