Second Life: How One Ex-Lawyer Ate Her Way Around the World

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When Canadian lawyer Jodi Ettenberg quit her job to go travelling in 2008, little did she realise that she would still be roaming the planet nine years later. Not only that, within two years of setting off she would manage to make a modest living from her travels, largely through writing about her experiences on her Legal Nomads blog to a growing fan base.

“I started travelling because I wanted to see the world and it became a business almost by accident,” says Jodi, 37, who recently set up base in the city of Oaxaca in southern Mexico after spending extended periods in southeast Asia – Saigon and Bangkok in particular – where the high quality and low cost of living appeals to western travellers.

Legal Nomads began life as a place for Jodi to blog about the street food she encountered on her travels – regular readers will know she loves soup and loathes olives – but the site soon grew into a resource for travellers as Jodi added insider tips and colourful guides to the places she visited. With over a million page views a year, Legal Nomads has become a platform for Jodi’s engaging storytelling and the best CV she could hope for. “By the time the second year was over, I had a bigger audience, an offer to write for CNN in Asia as a stringer, and a social media following – it was weird! I figured I would simply swallow my fear and see where it all led.”

Taking risks – albeit calculated ones figured out from a position of relative privilege – helped Jodi get where she is today. Aged 18 she went to law school for a bet – as a Quebec resident the tuition cost was low – and became a lawyer in New York at the firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP and then Davis & Gilbert LLP, specialising in corporate law before moving to new media and advertising. A trip to Siberia inspired her to take a sabbatical from the bar, and she’s yet to return – but at least she has this safety net should life as a nomad become weary. “In a strange way, I miss the pressure and the negotiating aspect of lawyering. I also miss my clients and colleagues, but they stay in touch and many follow my blog,” she says. “Understandably, people assume I burned out as a lawyer and quit to travel. But it really didn’t happen that way. I was planning to return to law but, in time, I found myself an entrepreneur and was excited to see where this would lead.”

The leap of faith and those long sleepless nights of anxiety that preceded it were definitely worth it, she admits. As soon as Jodi took the plunge, “the experiences, the people, the food, the understanding of just how connected we can all be – all of it comes out very quickly when you walk away from everything familiar”.

Having put funds aside for travel, Jodi estimated she’d need $15,000 for 12 months but by the end of her first year she’d used only half her budget and so decided to keep going. “I was fortunate to come from a profession that allowed me to save more quickly,” she says, “but I do think it’s important to have a game plan or at least a worst-case set-up in your head. It allows for the psychological comfort of knowing you have an idea of what to do if it all goes south.”

On average, her monthly expenses range from $500 to $750. Her current rent in Oaxaca is $250 per month, which includes WiFi, electricity and water. Legal Nomads has been profitable since 2010 and as the site has grown organically, so too have its revenue streams. Well-regarded as a travel expert, but also determined and curious, Jodi makes money by freelancing for various publications, public speaking, and offering guided food walks of the places she’s living in. Through her site she sells t-shirts, tote bags and posters displaying national “food maps” that she’s designed – a men’s shirt costs $24.99 – and in 2012 she distilled her global culinary knowledge to write The Food Traveler’s Handbook.

Unlike many bloggers, however, Jodi does not monetise her site directly, meaning she doesn’t have ads to worry about or sponsors to please with constant content. “The money I do make from the site, for example via the in-depth travel resources pages, is consistent from the work I put into building them. So readers do buy via my Amazon links because they know I’ve never taken a sponsored post, and I recommend it because I like the product.”

Ultimately, however well prepared Jodi was when she embarked on this journey, she’s under no illusion that each day brings new challenges. Even if that means tracking down the best new pizza joint in town.

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