10 Questions

California lawyer blazes a new career path as a firefighter and EMT

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Nicole Smith uses the Jaws of Life to dismantle a car while at the emergency medical services academy

Nicole Smith uses the Jaws of Life to dismantle a car while at the emergency medical services academy. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Smith)

Aha moments are often likened to lightning strikes. But California family lawyer Nicole “Nico” Smith’s life-changing decision to become a professional firefighter followed an actual lightning strike.

In August 2020, a lightning bolt ignited a hillside in a remote portion of her parents’ ranch north of the San Francisco Bay Area. Working with local firefighters to reach the blaze, Smith was so impressed by their dedication and teamwork that she decided to try becoming one.

In May 2021, she graduated from the fire academy and became a firefighter for the South Lake County Fire Protection District.

Today, the 36-year-old works as an EMT in Santa Rosa while continuing her firefighting education (she’s taken driver operator classes, and swift water rescue is up next) and maintaining a small solo family law practice.

A. The story about how you became a firefighter is so serendipitous—like a “right place, right time” situation. Tell me more about how it all came to pass.

Q. Until 2020, I was working at a law firm. It was a very standard six-figure attorney job with standard hours. I had a wife, a house, a mortgage, two cars, and we had adopted our son from foster care. I had done everything right—checked all the boxes. Everything changed in February 2020 when my wife and I separated. I became the sole caregiver for our son, who was 19 months old, which meant I had to change the way my life was set up. So I left my job at the law firm, sold my house and moved to Lake County, where my parents live on 200 acres. The plan was not to stay long; it was just supposed to be a soft landing for a little while. Then the pandemic hit, and there we were, on this self-sustaining property that’s off the grid. So the beauty of it was that we had a place where every morning we could wake up and go down to the lake or play in the woods. It was the perfect place to restart and reset. In that resetting, my parents were like, “Well, you gotta do something now, and you still have this law degree, and you’re a good lawyer, so maybe it’s time to start your own business.” So I did. I started my very little law firm. Then I added firefighting. My goal is to eventually walk away from law once I have a sustainable career as a firefighter.

A. How do you balance firefighting with the demands of a solo practice? I imagine there’s no such thing as a typical workday for you, right?

Q. I would say things are constantly evolving. My work schedule varies dramatically. I have irregular hours, and it can be chaotic. I am pretty picky about the clients I take on. I want to make sure that before I fully commit, they know what my life is like: I work at a fire station, and for the past six months, I’ve been in EMT classes. There’s a lot of full disclosure about what that looks like, and I am very flexible with my availability. It ends up being kindof a juggling act to maintain my work-life balance. I have to set boundaries with clients and set boundaries with myself, like, “This is what I can commit to, this is what I’m not able to commit to.” Also, I try to do a lot of my legal work on Sunday. It’s easier to do when I just have my son at home. My partner has two sets of twins, and we have 50-50 custody with her ex, so half the time we have one kid, and half the time we have five. As you might guess, not a ton of legal work or firefighting can get done when I have five kids in the house.

A. Wow! That’s a full house! Does it ever make you miss the quiet of an office job?

Q. No. I hate sitting at a desk; I get absolutely stir-crazy. I really like being outdoors. I like adventure. As a firefighter, I can have a direct impact on my community, and that’s something you can’t always see when you’re in the nitty-gritty of family law, dealing with who owned more of a business or who contributed more. It can feel like you’re not doing as much good as you wanted to do when you entered the legal field. Being able to become a firefighter and now an EMT has really expanded what I am able to do for my community.

A. Was there a moment when you realized firefighting was the right choice—that it was what you were meant to do?

Q. When I was at the fire academy. It was an amazing experience. It was challenging, it was mentally stimulating, and the camaraderie was incredible. It was a stark contrast to being a lawyer, especially a family law attorney. I came into the practice of family law thinking it would be a way to help people whose lives were falling apart. Nobody ends up in a divorce because their life is going perfectly—something has gone wrong, and there’s a moment where people can look and reflect on themselves and the person that they’re with and their children and take a pause and actually address some of the issues in their lives. I think that is really beautiful, and it’s why I liked doing family law—the ability to help people at that point. Unfortunately, it’s a system based on conflict, and it’s a system where people come to win. But it’s a no-win situation. Everyone in family law is already a loser. A marriage is falling apart, there’s domestic violence, there’s drinking, there’s drug use, infidelity. Whatever it is, something has gone wrong. When attorneys come into that as a way to make their own lives better, or they get caught up in the conflict and can’t see the forest for the trees, that’s when things get ugly. So much of the time, it’s not the clients—it’s the attorneys who are making things much worse for these families who are in crisis. I got really tired of seeing attorneys again and again not working for the best interest of the family. In firefighting, you’re not confronted by that kind of unnecessary conflict. I think that’s what drew me to firefighting and pushed me away from family law.

A. So you were tired of the human-versus-human fight and opted for human-versus-nature?

Q. That sounds very poetic! Yeah, I think that’s apt.

A. What was the firefighter training and EMT testing like? I mean, you did pass the notoriously difficult California bar exam.

Q. Yes, and that was a 16-hour test! But the subject matter is just so different—it’s how to answer a legal question versus how the body works and how to respond to a medical crisis—and it uses vastly different parts of your brain. I went to law school over 10 years ago, and I find my brain isn’t as flexible as it used to be. I also went through the academy with a lot of 18- and 19-year-olds who can run a five-minute mile, and I was out there huffing and puffing. I was like, “I just came up from a desk job—you have to give me a minute!”

A. You’re on track to leave the law to dedicate yourself to firefighting full time. What would you say to those who might be critical of your decision to trade the status of a professional career for a blue-collar job?

Q. I laugh in the face of status! I hate all of that. I think when you focus on billable hours and winning at any cost, the actual cost is the enjoyment of your life. The idea that you’re better than anyone else just because you went to law school or because you went to a “better” law school is ridiculous. We’re all just tiny little blips in this enormous span of time and space, and all you have is your individual experience and the impact you have on other people. I just don’t care about the idea of status anymore. But sometimes I wish I did, because that would certainly have made my life easier.

A. What do you mean?

Q. If I could be happy as a lawyer, I wouldn’t have to worry about finances as much. I don’t want to think about overtime; I want to think about spending time with the family I built. But I also don’t want to end up bankrupt, so the plan is to try to find a sustainable way to have a balance. And not just to say I have work-life balance, but to actually have that balance for my kid and my stepkids. I love these kids, and I love my partner, and I want to have a good life with them. As for the law, I am past that part of my life now. I just want to actually feel like I am putting all my effort into the act of being a good person and raising good people.

A. I think that your story is very inspirational for some lawyers who might feel stuck or are considering a practice shift or a career shift.

Q. I think that every lawyer should have to take the bar every 10 years. It would force attorneys to take a moment and reflect on whether that’s really what they want to be doing with their lives. If there were fewer attorneys who hated the law but were still doing it, it would make for a better lawyer workforce and probably a better society.

A. Are you happy? Did you find the happiness in firefighting that eluded you in law?

Q. Yes, absolutely. I can honestly say that I am happier than I have ever been in my entire life. I mean, the life I have now is not the life I expected to have, but so far, it’s going great. I am working every day toward this path that lights me up and gives me physical activity and allows me to help people. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I’m moving in that direction.

This story was originally published in the April-May 2023 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Ladder of Success: California lawyer blazes a new career path as a firefighter and EMT.”

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