Dudas: Creative outlets help lawyers connect the dots

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connecting-the-dotsEditor’s note: This is the introductory Connecting the Dots column by Richmond attorney Amy Noe Dudas. Her column will explore attorneys’ experiences at the intersection of legal practice and seemingly unrelated hobbies.

A lot of lawyers have a pretty standard career trajectory: student council; political science major; law review; moot court; juris doctorate; bar exam. This provides us with knowledge of the underlying theory of law, analytical skills, critical thinking, perhaps a little writing ability and a tiny bit of litigation practice.

Many of us then maintain a standard professional presence while in the practice: 60 hours a week in the office; nonprofit boards; bar association functions; church; family; a service organization or two; and the occasional talk to local senior centers and young professional organizations on estate planning.

I never wanted to be a lawyer. As a little kid, it was never an answer I gave to the grown-ups who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I have always had a variety of interests and talents that I was free to explore and cultivate by indulgent and empowering parents (thank you). And while the law kind of fell into my lap and has provided me with the opportunity to eke out a decent lifestyle, it is not my whole world. For a while, I became resigned to the belief that I was stuck practicing law in order to fund my hobbies. But not only has my legal proficiency enhanced my skills in avocational pursuits, my participation in wholly unrelated activities has actually made me a better lawyer and, dare I say, a better world citizen overall.

But it took a good many years to figure that out. Until recently, I truly believed becoming a lawyer had sucked the creativity right out of me. And I hated it for that.

dudas-notes-dot-columnWhen I was 5 years old, my family went to see “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” at the movie theater. Some kids were terrified by the ethereal creatures gliding peacefully out of the spaceship, but I kind of wanted to join Richard Dreyfuss on that vessel. It imprinted on me, and I was intrigued by the simple melody above that was used to communicate with the aliens. Upon arriving home, I perfectly picked out the notes on our black lacquer upright piano, prompting my bewildered parents to beg the local piano teacher to take me on before she felt I was old enough to get anything out of lessons. I was creative (weird?) from an early age and marched to the beat of a different drummer. (This was before nerds were cool, which meant I endured a fair amount of mockery — now called bullying — from some that I’ve never fully forgiven and probably should. But that’s a column in an altogether different publication.)

I left music behind when I went to college but soon discovered theater, spending my time outside of class and study climbing high around the catwalks, learning to design stage lighting and wearing deck crew black backstage. This had nothing to do with my English and French literature double major but was a crucial part of my education. And law school was definitely not on my radar.

Plagued by the common liberal arts major question of “now what?” after graduation, I went to law school because I actually couldn’t think of anything better to do. And so, after the cocooned liberal arts environment of norm-challenging and independent-thinking, I became a lawyer. In that world, “reasonableness” is a perfectly normal way to measure a standard of care, not an utterly subjective touchstone. The rules are the rules, no exceptions, only subject to interpretation based on a strict set of standards. Writing must be concise, logical and direct. The more formulaic and template-adhering a pleading is, the better. I became a robot, cranking out logical subject-verb-adjective-object arguments on forms that looked like everyone else’s, right down to the 12-point Times New Roman font using cryptic symbols, antiquated language and redundant phrasing.

After years of infallible logic and analytical precision, I realized what I had misplaced: creativity. After all, when a lawyer is described as “creative,” the connotation is not often positive. I was uninspired, dissatisfied in a profession that spurns imagination, that rejects the unique, that demands uniformity. Where was that different drummer? She was suffocating under black suits and gray camisoles, stuffed in the bottom of my black leather briefcase that looked like everyone else’s.

I now proudly sport a hot pink executive backpack on my trips to the courthouse. But I digress.

When I realized my creative muse had been stuffed behind the law journals on the top shelf of my heavy walnut bookcase, I began stalking (not, of course, as the term is legally defined) the music director of a local community theater musical production so I could play flute in the pit orchestra. (It worked.) I craved more artistic opportunities after becoming reacquainted with music. And what I learned is that I had gained skills as a lawyer that can be described inartfully as “getting-it-done-ability.” So, I led the way in forming a volunteer community orchestra that allows local avocational musicians, including me, to have a regular opportunity to play and perform together. Ten years later, the Richmond Community Orchestra is flourishing and offers free violin lessons to area elementary school students. And I still play in it.

Now I’m music director for Richmond Civic Theatre’s upcoming production of “Young Frankenstein.” In the past few years, my husband and I have co-directed two theater productions there and recently formed the Dudas Inspiration Venue for the Arts (DIVA in this world of acronyms), a nonprofit organization dedicated to making the arts accessible to everyone, regardless of ability, income or resources (for more information, go to www.imadiva.org). To help fund the venue, we started an improv troupe (using grant-writing skills I would not have perfected but for the law degree) offering monthly (nearly always sold-out) performances.

Although becoming a by-the-book, template-testing, logic-loving lawyer motivated me to run screaming for creative avenues, that precision-driven profession gave me the skills to not only cultivate my right brain, but to also support the growth and flourishing of my own artistic ventures. Creativity has, in turn, seeped into my law practice, giving me more patience, empathy and productivity. And, I’ve switched to Garamond 12-point.

Being a lawyer has made me a better artist. And being an artist has certainly made me a better lawyer. It turns out that a seemingly unrelated interest may not be so unrelated after all.

This column is now dedicated to YOU — the lawyers who find nonlawyerly ways to feed your creativity and interests that have seemingly nothing to do with the practice of law. But I bet we’ll connect the dots. Tell me who you are, or those you know, at [email protected].•

Amy Noe Dudas[email protected] — is the founder of Dudas Law and co-founder of Dudas Inspiration Venue for the Arts in Richmond. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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