How Did I Get Here? Part 3 of 3
Dreams do come true, or at least Jason's career takes a turn towards fulfillment in this final installment of "How Did I Get Here?" by Jason Pyrz, Global Project Management Operations Director for Mayer Brown. Read Parts 2 and 3 if you are just joining us.
I don’t think my wife realized when she asked that simple question – “If you could go back and do it all over, what would you do?” – the weight she was lifting off of my shoulders.
“Do you mean, you wouldn’t be mad if I didn’t practice law anymore?”
Her response was to ask why she would be mad when I’d been nothing but miserable since graduating from law school. She had noticed something that I had trouble admitting to myself – I was miserable. After my second Christmas layoff, I started writing what would later become a full-fledged novel. At the time I thought it was because I was just bored, but looking back I can see that I had to start writing because it was the only release valve I had for everything that was building up inside. That first draft was really dark.
Back to my wife’s question though – I honestly had no idea what I would rather be doing. I really liked coaching volleyball back before law school, perhaps that meant I would like being a teacher? Salary concerns aside, I immediately enrolled in a teaching certificate program back in Chicago and, four months after selling the house and moving to California, we were breaking our lease and moving back to the Midwest. As we were packing up the apartment, I got an email from one of my college volleyball teammates – the company he worked for was looking to hire a project manager, and didn’t I used to do that for a really huge company?
A week after moving in with my wife’s parents, I had a job back in the real world. I finished the classes for which I had registered, but I never pursued the teaching thing any further. I was back in project management as a deployment manager for a legislative software and government multimedia company. Forget a breath of fresh air – this was a jet-blast of fresh air. Gone was the pressure to endlessly bill. Gone was the need to manufacture additional work just to meet minimum billing requirements. Gone was the complete inefficiency of traditional law practice. In its place, I was designing processes that made sense. I was reducing wasted effort. I was doing what was needed to get the job done, and nothing more. Ultimately, and what was most rewarding, my superiors actually appreciated what I was doing.
In terms of salary, I was making roughly half of what I was making at the height of my BigLaw days, but I took comfort in the fact that, if you counted out all of the hours actually worked both as a lawyer and in my new role as a project manager, my hourly rate actually went up. I was making more, per hour at least, and I was enjoying my life again. What more could you ask for?
How about a book deal?
Just after I started back in the real world, which was about 9 months after I started writing that book during my dark days, a law school friend reached out to me and asked if I was planning on finishing it anytime soon. She had taken California bar, passed it, and then immediately registered as voluntarily inactive (she’s much smarter than I am). She teaches at a performing arts school in the LAUSD and at the time was also, I learned, the managing editor of a small independent book publisher by the name of Black Hill Press. She was interested in seeing the finished product because, as she said, if my writing was as entertaining as the snarky comments for which I was known in law school, she would love it. The only problem was that I only had the first few chapters and the last chapter written – I still needed to figure out everything that happened in between. I’d soon find out that finishing this silly little book would require more than just filling in the blanks. After reading what I had typed up earlier that year, I realized I had to toss and rewrite just about everything. Did I mention how dark it was? It was dark.
Because I actually had free time, and refreshingly not because of being unemployed, I was able to buckle down and finish the first full draft. I sent the manuscript off and waited. I waited a little more. And just as I was resigning myself to the fact that my friend was just saving me the indignity of telling me how bad it was, she sent me a message saying how much she loved it. Within a few weeks, I had an editor, a cover artist, and a contract for what would come to be known as Renaissance Spook. Not exactly a title that rolls off the tongue, but it’s wordplay on multiple levels. I thought it was clever at least.
What’s the book about, you ask? Well, it’s about a disgruntled lawyer who can’t hold a job and ends up getting killed by squirrels1 – but that’s just the first chapter. What started as a deeply therapeutic way to get the darkness out of my mind during my final days as a practicing lawyer, turned into a 45,000-word tribute to 80’s music, Monty Python, and Magnum P.I. once I had finally found a way out. The fact that it was now being published – something that I created – was closing the loop on something that had been nagging me for the previous decade, the realization that there were people who were so creative and were adding so much to humanity, and I was going to spend my life toiling away as a fungible billing unit.2
The first time I had this feeling was during law school when I came home after a weekend trip to Las Vegas and got caught in a Google rabbit hole on Sarah Brightman. I immediately became obsessed after hearing her song with Andrea Bocelli while watching the fountains at the Bellagio. I remember reading through her biography and being astounded at how talented and creative she was – all of the productions she had appeared in and the fact that I had listened to that one song on repeat for going on about an hour. Why couldn’t I ever do anything like that?
The second time the feeling hit was about eight years later when I was working on a document review project between my last two lawyer positions. A song came on the radio as I was driving home, and for some reason, there was an instrumental part – a banjo solo3 of all things – that brought me to tears.4 After the initial embarrassment of crying, over banjos, my next thought was how cool it must be to be able to elicit such an emotional reaction via something you had created. Here I was, flipping through thousands of documents every day, looking for the rare privileged document, and this guy is making dudes cry… with his banjo.
Now it was my turn. I could make people cry! Renaissance Spook was released six months later, and I was just thrilled to finally be able to share something I had created and see people’s reactions. I will still order a box full of copies from my publisher, just so I can give them away and share it with more people.
While I would have enjoyed making a living as a writer, I still had a day job that needed attention. I moved on from my first post-law company when they got bought out by a private equity firm that was more interested in trimming us down so they could sell us off again and began working as an operations project manager for a large, nationwide healthcare service provider. After spending years managing projects, I was now getting directly involved with the operations of an organization. I reported directly to the CEO and COO and felt like I had truly found my calling. I loved having input and influence in critical decisions. There was still something missing though.
Three years had elapsed since I stopped practicing and, while I didn’t miss practicing in the least, I occasionally felt silly that I could have skipped over the previous ten years, saved myself a few hundred thousand dollars in student loans, and still be doing the same job I was currently doing – there was nothing about that job that required my law degree or legal experience. Looking back now, however, regardless of how wasteful it felt to not be doing anything remotely law-related, I think I needed that break from the legal industry. I had been burned more than a few times and I needed some time to reset.
I knew it was time to get back into law when I saw the position open up at Mayer Brown. It checked all the boxes I’d discovered needed to be checked. It was an operations position with a heavy project management component, and it would allow me to draw on my decade of legal experience. Best of all, it would give me the opportunity to help change some of the behaviors that left such a bad taste in my mouth from my time as an associate – the inefficiency, the aimless billing, and the operating without a whiff of a plan. Thankfully the situation wasn’t nearly as dire at Mayer Brown as it was at the firms I’d worked for in the past, but even at firms like Mayer Brown, there is still a lingering distrust by some lawyers to this new way of doing things. After all, one doesn’t get to be a partner at an AmLaw 20 law firm by doing things incorrectly, right? Why bother changing now?5
The entire LPM field is fascinating to me, and it is definitely a hot area to be in if you have any interest. Because the need for LPM functions is being driven by clients’ desires for increased efficiency and fee predictability, it will only keep growing for the foreseeable future. Once the partners realize that it can help dramatically boost their profitability, it will grow even faster. Because LPM is a relatively new field, however, only about ten years old at this point, there’s a bit of a rogue element among those of us who ply the trade. We tend to be just a little different than your typical professional services person. We’re the people who had the personality to make it through law school, but not be satisfied with law alone. We’re the people who think it’s an interesting challenge to try to change the way a senior equity partner approaches the management of their matters. We’re the people who realized that there’s a time for work and a time for play, and while it’s acceptable for play to interfere with work, work should never get in the way of play.
I’ve been with Mayer Brown for almost three years, and I have been loving every minute of it. I have an organization that is supportive of what we are doing from a LPM, pricing, and process improvement perspective, we’re making great strides on all of those fronts, and I no longer feel like I wasted a decade. In my current position I’ve called on the web design skills I learned back in my webmaster days. I’m using the project management skills I learned throughout the course of my project management and operations days. I’m using my experience as an associate to empathize with the lawyers I work with and to gain their trust that I might actually know what I’m talking about. I’m finally at peace because I am using every single one of the skills I’ve picked up throughout my career, with one notable exception.
I’ve never seen our dumpsters.
1It’s not as absurd as it sounds. I mean, it’s absurd, just not in an absurdly absurd way.
2I can’t take credit for the coining of that term. It’s one that, unfortunately, exists in the wild: https://abovethelaw.com/2015/04/reinventing-the-law-business-how-to-train-associates/
3So you can all probably guess that it was a Mumford & Sons song.
4Crying in cars was a common theme while I was still practicing.
5We’ll leave the discussion of hourly-rate ceilings and increased profitability via increased efficiency for another time.