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.
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
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org