Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Part II – Do I Want to Stay in Law?

In Part I of this series about the decision-making process that led me to quit law, I talked about how I reached the conclusion that I didn’t want to gun for partnership at Simpson Thacher, in large part due to the fact that work/life balance for junior partners still stinks (as it does at all BigLaw firms) and it would have been an uncertain uphill battle for me to make it.

The logical next question was whether I wanted to make partner at a second-tier firm. Despite not loving drafting, a core task lawyers are called to do (as explained in theprevious post, it would still be an attractive career option to work at a law firm if such firm provided work/life balance AND it were easy for me to make partner there.

I believe that work/life balance, for a corporate lawyer in New York City — even at a second-tier firm — is a mirage. Maybe such balance is possible at a second-tier firm in a second-tier city like Albany or Salt Lake City, but in New York, and for that matter in other top American cities like Chicago and San Francisco, the scale is going to tip largely towards work. Global hubs like Hong Kong, where one particularly busy year I billed a whopping 2,700 hours, can be as bad as or worse than New York.

Legal recruiters often tout that such-and-such firm “only” requires 1,800 billable hours. But billable hours and hours at the office are two very different things. For example in early 2008, when the market was slow, I had relatively light year in London, with many fewer Perpetual Wednesdays. However, there were times after a slow day or week at the office waiting for billable work when I got hit with a last-minute deal that required me to work all night or all weekend. So despite billing only 1,500 hours that year, I ended up being at the office over 2,000 hours. And the unpredictability meant I still couldn’t fix evening or weekend plans and tethered to the blinking red light of the Blackberry.

The nature of being a corporate lawyer is that you are on call for the partners, who in turn are on call for the clients. And big city clients tend to expect round-the-clock availability, often on short notice. So much for work/life balance.

I suppose I could have considered relocating to a smaller city working for a slower-paced firm, but that wasn’t an appealing option for me, given the work is less glamorous and such firms aren’t necessarily hiring in this economy, not to mention the fact that my husband’s work is based in New York City. (And I’ll admit that the idea of retaking the bar exam in another state didn’t exactly make me jump up and down.)

Even if work/life balance were achievable at a second-tier firm in New York, it would still be difficult to make partner as a lateral, especially in today’s economy. Firms generally only make a lateral a partner if such person can bring a portable book of business (i.e., valuable clients) or has a niche expertise that is in high demand.

It is rare for BigLaw associates to have their own clients — it is not as if I could convince KKR or Blackstone, the private equity giants who are Simpson’s top clients, to follow me. And as a lawyer focusing on general mergers and acquisitions transactions, I am hardly a specialist lawyer, unlike friends who focus on more exotic fields like derivatives or banking regulations.

While I do know senior M&A associates from Simpson or Davis Polk without their own clients lateraling to second-tier firms with the tacit understanding of becoming a partner after a year or two (as opposed to going in as a partner right away, as they might have in the good ol’ day before the recession), they usually went to busy firms with a shortage of junior partners or senior associates and were expected to be “workhorses,” working long hours to prove themselves. So, by definition, they would not have work/life balance.

I should note that I had already lateraled once, albeit from one top-tier BigLaw firm to another, I didn’t want to go through the experience again unless the merits (i.e., work/life balance and the ease of making partner) overwhelmingly surpassed the efforts required. Not that switching from Davis Polk to Simpson Thacher was bad, but it was taxing to have to continually prove myself, adapt to different partners’ work styles, and befriend new colleagues.

So that all is why I pretty quickly ruled out the option of lateraling to a second-tier firm. That’s how things looked to me, but I do recognize that my generalizations may not be accurate. In any case, remember the premise of this whole discussion is that I don’t love drafting.

Another well-trodden option taken by fellow BigLaw “escapees” is working as an in-house counsel for a company. I did look at several in-house positions and even interviewed for a few. I probably didn’t do as much in-depth due diligence on this option as I could have, and it’s even harder to generalize about companies given their variety, but I felt that I got enough information to conclude that I had some irreconcilable problems:

  1. In-house lawyers are not main players in companies. They are typically viewed as bureaucratic overhead rather than being at the company’s core. Sometimes, they can even be viewed by the business people as road-blockers. I didn’t want to play second fiddle.
  2. The precedent-setting and headline-grabbing deals are usually outsourced to law firms like Simpson Thacher and Davis Polk. Many in-house lawyers end up working on small-fry plain vanilla contract work or worse, compliance work. I know this is a gross stereotype, but it applied more often than I liked in the in-house positions I looked at.
  3. I prefer clear structure with hierarchies, which is one thing I liked about law firms. There is a clear chain of command — who has the authority to delegate and who has the final say on the work product. In-house departments tend to have flatter organizational structures, something legal recruiters like to present as good things. But in some organizations flat structures can be without clear delineation of responsibilities. That’s not necessarily a good thing, at least not in my book.
  4. If I were to go in-house, depending on the industry and size of the company’s legal department, career advancement might be slower. I would probably go in as a VP or an associate General Counsel. Promotion opportunities can be sporadic and reaching the next rung could take several years, in contrast to the annual ladder-climbing at law firms. Moreover, there is no assurance the company would not parachute in an external lawyer (often a partner) to be the General Counsel.
  5. The point above is relevant to compensation. In-house lawyers usually make less — sometimes as much as 40% less — than BigLaw associates. Unless the job or the industry is particularly exciting, the money just didn’t — and doesn’t — seem worth it to me. I know this may sound jarring to many, especially in the current economy, but I have my reasons, which I will explain in full in a subsequent post. Money is going to be a lengthy topic.

So, by this spring, I was working under the assumption that being a corporate lawyer is not my destined path, a scary and uncomfortable thought. I really didn’t want to face the discouraging thought that everything I had worked so hard towards was futile and that the next milestone was invisible. When I was young, a random palm reader exclaimed at how long my career line was on my palm. Was she wrong?

The subject of my next post will be how I dealt with the idea of quitting law.

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