< back to articles listings

From Barrister to Barista: A Lawyer’s Journey

by Jay Reeves |

The secret to a happier and more successful Law Life is as simple as a cup of coffee.

It can be regular, decaf or latte, as you prefer. Or even hot chocolate, chai or – for us Carolinians – sweet tea.

The only requirement is to prepare it yourself and serve it – preferably with a smile – to someone else. Do this regularly, and your Law Life will percolate impeccably.

I speak from experience, having owned and operated the coffeeshop Vinyl Perk. And while it’s probably an overstatement to say that little café saved my life, it certainly brought me immense joy and meaning and – in ways I could never have predicted – a renewed enthusiasm for the law.

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

Truth be told, I was burned out. This was in 2008. I’d been practicing law since 1981, most recently representing lawyers in licensing and disciplinary cases. A quarter-century of seeing people on the worst day of their life had taken a toll, though I didn’t fully realize it at the time.

Meanwhile, on the home front, I lost both parents almost simultaneously, and I watched as my four children grew up and began leaving the nest. Vividly I recall waking one morning with an unbearable weight pressing down on my chest. I knew something had to change.

And then, through a series of seemingly random events – and, it must be said, the help of a wise medical mentor – I found myself on Main Street in Pocatello, Idaho, negotiating with the owner of the historic Yellowstone Hotel to lease a small space on the bottom floor.

Thus sprang Vinyl Perk, a small patch of Eden that combined two of my great passions: coffee and vinyl records.

One More Cup of Coffee for the Road

From day one, Vinyl Perk was a turnkey operation. By that I mean I turned the key to unlock the front door in the morning and I turned it again to re-lock it at night. In between, I did everything from washing dishes to working on my cowboy accent to whipping up our signature Dark Side of the Moon Mocha.

Along the way, I learned some incredibly valuable lessons I wish I’d been taught in law school.

For instance: the customer is not always right – although it’s usually best to let them think they are. Exhibit A was Jimmy, a manly man whose day job was jumping from helicopters to extinguish wildfires atop the Bannock Range.

“Let me tell you a few things about coffee,” said Jimmy, on his first visit to Vinyl Perk. “You might want to take notes.”

And as he proceeded to spout off a torrent of mostly-erroneous information, I dutifully wrote in my journal – not transcribing his “facts,” but making out the daily shopping list. Arguing over the difference between medium and dark roast was not a hill I chose to die on.

“Thank you, Jimmy,” I said as he paid and left.

And I meant it, because Jimmy became a regular customer who often brought his firefighting friends.

I Like the Java Jive and It Likes Me

Another lesson: you never know who might come walking through the door.

In 2013, Vinyl Perk opened a North Carolina branch in Carrboro, within sight of the legendary music venue Cat’s Cradle. One day, I noticed an elegant woman in bohemian attire standing on the sidewalk, listening to the music coming from the outside speaker.

“I like what you’re playing,” she said, entering The Perk.

“Me too,” I said. “It’s James Taylor. He grew up here.”

“I know,” she said, smiling. “He’s my brother.”

It was Kate Taylor, a terrific musical artist in her own right, in town for a show at the Cradle. We spent the next half-hour sipping chamomile tea and spinning her 1971 debut record “Sister Kate.”

Good To The Last Drop

The most important lesson of all was gratitude for the privilege of serving others.

I recall a middle-aged couple who burst into The Perk late one afternoon. They were visibly distraught, having just dropped off their only child for her first year at UNC-Chapel Hill. They wanted coffee for their long, lonely trip back home to Maryland.

“It’ll be a few minutes,” I said, explaining that we brewed each cup using the Chemex pour-over method.

“A few minutes!” said the father, anxious to hit the road. “We can’t wait.”

“There’s Open Eye down the street,” I said, although I’d already started their coffee. “And a McDonald’s.”

But the mother had drawn closer to watch as I poured hot water over the filter. The bed of freshly-ground beans bloomed like a beautiful black rose.

“It smells so good,” she said.

“Wait until you taste it,” I said.

And maybe it was the enticing aroma, or the gorgeous sunset, or the accumulated stress of an emotional day, but something made their expressions soften and their shoulders relax. They took a seat. As Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” played in the background, they drank their coffee and shared with me – a total stranger – their hopes and fears and dreams for the child they were leaving behind.

The Best Way to Find Yourself is to Serve Others

There is no higher calling than to be of service to our brothers and sisters. It gives our lives shape and meaning. Over time, I’d lost sight of that truth. In fact, I’d gotten it exactly backward. I thought the whole point of life was to serve me.

I started feeling an itch to get back into the law. But in a different way. I formed a company to help lawyers create purpose, profits and peace of mind in their practices.

My wish is that you’ve already got those three things in abundance. Who knows? Maybe soon our paths will cross and – perhaps over a cup of coffee – you can tell me all about it.

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms create safer, saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

Read More by Jay >

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Newsletter Signup