Jan. 27, 2012
Law school graduate and cross-continent walker Coulson discusses lessons of his journey
Tyler Coulson realized how much he had come to think like a lawyer as he stood along a busy East Coast highway, contemplating how he would get across.
There was no crosswalk, no intersection, no control devices. Clearly, crossing the road presented risks for him and his dog, Mabel. But walking to the nearest controlled intersection would be inefficient and presented its own risks. What should he do?
The moment, he said, crystalized why he had left his job as an attorney at one of the world's largest law firms to embark on a cross country walk that was, at that point, only a few hours old. Simply analyzing the options to cross a road left him crippled with indecision.
"At one point, I remember thinking, now, from a critical race theory perspective….," said Coulson, a 2008 University of Iowa College of Law graduate who spoke about his truncated legal career and continental walk to a group of UI law students on Thursday.
Coulson has become something of a cause celebre among many lawyers for pitching his career in the Chicago headquarters of the law firm Sidley Austin and starting his hike in March 2011. He's come to symbolize the frustration of many attorneys, particularly those who work at the largest law firms, who chafe under long hours, big student debt loads, high stress and the tyranny of the billable hour.
"Within a few minutes of emailing my resignation, I was bombarded with messages from partners telling me I was doing the right thing," he says. His gumption caught the attention of the media and the hike was covered in the Des Moines Register, New York Post, and ABA Journal, among others. The online news organization Above The Law.com nominated him as Lawyer of the Year.
From that coverage, he says he heard from many more unhappy attorneys who wished they could do something similar.
He hiked across 13 states, starting in Delaware and wrapping up in California in November. Along the way, he overcame storms, floods, heat, open sores, altitude sickness and a bear that wanted his Snickers. He traversed two mountain ranges, a desert and who knows how many creeks and rivers. He cried in front of a West Virginia state policeman in downtown Parkersburg and spent a week at a Super 8 motel in Stuart, Iowa. In the end, the trip cost him $12,000, far more than he had budgeted.
The trek made him realize that lawyers are taught in law school to see things in black and white, to fear failure and to process the world as a series of risks, which is how he came to be standing on the side of a highway with no idea how to get to the other side. Finally, he said the problem took care of itself when traffic eased up enough to let him cross.
Coulson says he learned to embrace uncertainty and accept the world had grey areas. Most importantly, he remembered how to deal with people at a personal level, and not lawyer them.
"When you walk across the country you're going to have to rely on other people for help, but if you approach them as an attorney from the country's fifth largest law firm, they're probably not going to help you," he says. "It restored my pre-existing faith in humanity."
Coulson doesn't regret the time he spent in law school or at Sidley Austin. He made life-long friends, many of whom helped him during his hike, and he learned critical reasoning skills. Law school, he says, was a "profound and life-changing experience." He also appreciated the challenges both law school and practice offered, and overcoming them gave him confidence. But the legal system as it is now, he says, didn't work for him, nor does it work for a lot of other attorneys.
Coulson says he hopes to practice law again someday, but will be more careful when he decides his next job. For now, he's writing a book about his trip and his thoughts on improving law school and the legal profession based on ideas he's heard from other frustrated attorneys he's talked with since starting his walk.
Coulson blogged his walk at www.tylercoulson.com.
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500
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