Every few weeks, an e-mail arrives in my Inbox from a law student or lawyer who’s read my About Me section and sees that I too once studied the elements of a tort and knew what kind of consideration is required for a contract. These e-mails often marvel at the fact that I made a career for myself as a food writer while simultaneously earning a law degree that now sits, gathering dust, in a frame leaning against the wall of my childhood bedroom.
“How did you do it?” is often the question and my answer is usually a shoulder shrug. The truth is that I never set out to become a food writer, I just knew that I wanted to be a writer and I wouldn’t let go of that dream no matter how hard law school tried to shake it from me.
Looking back on it now, though, I realize that, without really knowing it, I was laying the groundwork for a career as a food writer. From the books that I read, to the meals that I ate, to the posts that I posted on websites like eGullet and Chowhound, the seeds that sprouted into a full-fledged food career were all planted in law school.
Here, then, is some concrete advice for anyone unhappy in law school who wants to make it in food. With the job market being the way that it is, this advice may actually prove to be more lucrative* than anything you’re learning in class…so pay attention! [* Note: I am saying this tongue-in-cheek. In a single day, the average lawyer makes more than what the average food blogger makes in a year.]
1. Go to school as little as possible. In law school, I was the weirdo who came and went as I pleased, to the point that several people in my section were convinced that I was some kind of legal genius who didn’t need to study or attend class. Hardly! The truth was: I was just miserable. I skipped the classes that I hated the most (notably: Constitutional Law, at 8 in the morning, with a teacher who sounded like Al Gore on sedatives). When it came time for exams, I crammed like crazy and earned Bs and the occasional A. The truth is that if you buy commercial study guides and study the major elements of every subject, you’ll do fine. Meanwhile, this skipping of class will confer upon you an outsider status that’s very important in building a career as a writer. When you’re an outsider, you’re an observer and writers are observers. If I had to guess why so many people fall unhappily into a law career that they don’t want, it’s because they fall into a social vortex: they attend classes with the same people, attend study groups with the same people, write on legal journals with the same people and, ultimately, get hired by law firms with the same people. That’s a fine trajectory if you want to be a lawyer, but if you want to be a writer…don’t let it happen!
2. Read food blogs in class. I can’t remember if we had WiFi in our law school when I was there back in 2001, but surely law schools have Wifi now? I remember back then, every laptop was usually flickering with some kind of game while people simultaneously goofed around and took notes during the lecture. (God forbid a professor should call on you. If that happens, just pretend like you know what you’re talking about, as I did in Civil Procedure—a class that made zero sense to me.) Use an RSS reader and load it up with food blogs: Eater, Serious Eats, and all the personal home cooking blogs you know and love. Read them not just for fun, but for ideas. You’ll eventually be starting a food blog, but not in your first year…
3. Use your first year to plot your course. It’d be virtually impossible to start a successful food career in your first year of law school. Instead, use this time to simmer and stew in your own creative juices. What’s weird is that, for me, going to law school forced my hand; in college, I was a creative writing major with no sense of urgency. So I wrote whatever I wanted and nothing was particularly great. In law school, I suddenly had this fire underneath me: if I didn’t create something worthy, I’d be sitting under fluorescent lights for the rest of my life. I equate it to a glass of water sitting on a table. That glass of water isn’t doing much; but shove a fist into it, and the water will come sloshing over the side. So think of law school as that fist and allow it to force creativity out of you. If you really are a creative person who’s meant to be a writer, you’ll feel pent up and eager to save yourself. As the ideas come, write them down. I use the Stickies app on my Macbook, but use whatever you have. And as you start to look at these ideas, hone them. Is there a theme? Would they work best as a blog? A book? An article for a newspaper food section? Are there little ideas you have time for now? Choose the best and then….
4. Put some stuff out there. During this period of plotting your course in the food world, feedback is really important. It’s easy to be misguided about your own talent. So put some stuff out there: write a post for Serious Eats or Food52 or another site that takes outside contributors. Gage the reaction you get. Did your post garner 800 comments and set the world on fire? Did the post go by without a peep? When you wrote the post, which did you enjoy more: the writing of it or research part of it? Did you enjoy the experience of putting yourself out there and can you imagine doing it day after day for the rest of your potential food writing career? Or did posting it fill you with dread and self-awareness and a feeling that you’d rather be dead, cold in the ground, than to have to go through that again? These are important things to know before making any major life decisions.
5. Eat adventurously. If you’re serious about wanting to be a food writer instead of a lawyer, you’re going to have to eat outside your comfort zone. Ideally, you WANT to eat outside your comfort zone—that’s why you want to be a food writer. So even though your classmates are probably going as a group for lunch somewhere like Panera bread or Le Pain Quotidien, you’re going to have to sneak off to try that banh mi in that weird building in that out-of-the-way part of town. You’ll be eating alone a lot, but this will help you build up your outsider/observer skills. Take pictures with your phone of the meals you eat; you’ll want to have a record for later, if you ever want to write about any of them. Try to educate yourself as you go, too: learn the names of dishes that you didn’t know before. How to pronounce them. How to order them. Where to get the best versions. Use Twitter to reach out to food writers you admire to find out these things; these relationships, as they grow, will prove valuable later.
6. Read food books. Though reading for pleasure is almost unheard of in law school, I always made time for it. Again: I knew I wanted to be a writer and a writer reads. A writer doesn’t read text books on property disputes; a writer reads literature that’ll help make them a better writer. So you should always be reading a book for pleasure (try doing it before going to bed) all throughout law school. It doesn’t have to be a food book, as long as it’s a book that inspires you creatively. At some point, though, you’re going to have to dip into the food writing canon. Start with M.F.K. Fisher’s “The Gastronomical Me,” that’ll get you started. Then move on to Calvin Trillin or Jeffrey Steingarten or Ruth Reichl or any food writer who piques your interest. This is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to do this professionally: if you’re going to enter a field, you have to understand what’s come before. This is especially true in the field of food writing.
7. Start a food blog in your second year. Even if you don’t want to be a food blogger, this is a good, constructive way to start your food writing career while you’re still in law school. Your second year will be far easier than your first year—you get to choose your classes instead of having your classes chosen for you—so you’ll have more time to do this. I started my food blog in my third year of law school (in January, to be specific) and I found plenty of time to post about Martha Stewart’s pecan white chocolate chip cookies and my night of 1,000 sorbets. This launching of your blog will be a truly important moment for you in setting yourself on a law-free life. Feel the urgency as you go about it: if this blog is successful? If you get a book deal? If you build up an audience of hundreds of thousands of readers a month? Millions? You won’t have to be a lawyer: you can support yourself as a food writer. So use this time to make that happen. [See my How-To Section on Food Blogging for more specific how-to-start-a-food-blog advice.]
8. If it doesn’t happen, get a food job. In the summer between your 2nd and 3rd year of law school, you’ll be encouraged—in fact, urged—to work in a law firm. After all: this summer job is very likely the job you’ll have upon graduation. Of course, there’s the question of your happiness and psychological well-being, so do this instead: get a job in food. You’ll baffle your family, you’ll baffle your classmates, but this isn’t about them. This is about you. Consider a job interning for a food publication, like Food and Wine or Bon Appetit, or a hands-on job like working on a farm (as Amanda Hesser advised in her post about food writing) or a job in a restaurant, either in the kitchen or front of the house. The point of this is to see what a career in food will be like for you. You may also hate it. Maybe the law won’t look so bad after working as a server for a summer? Or maybe you’ll love the restaurant experience so much and get so much out of it that when you graduate you immediately open one of your own? It’s impossible to know until you try. Plus, with your food blog still going, you’ll have an outlet for sharing these experiences which may turn out to grow your audience significantly.
9. Face the music in your third year. Now’s the time for ultimate reality testing. You’ve been blogging for a year, you’ve worked a food job for a summer, how are you feeling about things? Do you think you’ll make it as a food writer? More importantly, are you enjoying the food writing you’ve been doing? Would you rather be doing that than practicing law? Or are there things about the law that you like? Will you be content doing something you enjoy for much less money than something you don’t enjoy but is far more lucrative? What’s more important to you: comfort or contentment? If you’re truly struggling with this, start a journal or see a therapist. The latter may seem dramatic, but this is the rest of your life we’re talking about here, isn’t it? This is the time to work things out.
10. If you decide to go for it, really go for it. The key to this is taking away the safety net. While in school, you were still living like a college student—care-free, lackadaisical, whimsical. Upon graduating from law school, you need to cut yourself off financially from any support systems that may be in place. You need to force yourself to survive as a food writer. Hopefully, at this point, you’ve figured out your talents—now use these talents to support yourself. This is the most important advice of all: if food writing is just a hobby for you, it’ll be a hobby forever. If you make it your primary source of income, it’ll become your career. So create a situation where that has to happen and it will happen. That’s how it happened for me. For my first few years supporting myself as a food writer, I felt like I was ice skating around an abyss. I was certain that, inevitably, I would fall in and have to dig up that law degree and prosecute toxic torts for the rest of my days. But that abyss is your friend: it forces you to skate harder, to seek out opportunities, to make a career for yourself in a way that you wouldn’t have to if the abyss wasn’t there. And the faster you skate, the further and further away from the abyss you get until one day, eight years later, you find yourself sitting at a comfortable distance with one food book under your belt and a cookbook on the way. The abyss is still there—you can see it in the distance—but at this point you can be pretty certain that you are officially a food writer and definitely not a lawyer.