Today, I am sharing my conversation with David Sparks. David practiced law for close to 30 years and he has only recently left his job in the law to focus on his growing side hustle, MacSparky.
In our conversation, we spoke about many different things including what he has found surprising about leaving the law, some of the responses he’s received, and lots of other things.
I’m excited to share this conversation unique story with you. So, let’s get right into my conversation with David Sparks.
Going Into The Law
David reflected on his entry into the law by the recommendation of a federal judge who was serving as a debate tournament judge that David had one. The thought had never occurred to David before that, but it planted a seed. He went to law school feeling that he could make a difference as a lawyer.
Like many who go to law school, David realized that it does a poor job of preparing you to be a lawyer. You learn lots of theory but never any practical knowledge. Then you graduate, and you’re flung into something completely different.
However, David did well in law school. He was genuinely interested in the intellectual exercise of being a lawyer, He enjoyed the process and felt that this was something he could do. After graduating, he chose a small law firm instead of the more popular route of working for a large firm.
David wasn’t going to allow himself to become a part of that system. From the very beginning, he was doing it on his terms and was very comfortable with it.
Practicing In The Law
David was quite happy working in the law for almost 30 years. He was not one of those statistics of lawyers that are miserable being a lawyer. He was a business litigator doing a lot of trial work. Trade secrets were one of his specialties, but there was a lot of general business litigation in a small firm.
Like every young lawyer, David often found himself having that crisis of, “What if I do this wrong? I don’t want to let these people down.” As you know, it can be tough not to get so emotionally invested in everything you do when you’re first starting as a lawyer.
But eventually, David worked past that. He did well as a trial lawyer but started to lose faith in the litigation system. He wasn’t doing any good in the law. People were just taking advantage of the system.
Shortly after, David started seeing more interest in transactional law and slowly began phasing in that direction. This was what he called preventative law, which keeps clients out of the litigation phase.
In the background, David had always been passionate about technology. In fact, he was one of the first people to do PowerPoint/Keynote presentations.
People would ask him all these questions, so he started writing about how he was using the program. That developed into a growing side hustle that David named MacSparky. He reflects on it as the second career that he never planned to have.
Over time, blog posts turned into opportunities to guest on podcasts, which eventually evolved into David having his own podcast. He guest spoke at some events, which then led to book deals. Shortly after, David started publishing his own books.
David never wanted his coworkers in the law to know about this side hustle. However, the information was eventually leaked at a Christmas party. It was surprising for him to see his coworkers looking him up online to see what he had been up to.
To some degree, it almost felt scandalous. After a while, they settled, and nothing more was said about it. But while his coworkers didn’t take it all that seriously, MacSparky was undoubtedly growing into something big for David.
Trying To Balance The Law And A Growing Side Hustle
After years of trying to balance the two, David eventually left his job in the law to pursue MacSparky full time. This came after a peer group within MacSparky urged him to make a change because of the growth.
When David thought about a client reduction in his practice, it wasn’t difficult for him to go from taking on half the amount of clients to deciding to leave altogether. MacSparky wasn’t just an outlet for David any more. It was a real business with a real purpose. That purpose was to help people figure out technology.
He had only kept his job in the law as a parachute, should MacSparky never take off. But, David was making a good income off of this growing side hustle and the parachute of the law was increasingly revealing more holes.
So, David decided to leave his practice and go out on his own. However, this didn’t last long. He stopped practicing the law altogether because MacSparky and the law were no longer compatible.
Leaving The Law For MacSparky
Surprisingly, David got an overwhelmingly positive response to his decision to stop practicing as a lawyer. Some were very negative as well, but David took that as insight into how people view change and risks.
David was comfortable with his decision, so he never let the negative views get to him. But, even some of the people who “made it” in the law and other industries were congratulating David and expressed their happiness for them. And some even admitted that they had also been trying to find a way out of the law.
The thought that all these successful people were looking for their next move was really eye-opening to David. And he took that in stride as he left to pursue his growing side hustle full time.
MacSparky is no longer David’s side hustle, but his full-time career. He produces multiple podcasts like The Mac Power Users, Automators, and Focused. David also creates other products like Field Guides which are in-depth training videos for technology. And he has recently launched MacSparky Labs, where you can subscribe and get even more in-depth training.
Thinking Of Freeing Yourself From Your Job In The Law? Here’s What David Had To Say:
If you are unhappy with the law, you need to start making choices. That doesn’t mean you walk in and hand in your notice today. Instead, you start thinking more about what gives you purpose. Forget about the water under the bridge. Where would you like to spend the rest of your days?
The bottom line is if you’re not happy putting the word partner after your name, is that going to make you any happier? Because you’re going to be doing the same thing.
Start taking steps. That means working some weekends to develop those other ideas and doing some exploring. You may think, “I want to make apps,” and then go to an app boot camp. apps. Maybe you’ll find you hate it and that isn’t actually what you wanted to do. Just start exploring.
And, if you need some help with those first steps of getting out of the law and finding something better, watch my free masterclass, The Simple 5-Step Framework To Identify An Alternative Career (That You Actually Like!).
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Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.
Hello everyone. This week on the podcast, I am sharing my conversation with David Sparks. David practiced law for close to 30 years and he recently, in the last year, left law to focus on what had been his side hustle, macsparky.com, full-time. We talk about a lot of different things including what he has found surprising about leaving the law after him practicing for several decades, some of the responses he's received, and lots of other things. I'm excited to share this conversation with you, so let's get right into my conversation with David Sparks.
Hi, David. Welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.
David Sparks: Thank you, Sarah. It's a pleasure to be here.
Sarah Cottrell: I am excited to hear your story. I read your recent, or maybe not so recent, blog post about stepping back from practice, but let's start with you introducing yourself to the listeners.
David Sparks: Yeah. My name is David Sparks. I started practicing law in 1993. Now I'm no longer doing that, so it's been a journey for me.
Sarah Cottrell: How long has it been since you decided to step back?
David Sparks: I made the decision in October of 2021, but it took three months to get the practice shut down. Effective January 1st this year, I have no longer been practicing law. I'm three months in. I'm still in the honeymoon.
Sarah Cottrell: It's always amazing. Let's start where we start on this podcast with pretty much everyone, which is let's go all the way back to when you were deciding to go to law school. Why did you decide to become a lawyer?
David Sparks: I pretty much fell into it to be honest with you. I came from a very blue-collar family. My dad loaded lumber on a truck, and me being a lawyer never really seemed like a thing. I was an aerospace engineering major but somebody told me, “Hey, engineers are not very articulate. You should do something to work on that, so when you get started, that'll help you.” I joined the debate team in college and I found I was really good at it. I was winning tournaments and doing really well.
At one point, I had won a tournament and a federal judge was the debate tournament judge. He took us to dinner and he's like, “Oh, you should go to law school. You're very good at this.” The thought had never occurred to me, honestly, before that, and then it planted a seed. I ended up going to law school. It was really a journey. I really did it because I felt I could make a difference as a lawyer. I loved the idea of big unanswerable questions, and that's what lawyers deal with so often.
My dad was really concerned about it. He said, “I'm not sure you should do this. Being a lawyer will compromise you in ways that you don't expect.” That really stuck with me. Going through law school, I wanted to be the right kind of lawyer. That question really helped keep me on the right path through the career. I wasn't somebody that grew up wanting to be a lawyer. I kind of fell into it.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. A lot of people have ideas about what law school is going to be like, but it sounds like for you, maybe you didn't necessarily have particular expectations, or maybe you did because you had this idea of—which is true for so, so many lawyers, people who choose to become lawyers go to law school because they really care about the big issues of the world, they care about issues of justice, they go to law school and then often people find themselves on the back end of law school practicing a type of law that they didn't necessarily anticipate going into law school.
For some people, it's because the experience of law school is very different than what they expect. Then for some people, often, you have two extremes, either people say, “I loved law school, but then I started practicing and didn't necessarily love that,” or “I really didn't like law school but I thought practice would be really different,” which it is very different from the experience of law school. What was your experience?
David Sparks: I feel like law school does a poor job of preparing you to be a lawyer. I feel like it's a place where you spend three years learning the science of baseball but you never actually pick up a bat. Then you graduate and they're like, “Okay, here comes the fastball. Do what you can.” There is something to that. To me, the first day of law school, I'll never forget this, because once I had made the decision, I was very dedicated to it. I did really well in school. I did really well on the LSAT. I was fortunate enough to have a scholarship going to law school. Again, we just didn't have much money.
I was in the first day of school and I had my property law teacher who was in the process of making her own textbook but it wasn't done yet. For her class, we always had to go to the library and copy cases every day. First day of law school, I'm in line at the copier and there's a woman in front of me in line, and she's copying something cases as well. She's copying them one page at a time. I said, “Hey, if you hit the reduce button…” this is 1993, guys, actually this is 1991, guys, so I said, “If you hit the reduce button, you can get two pages on one sheet and it's pretty readable.” She's like, “I knew that.” She really just bit my head off and I was like, “Whoa.”
Then I was so new to law school that a librarian walked in and said, “Do you know there's another room with copiers in it?” I'm like, “I didn't, but now I do so I will use that.” I go to the other room, make my copies, and as I'm walking out the law library, I look into the first copy room, I see that woman still there at the machine, and she's using the reduce button. She wouldn't tell me, “Oh, thank you. That's a good idea.” She wanted to make sure she knew that she was smart enough to already do that but she was choosing not to.
Then as soon as I walked out of the room, she started using it. You have these moments in your life and I'm like, “Oh, wait a second. This is what I'm getting myself into,” and I'm like, “It's not too late to stop. It's first day, I'm on scholarship, I'm really not out of pocket, a whole lot of money here. I could walk away from this right now.” I thought, “No, you know what, that's silly. It's one person. I'm going to see this through.” But I'll never forget that moment that I almost backed out on the first day.
Sarah Cottrell: That's so interesting because I think different people would have very different reactions to that experience. As we talk a little bit more about your story, the whole tech-ish side of things I think definitely comes into play again. You're in law school, you have this moment at the very beginning where you're like, “Maybe this is not…” and then you're like, “Oh, no, that's just not reasonable.” By the time you were graduating from law school, did you still have any of those lingering thoughts or was it like, “Okay, I'm here. I'm graduating. I'm going to be a lawyer and that is the path that I'm on”?
David Sparks: I found out that I was good at it. I did well in law school. I was genuinely interested in the intellectual exercise of being a lawyer, finding the cases, making the arguments. All the mechanics of it, I enjoyed. I enjoyed the process. I felt like, “Well, this is something I can do.” That conversation with my dad was coming back, I'm like, “I can do this in a way that can be good and help people and not over bill.” Then I went out into the world.
I didn't mention, while I was in law school, I guess I was an extern, I hadn't graduated yet, but I spent a half a year with a federal judge doing a lot of his research and writing his bench decision stuff. I had quite a bit of experience by then and I felt like, “Oh, I can do this in a way that makes sense.”
I intentionally chose a small firm where they said I would be able to do early trial work. I took the road less traveled for people. So often, the big goal is to go to the big firm, make the big bucks. Right from the very get-go, I decided I wasn't going to get on that hamster wheel. From the very beginning, I was doing it on my own terms and I was very comfortable with it. Honestly, I was quite happy I was a lawyer for almost 30 years. I was not one of those statistics of lawyers that are miserable being a lawyer. There are a lot of people like that.
Sarah Cottrell: There definitely are. There are. It's interesting, you practiced for almost 30 years but ultimately you decided to step back from practicing. Can you lay the foundation a little bit in terms of what you did over the years of practice and ultimately what you were doing that you decided to step back from practice and how that developed?
David Sparks: Yeah. It was a very unusual path. I was a business litigator, did a lot of trial work, trade secrets was one of my specialties, but there’s lot of general business litigation in a small firm. Then when I first started, as every young lawyer probably experiences, I had that crisis of concern like laying in bed, what if I do this wrong? I don't want to let these people down. It is tough when you first start not to get so emotionally invested in everything you do.
But eventually, I worked past that. I did a good job of being a trial lawyer, but I started to lose faith in the litigation system because I felt, to me, so often, we would work so hard and the client would pay so much money and then we'd win and the guy would move to the Philippines with all his money. It was just always something weird, or they declare bankruptcy. So much of the process started to feel gamesmanship to me.
The copy lady, there were more people like that that I experienced in litigation than any other area of the law where people were really just taking advantage of the systems or a judge that wasn't as strict as he should be or she should be. I felt like I wasn't making progress, I wasn't doing good with my life in litigation. Any litigators out there will know what I'm talking about. I don't really need to go into detail. But I started realizing I was more interested in transactional law and just slowly began phasing my career into transactional law.
I was trying to do what I called preventative law, like, keep my clients out of litigation if I could, make a good contract; when there's a problem, figure out a creative way to solve it before it becomes a nuclear war kind of thing. Eventually, I left my firm of some 22 years and went out on my own and took a bunch of clients and just continued doing that. But at the same time, I've always been a geek my whole life and I've always had an interest in using technology. Of course, I brought that interest into the practice of law.
I was one of the first people doing PowerPoint/Keynote presentations. I was doing all this stuff. People would ask me questions about it, so I started writing about how I was using it. I'm an Apple enthusiast, largely the Mac. This is back when people in the courtroom laughed at you when you brought a Mac into the room. I started writing blog posts. I started guesting on some podcasts.
That developed into this thing that I call MacSparky, if you go to macsparky.com, you can see my website. I started making content for that and that started to become a side hustle before side hustles were actually a thing.
Sarah Cottrell: I realized that you were doing your own tech geek stuff all along, but in terms of the actual website and that sort of thing, when did that come about?
David Sparks: I started to go public 2005, 2006-ish. I made MacSparky in 2007. But that was the separate career that I never really planned on having, where the blog post turned into guests on podcasts, and the podcast turned into my own podcast. That turned into me speaking at the ABA Techshow. That turned me into me speaking at other things, which eventually landed me a book deal and I wrote a couple books. Then I started publishing my own books. This stuff just started snowballing on top of itself. I built this little, I guess, educational business on the side of being a lawyer. It's been really a series with me for about the last 15 years.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. You were doing that and then you were also practicing law first at the firm, and then you said you went out on your own. Can you talk to me a little bit about balancing those two things?
David Sparks: Sometimes I did it good and sometimes I did it poorly. My goal at the firm was for them to never know about it. I was hoping that if I dropped dead one day, they'd learn about it at my funeral because I felt like they might consider it like a lack of loyalty. You know how lawyers are, like, “No, you can't be doing any other thing. You have to just be doing my thing.”
Sarah Cottrell: Yes, I do know how lawyers are.
David Sparks: Then I told one of the partners because he was a pretty good friend. Then one year at the Christmas party, he got drunk and told everybody about it. I'll never forget at the Christmas party everybody pulling out their phones and looking me up on the internet and just being shocked about all the stuff I was doing.
But they never really took it that serious. They thought it was a joke. I guess that was my thought at the beginning too. I had some information I wanted to share, it wasn't a serious thing. But it really was growing into something. That's why I left the firm, frankly, was because they kept putting me on cases. I was the guy you would fire out of a cannon at a problem. That was hard because I would be trying to make a product for MacSparky and then suddenly, I'd get stuck in a three-month trial. I was just like, “I can't do this anymore. I've gotta have more control.”
When I left, they were genuinely concerned for me, thinking like, “You're going to go off and do the stupid geek thing, you're going to starve. You've got a family and kids. You should stay here and just do this.” All of a sudden, big offers are coming out and kind of the usual nonsense when you give your notice.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. “No, really, we actually want you to stay.”
David Sparks: Yeah. I don't want to mistate that these were nice people that had been my mentors and teachers my entire career, so I get it. But I think there was genuine concern for me, but at the same time, I felt like I could do it. So I did, I went out on my own for seven years and had my own practice, and it worked. But it was getting increasingly hard.
The thing that was really resonating with me was just an underlying frustration. A client calls it a problem and I need to drop everything for that problem, but I've got this other thing. It really started to feel like my life's purpose, at some point, like, “No, MacSparky is more than just me being geeky, it's me helping people figure out technology.” We're at this point where technology has always been the friend of productivity and people trying to get things done. But things have gone horribly wrong. Silicon Valley has figured out that they make more money not by making you productive, but by figuring out ways to get you to look at their app all day.
There's a lot of really smart people spending their day making these toxic applications that grab your attention and focus, and keep you from doing what you're put here on Earth to do. I feel like I can help people work their way through that, and that's more important right now than writing a contract. I was facing this underlying frustration about this, but I still always felt like I would be a lawyer until they put me in the ground.
The reason is because it was like the safety net or the parachute. I guess I thought it was a parachute like, “What if the MacSparky thing just one day goes away? What if people stop listening to the podcast, stop buying the things I make, how am I going to pay the bills?” I was like, “Well, I'm a good lawyer. I could always make a living as a lawyer.”
Last year in October, I have a peer group of people that did online content and we try to keep each other honest. I was bemoaning to them. It's like, “I didn't get as much done this year because of the law practice and everything.” They're like, “Well, you need to come up with a better plan.” My friends in this group said, “You know, you have a week. Tell us how you're going to make it better next year.”
While we're on the call with these friends, I was thinking, “What if I got rid of 25% of my clients? That would satisfy this peer group and I would maybe have more time and things would work better.” We hung up the call and I just set aside two hours to think through this problem of my life of riding two horses. It was shocking to me that within an hour of thinking about it, I had gone from 25% to 50%, but if I give up the 50%, how much am I making off the law practice and taking on the risk of malpractice and all this other stuff and still allowing other people to hijack my calendar?
I went from a small reduction to, “What if I just won't be a lawyer anymore?” I had never really given myself permission to ask the question because I always wanted the parachute. But then when I started thinking about it, the parachute was getting full of holes because I was spending half my time working on the other thing. I'm not sure the parachute would have saved me anyway. Very quickly, I came to the realization that I'm not going to be a lawyer anymore. It was a surprise to me.
Sarah Cottrell: That's so interesting. You use the word permission, giving yourself permission, and I think that so many lawyers have that experience of either that moment where they start to give themselves permission to think about something else or just the experience of running up against the fact that they are just not letting themselves think about it as an option, which actually reminds me, I'd love to talk briefly about something you mentioned when you left your firm to go out and solo, and then also work on the tech stuff on the side, that people were genuinely concerned about whether or not you would be okay.
I wonder what your thoughts are in terms of whether lawyers are more likely, than the average person, to look at something like that decision that you made and think like you're breaking a mold and it just is inconceivable and it feels very unsafe. Do you think that was part of the reaction that you were getting?
David Sparks: Yeah. It was a very unusual shift saying, “Oh, I'm going to make a podcast and do stuff on the internet and make these things I sell on the internet.” If I had been saying, “Oh, I just took a job for a mortgage company, I'm going to become their vice president and help sell mortgages,” they would have been like, “Oh, yeah. Good job. Go do it. Good for you.” But I'm going to be this nerdy guy that's going to go out and do speaking and talk about tech on the internet. It's like “Are you kidding me? Is this some kind of joke? You can't make a living that way.” It was just such a different move for them.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Was that in 2014?
David Sparks: Early February 2015.
Sarah Cottrell: Okay. It was relatively recently. It wasn't at the point where people are like, “The internet, what's that?”
David Sparks: Yeah. Honestly, by then, I was already making good income of MacSparky because I had started it 10 years before that. I knew that I had a cushion from MacSparky income if I didn't get enough clients to go with me. But I did and it worked out great. But also, that was a challenge, running your own practice and doing this thing. I didn't get as much independence as I would have liked but I didn't get shot out of any more cannons, which was nice. Very shortly after that, I just stopped doing litigation altogether. I didn't take any litigation cases which was the first step toward freedom for me.
Sarah Cottrell: I hear you. I started out as a litigator. Also, the other thing that you mentioned, I think the reality is that as lawyers, because what we're doing is fixing or helping people with really significant problems, even if it's on the transactional side, those things can come up very quickly. One of the things that I hear a lot from my clients, lawyers who are wanting to move into something else, is that they don't like how even if they are working less or working with less clients, there's still, you mentioned, that volatility of schedule where if a problem comes up, if there's an issue, if there's a filing, if there's a deal that needs to happen or whatever, there still is that volatility that's inherent in being the person who helps with the problem.
David Sparks: Yeah. There is. I talked about how early in my career, I would worry about my clients and have trouble sleeping. That also become an element for me last year, I realized that because I had been really picky about the clients I kept, they had all become my friends and they would get into these serious problems, and it was hard for me to disengage emotionally from it, which was another nail in the coffin of my law career. You really can't live as a lawyer that way. It'll tear you apart.
In hindsight, all the signs are pointing towards me stopping being a lawyer, except in my brain, I just hadn't got there yet. It was more shocking to me than a lot of people who knew me when I announced, “Okay, I'm going to shut this down.”
Sarah Cottrell: Oh, that's so interesting. Sometimes I think people around us can see it as a more logical step than we do. I think part of it is, like you said, so many people who become lawyers, that identity of being a lawyer, the perceived safety net, like you said, or the parachute, especially because of the training, the training that you go through that helps you think about every possible thing that could go wrong and try to mitigate or protect against it or resolve it if you're on the litigation side, I think that you end up in this situation where the idea of, “I'm going to step away from this thing that feels like my parachute or my safety net can be an extra obstacle that people in other professions may not necessarily encounter in the same way.”
David Sparks: Yeah, absolutely. Honestly, I don't have the answers for it. I've got an audience, so I've heard from a lot of people now thinking about the same thing and they're like, “Well, where are you going to be in 10 years? What's your plan if this thing falls apart in 10 years?” The answer is I don't really know. As a lawyer, I was going to be a lawyer until I stopped, until my career ended. But with this, I don't know where it goes in 10 years. I'm in my early 50s now, but I don't really care, honestly. I think if I just focus on being good at what I'm doing now, then I'll find my way. I'm comfortable with that, but that's not something everybody is comfortable with. I get it.
Sarah Cottrell: It sounds like from what you said that you of 20 years ago wouldn't necessarily have said the same thing about making a dramatic move like that.
David Sparks: Yeah, absolutely. One of the things I came to realize about myself—my parents both grew up in the depression and they had a hard depression. I don't want to get into all the details but they had a hard time growing up—as I was growing up, they just drilled into get a job, be really good at it, and make yourself valuable to your boss. That's the way you get through life comfortably. You'll get the gold watch and everything will be okay, just do that. Don't take risks. That's something that I struggled with, honestly. I still struggle with it a bit.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. That's something we talk about on the podcast a lot, that yes, lawyers may overweight the risks in various things, human beings might, but at the same time, a lot of us have either ourselves had experiences or our families of origin had experiences that legitimately created real trepidation about doing something that is risky. There is that piece of it as well.
I am interested, you mentioned people reaching out to you after you went public with the news that you were stepping back from practice. I know before we started recording, you mentioned about a lot of people who are very unhappy with being a lawyer, which wasn't necessarily your specific story, can you share a little bit more about what the reaction has been to your decision to stop practicing?
David Sparks: It's interesting because in my friends and family circles, it was overwhelmingly positive, but there was some that were quite negative. I got some insight there about how people look at changes like this and the risks involved. Almost to a person, the people that were negative were people who were in current life situations where they're struggling, seeing me have something a law career and throwing it overboard to them is personally offensive. It's like, “Why would you do that? If I had that, I'd be so happy. Why would you do that?”
You get that kind of reaction when you start telling people around you. I figured that out and I was okay with it. It actually gave me a lot more compassion towards negative reactions to me when I told people about it. But the interesting thing was after I went public with it through MacSparky—we've got a pretty big audience between my podcasts and the things I make—I heard from people all over the world and a lot of them were young people that are starting out and having second thoughts.
But even more of them were people around my age, middle age people who have “made it”; heads of surgery, tenured professors, and people like that say, “Man, I’m so happy for you and I'm trying to figure out how I get out of it too.” Just the thought that all these people who had “made it” are looking for their next move was really eye-opening to me. I think you assume that you get on a career path and that's it for your life, but that's not it for a lot of people.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think part of what is so interesting is that my experience with lawyers is a lot of people, when they're unhappy in their job, look at the people who are ahead of them who have, like you said, made it and think, “Oh, well, when I get to that place, I'll feel different,” or “That is the thing that I should be aspiring to.” I've had a lot of conversations with people recently about this fact that getting to that place where you've made it doesn't necessarily change how you feel about the circumstance. I think it's really important for lawyers who are listening who are thinking about “Do I want to do something else?” to think about not what it's going to look but how will it feel to live that life, especially if what you're doing is not really working for you right now.
David Sparks: If you're not happy putting the word partner after your name, is that going to make you any happier? Because you're going to be doing the same thing.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes.
David Sparks: I always equate it to drinking salt water. If you're out in the middle of the ocean and you're really thirsty and you just say, “Well, I'll just drink this salt water and it'll be okay,” but you know what, it never will be, it's going to make it worse. That's not true for every lawyer out there but I do think people do need to poke their head up a little bit and look around.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think for all of the reasons that we've discussed and for other reasons as well, it can be really difficult to do that. You mentioned that a lot of these people who are reaching out to you are farther along in their process. I graduated from law school in 2008 and I practiced law for 10 years and I left in 2018. When I started Former Lawyer, I assumed just because by nature of what I talk about in terms of my story, that the people who would be most drawn to it would be people with a similar tenure in the first 10 or so years, maybe a little bit more.
Certainly, there are many people in that space, but I also work with a significant number of people who are 15, 20, 25 years in, and a lot of those people will tell me, “I literally knew the first year of practice this was not for me.” But for various reasons, some that we've talked about, they find themselves 15, 17, 20 plus years in, and really getting to that point of like, “Okay, this never really was a fit,” and essentially having this feeling of how did it go on this long.
David Sparks: I have those feelings about myself sometimes. I'm not sure. I'm between two poles, really because even though I did litigation, I've never been an aggressive confronted personality. I realized that about myself early in the practice. I ran into, back in the day they called them the Rambo Litigators. But I found that I could be much more effective, juries would like me more, I could get a witness to say a lot more in a deposition. If I went in and just was my genuine self, which I'm actually a pretty compassionate person, I want to hear your story, so then it became like, “Okay, maybe I'm not what you would think of as a dog fighting litigator, but I'm an effective litigator in the way I am.” I just have to write this, make it this way.
I was trying to embrace who I am in that environment, but looking back, maybe I should have looked at that as say, “Maybe I just don't belong here.” I don't know. It's hard to tell. I don't regret it. I feel like all the stuff I did taught me a lot about myself and other people. It gave me skills that helped me make MacSparky a thing. I don't really know. I really don't like to get hung up on it too much, but I do understand where those people are coming from.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think one of the things that I tell people is your process is your process. It's so easy at some later stage, years down the road with more years of experience and just more perspective to think, “Oh, it was so obvious. I should have known then blah-blah-blah.” But it's one of those things where I tell people that life doesn't really work that way. Ultimately, you have the realizations that you do at the time that you do. It doesn't mean you were doing something wrong earlier or that you “should have known”.
Because a lot of the things that keep lawyers who aren't happy in their jobs in the law are real things like family obligations, financial situations related to law school loans in particular, and then all sorts of other things. What I tell people is that you can't change what you did before and you don't need to. It's really just like, “Okay, what do I know now based on the information that I have?”
I think that your story is a great example of that. I think people could look at your story and think, “Oh, this was the master plan that you had from the beginning.” I think you would probably say that it's not accurate, is that right?
David Sparks: No, absolutely not accurate. The day that I had that meeting with my peer group, the morning I woke up, if you said, “Hey, are you going to ever stop practicing law?” I’d say, “No, I'm going to practice law.” That was my standard line. I'm going to do it till they put me in the ground because it's going to take care of me and my wife until my old age. It was only forcing myself to be more introspective about it that it suddenly dawned on me that, “Hey, wait a second, you're trying to do two things at once here. You're headed towards trouble.”
I really did start to feel like I can't keep riding these two horses. When you're a lawyer, you don't want to let your clients down. You don't want to let them down because in my case, most of my friends, I want to make sure that they're taken care of, but also I don't want to commit malpractice. That's a risk.
Then the MacSparky thing has just been growing. The only thing holding it back is that I've got this fireman's life where anytime the bell rings, I have to stop and go put the fires out for a law client. They're just no longer compatible. Like I said, it was a sudden decision for me 15 years in the making.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. When you get emails from people who are in this position, either in law or just well into their career and have made it and realizing that this is not it, I imagine that sometimes people ask for advice. Do you have advice for people who are listening who might be in those positions?
David Sparks: Yeah. I think it's very difficult advice to give because you have a career that's taking care of you, but if you need to get out, I also think our time on this Earth is shockingly short. I can tell you that none of us are getting out of this alive, and if you are unhappy, you're only going to accelerate that date. If you really are unhappy, you need to start making choices. That doesn't mean you walk in and hand in your notice today, but instead, maybe you start thinking more about what is it that gives you purpose. Forget about the water under the bridge, where would you like to spend the rest of your days?
Start taking steps, and that means working on some weekends to develop those other ideas and doing some exploring. You may think, “I really want to make apps,” and then go to an app boot camp, make a couple apps. Maybe you'll find you hate it and that isn't actually what you thought you wanted to do. You just gotta start exploring.
A shocking thing to me is when I decided, I actually called up several lawyer friends saying, “Hey, I'm thinking about doing this. Tell me if you think I'm crazy.” Including the old mentor who thought I was crazy when I quit my job at his farm years ago. When I told him, I shared making pretty good money on this other thing and he's like, “You should absolutely do the other thing. It shouldn't even be a question.” It was good to hear from him. The shocking thing was so many of my lawyer friends are miserable. One of my lawyer friends said, Dave, you are like the guy in Shawshank Redemption. Have you ever seen that movie, Sarah?
Sarah Cottrell: I know that there's a part where he's out of the prison and there's rain.
David Sparks: Yes. First of all, anybody listening should watch Shawshank Redemption. It's one of the best movies ever made. It warms the cockles of your heart. But either way, this guy is wrongly convicted and put in jail. The big thing is he spends years, he has a plan that takes place over many, many years. When the ultimate time comes, he has to crawl through the sewer, literally the pipe full of you know what. Then he gets out of the pipe at the end and it's raining and it's like a baptism moment. He's standing in the rain with his arms out and free at last moment.
My friend said, “Dave, it's the Sparkshank Redemption. He's like, “You just went through the pipe. You got out and you're standing in the rain. The rest of us are still in the sewer full of you know what, behind you, and we all hate you for it.” I just didn't realize how many people are unhappy as lawyers. That's no way to live your life.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think for a lot of different reasons, there are many, many people who find themselves as lawyers and it really is not a good fit for them. I hear from a lot of them because of the work that I do. That is not surprising to me, but I think you're right. I think it is important for people to hear that even if that seems normative, because it's true of people around you that so many lawyers are unhappy in their jobs, that actually mean something like the fact that you are that unhappy is really an arrow pointing towards, “Hey, maybe you should explore your options.”
David Sparks: Yeah.
Sarah Cottrell: You mentioned you make products for MacSparky, so can you just share with people who are listening a little bit of what those are?
David Sparks: Yeah, sure. I am a big fan of the idea of multiple income streams. This has all grown organically over the last 15 to 20 years. But I started, I was writing books for Wiley Press, the company makes the Dummies books. I made a couple books about how to use your iPad at work, how to use your Mac at work, and that was okay. But those big publishing companies, they get all the money and when you're a tech writer for them, it just wasn't really that worth my time. But it was cool seeing my books in Barnes & Noble for a few years, that was fun.
But ultimately, I went to self-publishing because I had grown this podcast audience. My main podcast is called Mac Power Users, but I have another one called the Automators, which is even more geeky, and one called Focused, because like I was talking about earlier how tech is stealing our focus, I really feel like the ability to stay focused on what you want is the superpower of the next 20 years, so I have a podcast about it.
I've got these shows with pretty big sized audiences. People listen to me every week and occasionally, I'll make something and ask them for money. The podcast makes money from the sponsors and then I make what I call the MacSparky Field Guides which are in-depth video training on different aspects of technology, whether it be how you do task management or database systems. If you go to macsparky.com, you'll see there's a whole bunch of them there.
I make these and I sell them. I have different customers. Some of my customers are people who don't listen to the podcast but discover the guides and want them to learn and they buy them and I'm happy. Some of them are people who listen to the shows and buy them and learn, and some of them just buy them because they listen to the shows and they want to help keep me afloat. I'm thankful for all of my customers. I've got those products between the podcast advertising and the Field Guides.
When I decided to hang up the law practice, one of the things I was never able to do at MacSparky is share a lot of behind the scenes stuff because it's just too hard to do when you've got client data and everything else on your computer. When I shut down law practice, I opened a thing called MacSparky Labs, which is now only three months into existence, but it's a yearly subscription thing and if you sign up, you’d get even more content from me, all sorts of things from, I just published one this morning about what's in my menu bar, but I did a deep dive video training last week with some of my higher tier members about how to use dictation. I have a lot of different content channels that go out through that. But that's another way I monetize.
I've got these various ways that I make money. My job now is, I guess you could say content creator but I just cringe at the term. I like to think of myself more as a teacher. I make a lot of free stuff and I make some stuff you pay for. I equate my career to being like an indie band. I've got enough people that like my albums. As long as I keep making good ones, they'll keep buying them, but I'm not The Beatles.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. I can't remember if I said this while we were recording, but the way that I found out about you is that my husband, who is also a lawyer and as I mentioned before we started recording, just left his law firm job before a job in legal tech, which is very exciting. But he's an avid listener of the podcast and sent me the link and said, “This is someone who you should have on your podcast.” I can attest there are many fans of your work.
As we're wrapping up, is there anything else that you would like to share from your story or some piece of advice that you haven't had a chance to share yet?
David Sparks: I'm really early in the journey of being a former lawyer. One thing that I was thinking about before we started recording today is it's shocking to me how little I miss it. I got pretty good at making deals for clients. As a transactional lawyer, I represent a lot of small independent developers that would get hired by big companies like banks and insurance companies to write their apps. I got really good at making those deals work for my clients, because a lot of times, those big companies have these boilerplate contracts that are horrible. But I got good at working my way through those terms with corporate counsel and getting good deals for them.
I had pride in what I was doing and I just don't miss it at all and it's shocking to me. I'm having so much fun with the new thing. That's part of it. The Labs is new for me so I'm getting all the back-end stuff figured out on that. But I thought I might miss it a bit and it's shocking to me how it's like another lifetime ago for me already. I made my license inactive. I didn't tear it up, I just made it inactive. You can do that in California. But honestly, I can't imagine I would ever go back to it after just three months.
Sarah Cottrell: We're recording in mid-late March. That's so interesting because I have heard that from many people where there was this question of how am I going to feel about it and then this surprising realization of “I feel great about it and actually do not miss it.” If people want to learn more about you and your work, where can they find you?
David Sparks: If you just go to macsparky.com, everything is there. There are links to the Field Guides, the podcasts, the Labs, all the stuff that I make for the internet is at that location. It's not focused on lawyer. I didn't mention, but very early in the journey of MacSparky, I realized I don't want to become a tech consultant to just lawyers, I want to just share things with the world, so it's not lawyer focused. I have a lot of lawyers that follow me, but it's not really meant to just be for lawyers. I'd encourage you to go check it out. Check out some of the Field Guides. There are some free ones too, so you can check them out, see what you think, and I hope you dig it.
Sarah Cottrell: Awesome. Thank you so much for sharing your story today. I really appreciate it.
David Sparks: Thank you so much, Sarah. This has been good therapy for me. I needed it too.
Sarah Cottrell: Have you watched my free masterclass, The Simple 5-Step Framework To Identify An Alternative Career (That You Actually Like!)? In this master class, you'll learn the proven framework that I use with all of my clients to help them identify an alternative career. You can watch the masterclass right now, just go to formerlawyer.com/masterclass, sign up, and get the link to watch. Once you've watched, message me or email me and let me know what your biggest takeaway was from the class. I would love to know.
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