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March 2002 


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Essay Headline
Switching Gears:
Trading In the View from the Office

By Jim MacGillis

 

 


"Anyone seeking a mere escape . . . is better off avoiding such service."


Do you harbor nagging thoughts of suspending your law practice to pursue an extended volunteer opportunity or other major lifestyle change? I certainly did, especially after making my final law school loan payment and completing my other pressing financial obligations. Since acting to fulfill that yearning, I can report that the transition from business attorney to Peace Corps volunteer is possible and has changed my life in significant ways. Not least among them is the difference in views from where I stood 16 months ago to where I stand today.

My view in Minneapolis was from an apartment within walking distance of Lake of the Isles, and for work as an associate attorney, from the 31st floor of a gleaming downtown skyscraper. I have exchanged the climate-controlled comfort of the Piper Jaffray Tower for a crowded garage lit by a single bulb that doubles as my classroom. I have also traded working through due diligence matters for corporations for the challenge of explaining how to determine a product's variable and fixed costs to an audience of aspiring small business owners.

When downtown Minneapolis was my work site, I would weave through the crowded skyway system in search of lunch. Today, I make nearly daily visits to the local produce and meat markets, as living without refrigeration has encouraged my reliance on truly fresh foods. There, I regularly must explain to frequently astonished locals that, yes, I do cook for myself, a task almost exclusively reserved for women in traditional Honduran society.

Whether it is the market, a rural adobe-walled municipal building, or the bed of a pick-up truck crowded with human and agricultural cargo bumping along an unforgiving dirt road, my views certainly have changed. My goal is not to convince anyone that mine is the ideal view, but rather to encourage and assure those who have an interest in such a change of gears, for whatever reason, that attorney-to-Peace Corps volunteer, or employment of another sort, is a transition one can make.

PREREQUISITES FOR CHANGE

Two key prerequisites for pursuing this type of change include a degree of comfort with the unknown and a financial situation that permits leaving behind the world of purchase agreements, motions, deeds, or whichever Miller-Davis products help to define your practice.

Attorneys, drilled to regard the unknown and undefined risks as concepts to be dutifully and artfully avoided, may have more difficulty with the former requirement. Fortunately, recruiters for the Peace Corps, on account of the skills and experience most attorneys offer, can help alleviate some of the unknowns of such a step.

In my case, while acknowledging the numerous practical benefits to march stepping along the well-defined path of associate life, I found myself more frightened with the thought of failing to pursue this opportunity while it seemed attainable. Moreover, as I had worked with businesses of various sizes, was comfortable with accounting concepts and spoke a modicum of Spanish, Peace Corps was able to advise me that I would likely be placed in Latin America in a business-advisory position. While Peace Corps does not guarantee that an applicant will be placed in a specific locale, today I am working in Honduras as a small business development volunteer.

For those applicants who believe themselves outside the usual age-range of volunteers, speaking to returned volunteers can provide reliable information and perspective on the day-to-day reality of volunteer life and work. While the average age of entering volunteers remains in the late 20s, my group of 50 volunteers included a retired university professor and assorted 30-ish professionals with experience in a variety of fields.

The financial reality of taking a leave of absence or permanently leaving one's position, in exchange for a volunteer stipend, cannot be mollified so easily. The solution for anyone who has ever thought, "I would do something like that if only I could afford it" -- and who, indeed, wants to afford it, is to begin planning today.

Cars with years of payments and homes with six-digit mortgages usually do not facilitate the pursuit of goals such as extended volunteer service. One way to begin reaching the financial comfort-zone that permits such a career change is to sell the late model, payment-burdened car, and invest in something more rustic. This process may also involve evaluating how much house, or how many houses, you and your family need, and the consideration of something with one less bedroom, bathroom or garage. Alternately, finding the right renter can preserve your comfort zone of knowing you will be returning to a home.

For me, living without the weighty responsibilities of a spouse, children, or a home mortgage, this process was simplified. Likewise, driving a rusty 1984 Nissan once described by a witty Minneapolis police officer as a "rolling probable cause violation" made donating it, along with many of my accumulated possessions, a good alternative to paying for two years of storage.

STAYING CONNECTED

In addition to the prospective volunteer and his possessions, family and relationships must be seriously considered. As romantic relationships are one of the principal reasons that volunteers terminate their service early, you can expect Peace Corps to delve into your personal life should it include a spouse or partner. Peace Corps, like many volunteer organizations, provides opportunities for married couples to serve together. Unlike some other volunteer organizations, however, Peace Corps does not permit volunteers to serve with minor children.

I have found the separation from family and friends less absolute that I expected. While many volunteers do not enjoy the benefits of local Internet service and an in-home phone, my presence in a city of nearly 15,000 people has permitted me access to these communication tools and enabled me to keep in frequent contact with loved ones. Moreover, the relative proximity of Central America to the United States and the numerous airlines servicing this region easily permit visits of adventurous friends and family.

Finally, a professional leaving her practice to make the 27-month commitment to Peace Corps should reflect on her post-service plans. Anyone seeking a mere escape from the view from the law office, without sufficient understanding as to the way volunteer service will fit into her life after its completion, is better off avoiding such service.

In choosing to abandon, at least temporarily, the law firm partnership track, I have forgone both valuable work experience and the financial rewards that accompany that path. This decision to detour from a secure and challenging position, one reached following years of school and the attendant sacrifices as a young attorney, weighed most heavily on me. Yet, I am confident that returning to Minnesota as a bilingual business attorney with international experience will provide a foundation for marketing myself in the Twin Cities legal and business community. Regardless, having pursued a deeply-held desire to engage full-time in volunteer work while immersing myself in Latin American culture, any price I have paid in short-term career advancement seems, at least on this terribly hot February day, well worth it.

Development work, not unlike law practice, can be challenging, frustrating and slow. I have been assured, and have received glimpses, that it can also be amazingly satisfying and worthwhile. For those who choose to leave the view of the office and courtroom, I can attest that the view from the classroom, market or pick-up truck can be very satisfying as well.

For those interested in more information about Peace Corps service, Minneapolis is home to a regional Peace Corps recruitment office that can be reached at (612) 348-1480.

JIM MACGILLIS practiced business law with Hinshaw & Culbertson before leaving as a third-year associate. He is currently serving in Honduras as a Peace Corps Volunteer and can be reached via email at jmacgillis@postmark.net