So you want to be a criminal lawyer...

Like a Moth to a Flame: Why You Shouldn't Listen To Your Elders

I don’t mean you shouldn’t listen to your elders ever, but when it comes to entrepreneurship, you should be very skeptical about the advice your get from elders, particularly from the Baby Boomer generation.  If you are a lawyer that is considering going out on your own in criminal law, you should be very reluctant to follow the advice of a Baby Boomer, even one that is successful. Rejecting their advice is hard to do for reasons that I will explain.

Going out on my own as a criminal lawyer was one of the best decisions I ever made.  

My first year in private practice was, in many ways, the best year of my life. This is why it bothers me so much to this day that so many Baby Boomers advised me not to go out on my own.  Obviously the people I spoke to did not mean me any harm, but they harmed me nonetheless.

I have thought a lot about this issue over the years and believe I understand why this strange state of affairs occurred.  People that give advice usually give it based on the life experience that they encountered. This is a very important logical flaw that people need to take into account when they give advice.  This means that when Baby Boomers are giving advice to a Millennial about what to do with their career, they are giving it based on the circumstances – economic, technological and practical – that they encountered.  In the context of intergenerational advice, think about how nonsensical it is for someone that came of professional age in 1985 to give advice to someone that came of professional age today.  

While obviously well intentioned, it is my respectful view that Baby Boomers are not the best people to solicit advice from when it comes to venturing into entrepreneurship today, and specifically in the legal field.  The circumstances they encountered when they came of professional age are so different from the circumstances of a young professional today that they may as well have come from a different planet. Most Baby Boomers graduated with little to no debt.  Baby Boomers graduated in an era where law school class sizes were small and competition for jobs and articling positions was not fierce, as it is now. Baby Boomers came of age when house prices were something like 1/5th of what they are today (a $200,000 house costs approximately $1 million today).  Baby Boomers did not have access to the technology that could make it accessible to go out on your own and compete with firms and individuals with access to greater resources.  

I could go on about this, but the main point is that a Baby Boomer that tells you not to become an entrepreneur is imagining the situation back in his or her time and giving you advice based on circumstances that have no applicability to your experiences.  For a Baby Boomer, it made no sense to become an entrepreneur. Baby Boomers came of age when getting an entry level job for someone else ensured a very reasonable and dignified existence. Today’s economic realities put us on a different track than they did for the Baby Boomers and many who follow this advice may not achieve the kind of dignified existence that the Baby Boomers did.

Overcoming the bad advice of my elders was a very difficult thing for me to do.  I resisted my own impulse to strike out on my own for years because of their advice.  After I went out on my own as a criminal lawyer, I thought a lot about why it was so difficult for me to overcome the advice I had heard.  Then on my honeymoon, I had a Eureka moment and realized why it had been so difficult.

While on my honeymoon, I read the book the Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins.  It is a book about the evidence for evolution and has nothing to do with Dawkins’ reasons for being an atheist that he writes about in his other books.  However, he did address one of the challenges he has faced as an evolutionary biologist from believers: why, if evolution explains the universe and everything in it, why did faith in a creator and religion evolve and how has it spread and remained such an important part of human existence for thousands of years?  Surely, the argument goes, faith in a creator and religion has conferred some sort of evolutionary advantage and does that not suggest some evidence for religion? To this challenge, Dawkins answers a question with a question: why does a moth go towards a flame? Because, he answers, moths use the light from the stars to navigate.  Their internal navigation system conferred an evolutionary advantage before human beings discovered fire, but now that vestigial evolutionary trait has remained and can cause them to barrel straight towards a fire and their own deaths.

Dawkins then puts the moth example in the context of religion in an evolutionary sense:

My specific hypothesis is about children. More than any other species, we survive by the accumulated experience of previous generations, and that experience needs to be passed on to children for their protection and well-being. Theoretically, children might learn from personal experience not to go too near a cliff edge, not to eat untried red berries, not to swim in crocodile-infested waters. But, to say the least, there will be a selective advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb: believe, without question, whatever your grown-ups tell you. Obey your parents; obey the tribal elders, especially when they adopt a solemn, minatory tone. Trust your elders without question. This is a generally valuable rule for a child. But, as with the moths, it can go wrong.

- Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth

When I read this, it had a profound effect on me because I instantly realized why it had been so hard for me to reject the advice of all the Baby Boomers that told me not to become an entrepreneur and follow my own instincts – because I am genetically programmed to listen to my elders even when they are wrong, have no idea what they are talking about and when they are making the logical flaw of giving me advice based on the circumstances that they encountered when they became of professional age.  This has bothered me for many years because I almost didn’t become a criminal lawyer or go out on my own and start my own firm. I almost took the “safe” or “conservative” path, except for me the safe path would have been the path of a lifetime of misery and regret.

If you are like I was and are sitting in a law school class and are only interested in criminal law, but are being told by parents and others to work for a Bay Street firm because it is the ‘safe path’, make sure you take it with a grain of salt and consider the logical flaw in reasoning they may be following and be conscious of how difficult it is to reject their advice because you are genetically programmed to listen to them.  

My best advice for a young lawyer that is coming of professional age and has dreams or ideas of following your own path is to find someone that is not a Baby Boomer, ideally closer to your age, who is successful and talk to them about your career interests.  There are three young lawyers that I spoke to that encouraged me to go out on my own. Without them, I cannot be sure if I would have made the same decision to strike out on my own and I will forever be grateful for their advice.

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