Quitting BigLaw: Part I – Why Is It So Hard?

As mentioned in my last entry, I am going to write about what it takes for associates who are thinking about quitting BigLaw to actually do so. I am going address this topic in four parts: BigLaw life and why is it so hard to quit; the three questions every BigLaw associate should ask him or herself; some practical tips to consider before quitting; and where I am now (a final added part that will feed nicely into my next quarterly review).

Some of what I am going to say in this series may sound familiar to regular readers of Every Six Minutes. There are some similarities to what I described in the “Breaking Up” series. I wrote that series shortly after I quit to account for my thought process leading up to leaving BigLaw. This new series is a cumulation of what I have learned since quitting and provides a broader perspective.

It can be dangerous to speak broadly about BigLaw associates. To be clear: I am not trying to persuade anyone to quit BigLaw. Every one will have different reasons to stay or to quit, and I don’t presume to know which are right or wrong. However, based on the feedback I have received since starting this blog, I hope that many of you will find this series helpful in thinking through what you want out of BigLaw.

Without further ado, here is Part I of the “Quitting BigLaw” series.

Dear weary BigLaw Associates:

Now that you have earned your year-end bonus (a rather disappointing sum based on the reactions I hear), some of you can’t bear the thought of slaving away at BigLaw for another year. You dream about quitting, but feel trapped not knowing what you would do next.

I know how you feel. Six months ago, I was like you — an overworked mid-level associate comfortably stuck in the bosom of BigLaw and yearning to be free from it all.

In my Missoni dress with my Blackberry clutched in hand, I strode into my office building, an impressive Midtown skyscraper. My heels clicked on the marble floor as I flashed a quick smile to the security guards. I was the image of a confident put-together professional woman, as I had always wanted to be. Yet my stomach churned nervously with each blinking red light of the Blackberry…

Hearing my assistant boisterously dashing towards the elevator, I knew it was 5:30 pm. I lifted my eyes from the contract agreement I had been drafting for hours, knowing I had many more hours to go. I looked longingly out of my office door as her footsteps faded away, consoling myself that I was being paid a quarter of a million dollars a year to work on front-page headline-grabbing deals…

At 3 am, staring at my “trophy shelves” of closing sets and deal toys under the fluorescent lights of the office, I nursed fantasies of making more money than the partners doing less prestigious, less intellectual tasks, like owning fifty Subway franchises. What happened to the dream of grandeur of championing change in the legal system that I had so passionately written about in my law school applications?

Not only had I made no change to the legal system, I sometimes felt that I had become a bottom feeder surviving on the crumbs from bankers, private equity investors, hedge funders — a servant to the top echelon of the financial ecosystem. My fellow JD brethren and I bemoaned the fact that these MBA hot shots, often the same age as us if not younger, made multiples of what we made while bossing us around. We concluded that we were at least as smart as them and worked just as hard, if not harder, and could be as successful — if only we took the risk of exposing ourselves to the elements of the market.

When I was by myself, without the bravado or the camaraderie, I tried to ask myself “Do I have the guts to take the risk? Can I go beyond BigLaw?” Every time these questions crept up, I suppressed them.

It is hard to imagine leaving BigLaw. It is an all encompassing cocoon in which we mature.

We strive for years to become a part of an organization that feeds us steady six-figure paychecks and provides us with a litany of perks — getting whisked away in black town cars (when making us work into the wee hours), flying business class to exotic destinations (only to be locked in windowless offices to conduct hours of mind-numbing due diligence), having generous gym membership subsidies (which only ended up making us feel bad for rarely having the time or energy to work out).

We long for some prestige from the string of names of bygone founders to rub off on us. How can mere names confer prestige? Yet when we hand out our elegant business cards with our names printed underneath the founders’ names, people — many people — are impressed.

These business cards say it all: we have arrived as lawyers at elite firms, the next logical destination, after doing everything right — being the top of our high school classes, attending Ivy League universities, and graduating from T-14 law schools with good grades.

Yet, after achieving what we set out to achieve, why are we disillusioned?

I know I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. “I know many associates in big law firms (I am one), and I know precisely ZERO who are ‘happy’ with it,” wrote one commenter on a legal blog. “Happiness found as an associate in a big law firm is just a form of Stockholm Syndrome,” said another.

Are we just cranky and entitled whiners? Aren’t we lucky to have survived the Great Recession relatively unscathed, unlike the backlog of unemployed recent JD graduates saddled with six-figure student loans or the troops of lawyers who got the axe?

Why don’t we just put up or shut up? Why is BigLaw so hard to quit?

The StairMaster that is BigLaw

More than the money, the prestige and the job security, I think it is because we are comfortably stuck on the StairMaster of being a BigLaw associate. Just as a StairMaster features an revolving set of steadily moving steps, we relish being on track along a steady upward career trajectory that we have known and lived for all of our lives thus far. We need to know what to expect in our next step.

We work hard, bill hours, get a bump in salary with every year that passes, become the go-to person to powerful clients who actually know our names, have an increasing army of minions to boss around, and eventually graduate to face the ultimate test of making partner or not. Some lateral to other firms along the way while others go in-house to climb alternate versions of the StairMaster.

To follow this clearly defined path, we willingly toil under the fluorescent lights as new transactions descend in front of us and we climb endlessly and relentlessly with no respite in sight. We console ourselves with the number of calories burnt on this machine; we march on, preferring not to face the unknown.

Six months ago, I got off the StairMaster. I set out to climb a mountain, to search for something more creative and fulfilling, to find a career that makes me happy. I may not burn as many calories climbing this mountain with its winding paths and unpredictable ascents and descents, but I feel alive — to experience the world I’ve yet to know and to push past limitations I’ve yet to test.

In the next installment of this series, I will reveal the three questions that helped me decide whether to stay or quit.

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