From International Trade Law to International Adventure
Law school and BigLaw don’t necessarily prepare you for eating tarantulas, but somehow, for Hammad Ahmed, he arrived at that spidery snack in Phnom Penh, Cambodia during a six-month trip around the world. After undergraduate work in international relations at Stanford University and law school at Georgetown University Law Center, Ahmed took the road commonly traveled. He worked in BigLaw at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP in Washington, D.C. As a member of the international trade law practice group, he represented clients in investigations before the Departments of Treasury, Homeland Security, Commerce and State.
Truthfully, though, just representing clients in international trade wasn’t exactly what he wanted to do. He wanted to be on that international route. After all, he’s almost fluent in French and can speak basic Spanish, Mandarin and Urdu.
So he did what anyone - well, some people - would do in that situation. He and his partner set off on a round-the-world adventure.
“I’d been wanting to do that for a long time,” said Hammad. They went to Myanmar, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, Hungary, Sweden, Italy, Peru and lots of other places.
Hammad and his partner visiting an indigenous family in the Amazon.
They were pulled into a wedding in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, where the celebrating group seemed to think it added to the festivities to dance with two American men.
Even though the trip wove in and out of dramatically different cultures in 23 countries, the takeaway, for Hammad was clear.
“I came away feeling that people around the world are so similar and most of the differences we focus on are related to circumstances and fleeting events,” said Hammad, who was born in Pakistan and came to the U.S. with his family when he was two years old.
“When I came back, I felt that the U.S. is really where I belong and I could put down roots.”
Hammad in front of the Sphinx with local children: “Sometimes going to the tourist attractions in Egypt is hard though because your visit is often interrupted by people trying to sell you things, take things from you, or just ask for tips and bribes. That's what these two kids were doing. At first it was annoying, but then I started liking them - they had a great sense of humor.”
Hammad in the temple ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia: “This was toward the beginning of the trip. By the end, I had seen enough cold, empty ruins! We ended up spending more time meeting people and making friends.”
Those roots include helping with a community garden in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where he currently lives.
Ahmed now works on grants and compliance for a charter school in Boston.
“While I did leave BigLaw, I still feel like I am part of the larger world of legal work,” he said. “These days, I feel almost like an informal in-house legal department. And I like it better this way. Part of what I found hard during my time at a large law firm was always being on the outside, feeling like my corporate clients needed my help in the moment, but were ultimately trying to make do without me. That dynamic can take a toll on teamwork.”
Ahmed is on the board of an educational nonprofit that sends capable and motivated kids to summer camp, a camp he went to in high school that he says, “changed my life.”
“The Telluride Association Summer Program was amazing,” he said. “It changed my life by taking me out of my small Georgia high school world and putting me among of a group of the most quirky and smart 16-year-olds in the country. For six weeks we lived as a democratic community and also explored college-style coursework. We argued over everything. It really gave me the confidence to pursue my interests in college and be a more rigorous thinker in general.”
Hammad at a floating market at Lake Inle in Myanmar
It’s a life that gave him the courage to leave the expected route and travel around the world. A life that now runs, often, on a bicycle through the neighborhoods around Boston.
Lawyer Lightning Round
1. What’s the best part of being a lawyer?
Having people trust you to counsel and console them. Being that trusted figure.
2. What’s the best part of being an entrepreneur or having a business or passion outside your legal work?
It makes the legal work seem more meaningful. My life of traveling and adventure makes it so much nicer to get back to work and feel this is where I belong. This is my role, what I’m good at.
3. How does your legal background help with what you love to do?
I feel like my legal background has helped me listen really carefully, like you have to do with legal jargon. In many places I traveled I didn’t speak the language, but as a lawyer I’ve been able to listen and repeat.
4. If you could change one thing about the legal industry, what would it be?
I would change the emphasis on putting in time. It seems to me there’s a strong hierarchy. It’s about how long you work and how hard it looks like you’re working, not your output or how much your client trusts you and appreciates the relationship.
5. What’s the secret to juggling the practice of law and living a full life outside of the law?
Managing expectations. Being honest with the people you work with, that what you do outside of work is important to you.
6. What’s your advice to lawyers thinking of changing careers, starting their own business or just taking some time off?
Take that leap if you feel like it’s right, even if you don’t know where you’re going to land. There’s so much to learn from taking a break, it’s worth it, even if it’s a huge risk.
7. Do you have one memorable horror story from your legal work, not mentioning any names?
My horror story is the lectreiver. It’s this horrible document storage on a conveyor belt and the client stored all the important files in it. I was supposed to spend a week on it, but I spent a month trying to find the documents. It’s a 1970s filing system, all paper, big brown accordion- type file folders.
8. What’s your next big adventure?
Going to the boundary waters this summer, the northernmost edge of Minnesota, backpacking, pitching tents and going in a canoe. I really hate mosquitos and I hear that’s the national bird up there.
9. Where do you want to be five years from now?
I want to be here in Boston and I want to keep working in education and education policy.
10. If you could pass any law you wanted, what would it be?
Probably workplace nondiscrimination for transgender people.
Hammad Ahmed is an attorney in the Hire An Esquire network. His travel blog is http://wanderinghammad.blogspot.com.