Alison and I have been talking a lot about jobs lately (really, who hasn’t?). And I decided I wanted to share why I left my biglaw because I hope it can help some of you make better choices for your future.
When I went to law school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.
I went to law school after working in high-tech consulting. To be honest, I didn’t love it. It was a good post-college job and I learned a lot, but I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. It was time to go back to school, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I am from a family of attorneys so law school was on the table and, clearly, was what I decided was the right path. But when I started law school, I did not know what sort of law I wanted to practice. I was there to learn a lot and figure it out as I went along.
Fast-forward to my 2L year and OCI.
Turns out I was pretty good at law school. When it came time for OCI (on-campus interviewing), I don’t even remember thinking about what jobs I would apply for. I basically applied for all of the firm jobs, because I could. I knew I was competitive for these jobs (good grades and prior corporate experience) and the people at career services (as well as others around me) were telling me that if you could get one of these jobs, you should. So I tossed my hat into the ring.
Multiple interviews later, I selected a firm where I wanted to be a summer associate. I liked the firm and, more importantly, I liked the people that I had met at the firm. I told myself the same thing almost every summer associate does, “I will do this for a few years, pay down my debt, and then I can do anything I want.”
But when I think back about the entire process, I never really asked myself if big firm life was what I wanted. Sure, it was very attractive—prestige, good money, etc. But was it really the path I wanted to take? However, there wasn’t much time to ask myself this question, as off to my summer associate experience I went. The summer went well and I received the much-coveted job offer. As the legal market was starting to quiver from changes in the economy, I snatched up my offer and felt very thankful that I had a job when I graduated.
Another year goes by and I start my short-lived career at a law firm.
After a much-needed bar trip, I returned to start my biglaw career. It was exciting and nerve-racking as all of a sudden I had my own office and even an assistant. I spent most of my time doing document review (which necessitated getting new glasses, quickly) and writing responses to motions in limine. My job was fine, but it wasn’t really exciting. I wasn’t feeling challenged or even that I was practicing law. I looked at the attorneys a few years ahead of me, and they were doing much same work that I was. And to top it off, the economy was going down the tubes and work was drying up. People were getting laid off and there wasn’t enough work to go around. Because of this, I would be light on billable hours during the week—and then get an e-mail on Friday afternoon telling me I would be working all weekend. This happened a few times. And if I couldn’t work (say, I was out of town at a family event), I felt guilty and as if my job was on the line. Because I was supposed to be available at any time.
It was during those quiet times in the office when I didn’t have billable work to do that for the first time I really questioned what I wanted to do with my legal career. The coveted job that everyone told me I wanted just wasn’t working out so well. I think probably because I never took the time to evaluate what was the best fit for me. Not just what kind of work I wanted to be doing, but the type of life that I wanted. I wanted to spend weekends and evenings (at least most of them) with friends and family. I didn’t want to spend weekends doing work fire drills because a partner decided on Friday night he needed something done (which could have been assigned out the previous Monday).
Then one day my assistant dropped off an envelope with information about grading for the California bar exam. As I read the paperwork, I realized that I didn’t want to grade for the bar exam, I wanted to teach people how to take the bar exam. And thus the idea for my first business Amicus Tutoring was born. And not too long after that, I gave notice at the firm and decided to work for myself, which has lead to lots of great things—teaching at different law schools and starting the Law School Toolbox and the Bar Exam Toolbox with Alison.
When I left biglaw, I was a bit heartbroken.
I remember the last few days before I left biglaw. Folks inside the firm (even very senior folks) came by my office to congratulate me on getting out (a bizarre response to my quitting, I must admit). And when the day came, I was actually pretty emotional about it. Although I hadn’t picked this dream for myself, it had become my dream—to be a successful corporate lawyer—and I was walking away from it, disappointed. It hadn’t been what I had expected. It hadn’t made me happy. I spent so much time in law school trying to secure that job and then I realized it wasn’t really the life that I wanted.
What can you learn from my story?
I wanted to share this story with you because I think it is a common story among successful law students. So many of us forget to ask questions about what we may want to do, and instead we get caught up in what we are supposed to do. If you can get a big firm job, you should. But I am here to tell you that although I don’t regret my decision, I do wonder if I would still be practicing law if I had chosen a different path. Not that I don’t love teaching and being an entrepreneur, but I have to wonder. However, when I was in school, very few people encouraged me to ask these questions about what would make me happy and be a good fit for me long term. And perhaps it was my fault, because I didn’t ask myself those questions.
Now, one caveat, I realize that for financial reasons, many folks can’t just leave their job and strike out on their own. I was lucky enough to be in a situation where I could take some chances. But you can still take time to make decisions—about the life that you want balanced with the realities of financial stability. And if you made good choices while in law school, perhaps you won’t need to quit your job early into your practice—but instead can build a career that will be the life you envisioned for yourself.
This dialogue is one of the reasons I am so passionate about working with law students and having real discussions about careers with law students and new lawyers. Because very few people (if any) had these discussions with me. And I needed these discussions. I hope we can help you decide what you want and then learn how to go out and get it.
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“But when I think back about the entire process, I never really asked myself if big firm life was what I wanted. Sure, it was very attractive—prestige, good money, etc. But was it really the path I wanted to take?”
I just left biglaw after a number of years in it, and cannot believe how happy I am and how much better the world is when one is not stewing in that toxic soup. Be assured, if you had stayed longer you would not have been sad to leave AT ALL and would have been just as gleeful. The people congratulating you on leaving have probably been miserable, overworked and underappreciated for years. We get one relatively short human life – in my opinion it is entirely wasted if we spend it grinding away at work someone else thought was worthwhile that only enriches a large partnership (that we’ll never be made part of). You made the right choice, never look back!
Thank you! I must say I love my work so much now that I don’t look back (all that often at least). I appreciate your note.
Your story could have been written by me. Getting top grades your first semester all of a sudden puts you on a path with seemingly limited options, based on the herd mentality of law school. “What does a smart law student do?” you ask yourself, and the answer is try to get a job at a big firm. Instead, questions I wish I had asked myself would be “what makes me feel alive?” “how do I want to connect with clients?” or “what do I value in a workplace?” Turns out, flexibility of location and time is hugely important to me, as is the ability to work directly with clients (not doing work that gets passed up to partner X to review and explain to client).
Hindsight is always 20/20 and I wouldn’t give up the lessons and substantive law I learned in prior positions, but I sure do know a whole lot moe about myself and my preferred work setting now than I did at 21 when I was ranked first in my class and got set on a path I had not predicted. Thanks for sharing your story – I hope it inspires some future talented lawyers to think about their own path rather than getting caught up i the herd.
Thanks for this post, Lee! It’s best to go down any path with eyes wide open, so it’s great that you’ve shared your experience with law students who may have similar career goals. What I think is so interesting is that with all the negativity surrounding biglaw, I rarely hear anyone recommend against it.
Amanda, that is such a good point! Although people who leave biglaw talk about the negative parts of it – I think it is still a heavily recommended option for law students who quality (and can land) these jobs.
That’s an interesting point, Amanda. IMHO, it’s important to think about the incentives here. Your school wants you to get a nice, highly paid job after you graduate, so they tend to encourage BigLaw for those who qualify, whether it’s in their best long-term interest or not.
Beyond that, it can be a good learning experience that pays well, but, as a wise older lawyer told me once, just be sure you can leave when you decide to, since most people don’t want to stick around all that long!
Big Law Rebel
This post is great, and your story is so similar to mine. I’ve gone into education as well, but I’m helping people with math. Congrats and good luck with everything.
Thanks for reading and commenting. I am glad you found a great landing place in education.
I just quit my biglaw job today! I have a sales/marketing role to start soon. Basically I was in biglaw for 1.5 yrs and junior enough to leave. FYI I have a business law degree. Anyway I felt like I was cheating on biglaw and today we got divorced lol. I spent years with him but he wouldn’t let me do other things – he was very needy :-p This was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do (I’m a risk averse 25 yr old). I’m so glad it’s over! I just knew right away that I didn’t fit in and what’s more I didn’t want to change my personality to fit in :-)Great post! I feel we have some similar experiences lol
Haha! I love the cheating analogy.
Best of luck!