Q&A: Why I Burned My Harvard Diploma
Earlier this week, we learned about “Jack,” a self-described, but otherwise anonymous, 30s-something lawyer in D.C., who is blogging about giving up material excess for a simpler life. Jack agreed to reveal more about his motivations, but not any more about his identity, in the following Q&A:
ABA Journal: Why did you burn your law diploma?
Jack: At some point, I realized that a great deal of my self-worth was tied to being a Harvard law grad. Burning my degree was just a way to continue this process of simplification. I still have fond memories of Harvard. My three years there were the most intellectually stimulating, most meaningful of my entire life. But, ultimately, I want to live my life on my own terms without needing a piece of paper to justify my own worth.
ABA Journal: Was there a trigger to your move to shun excess and pursue a simpler life?
Jack: After years of working 12-hour days, giving up countless weekends and canceling vacations at the last minute, I just had enough. I eventually realized that I was slowly losing my life, one billable hour at a time. In the end, it makes no sense to trade 90 percent of your waking hours for a chance to buy expensive clothes, be seen at fancy restaurants, and indulge in all sorts of excess. More recently, a friend of mine was diagnosed with terminal cancer. There is nothing like being made aware of your own mortality to help you focus on what truly matters: family, love and friendship.
ABA Journal: How far have you come? Are you downsizing, or is this more of an attitude shift?
Jack: I’ve been taking small, deliberate steps since last year to simplify all aspects of my life. Thus far, I have decluttered my house and have arranged for the sale of most of my furniture. Up next, leaving my job, selling my house and taking some time off to figure out next steps.
ABA Journal: If you’ve already begun shedding material gains, is there anything you miss?
Jack: Not so far. Embracing voluntary simplicity does not imply that you have to accept abject poverty or that you need to reject all material comforts. Voluntary simplicity encourages you to shed anything that does not have genuine value to you. In my case, I no longer find a need to patronize Citronelle on a weekly basis, or head out to Vegas to spend a couple of thousand dollars every chance I get. I now spend money on things that bring me meaningful joy. And it just so happens that most of these things are so cheap, they are practically free.
ABA Journal: Why did you want to become a lawyer in the first place? What were your expectations coming out of law school?
Jack: The honest answer is that I went to law school because I didn’t know what else to do with my life. I had a vague sense that I wanted to work in the public interest field, but I did not know in what capacity. In the end, I was seduced by the prestige of all the law schools that accepted my application and by the opportunity to make a difference. And then the reality of incurring $120,000 of law school debt plus the allure of making a six-figure salary changed everything. By the time I left Harvard, I had already bought my first $1,000 suit.
ABA Journal: Is there a way for you to continue on a legal career path that will satisfy your desire for simplicity?
Jack: I am definitely interested in transitioning into the public interest field. Finding a legal job that satisfies my intellectual curiosity, assuages my moral convictions, and allows me the opportunity to explore my other interests is a priority.
ABA Journal: Why chronicle your transition so publicly in a blog? Is there something cathartic about blogging openly, or does committing yourself in public force you to stay on course?
Jack: I started the blog as a way to keep track of my progress. At first, it was just a matter of outlining all of the things that were not working in my life and figuring out practical ways to resolve them on my own. Early on, I found that interacting with other people who were confronting similar issues was another way to brainstorm and encourage simplification. There is something about anonymity that allows people to drop their guard and be open about the things they want out of life. I have learned that there is great value in sharing yourself with others, even in the shadows of anonymity.
ABA Journal: What have you learned about yourself and what other lawyers are going through in regards to work/life balance issues?
Jack: I have learned that there are other ways to live my life and that I should follow my heart, no matter where it leads me.
I’ve also learned that there is something seriously wrong with law firm life. I’ve been blogging for five months now, and I am still surprised by the sheer number of e-mails I receive from other lawyers who are dealing with some of the very same issues I struggle with. I think there is a yearning out there for a way to reconcile the demands of a legal career with other life goals. Many lawyers feel that they have rejected important aspects of themselves in exchange for a life they no longer feel they want to live. They feel trapped because they have to pay a mortgage, student loans, private school tuition, etc. … but have no idea how to get out.
I think it is important to emphasize that not every lawyer working at a law firm is unhappy. Some of my very best friends have thrived in that environment and are genuinely happy. If you derive genuine, meaningful pleasure from the profession and can overcome all the obstacles that this lifestyle places on your personal life, then you have it made.