Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Part IV – Dealing with the Emotional Niggles

I have been writing in this series the thought process behind my decision to quit law. The part that I wrestled with the most was dealing with a few emotional niggles, four to be exact. These niggles didn’t disappear when I gave notice. Indeed, I am still dealing with them. But as I have become more removed from the work environment, dug deeper into the underlying causes of these niggles, and gained new perspectives during the road trip and from talking to others, some of the niggles have morphed from hang-ups into challenges to better myself. This post will talk about this ongoing process, one niggle at a time.

Niggle 1. Not being able to leverage the hard work that culminated in being a sixth-year BigLaw associate

It took years of schooling and over tens of thousands of hours slaving away at the office to get to where I was. I put in a lot of hard work to build a professional identity that not all who wanted it were able to reach. And I was about to throw it away.

If I wanted to go into another profession, say consulting or an operational role for a business, I would have to start near the bottom. The idea of not being able to recapture the “sweat equity” that I had already invested in the legal profession bothered me.

Then, in an email exchange with a super-rational friend regarding my qualm, he replied, “you really need to recognize that you have a natural bias towards thinking that way, and consciously correct for it… what you did in the past is water under the bridge, a sunk cost… can’t be driving in the rearview mirror… make sure you don’t screw up your future because you’re trying to justify decisions from the past.”

My husband had been telling me the same thing, and hearing this “hard truth” from a third party helped to make something click in me. Indeed, if I were an investor in a company that I believed was likely to go under, the logical thing would be to sell the stake and salvage whatever is left. As described in the previous posts of this series, I had already reached the conclusion that being a lawyer was not my destined path, so why continue?

Thinking more clearly now, I don’t think all was for naught. The abilities of parsing through all the legalese, critically thinking through risks, spotting issues, multi-tasking, organizing and delegating tasks, and dealing with demanding or difficult people, among other things, are quite transferable. I guesstimate that I may be able to capture up to half of my lawyering skills in my future endeavors, whatever they may be.

Niggle 2. No longer having the prestige of BigLaw

I think a lot of my self-worth was – and still is — wrapped up with having a professional identity that is prestigious and lucrative (money will be addressed below).

I had a comfortable life growing up as an only child in Shanghai. In 1990, at the age of 13, I immigrated to Houston with my dad to join my mother, who had gone there the year before as an ESL (English as a Second Language) student after leaving a cushy accounting job back home. Other than the things that could be squeezed into the four large suitcases we took with us to the US, we had nothing.

My world was turned upside down. We suddenly became poor. No longer chauffeured to attend important business meetings, my dad worked menial jobs to enable my mom to continue her studies and to make ends meet. Gone were the days when I was a popular student with many friends in China; I couldn’t speak any English and dressed unfashionably funny.

With a lot of hard work, I eventually learned to speak English (starting from watching Days of Our Lives and other soaps on TV), did well in school, and made friends, in that order. Looking back, I am not sure whether my friends actually cared I was a good student or not — perhaps they would have been my friends even had I not done well in school. But I felt, rightfully or wrongfully, that accomplishment was the only thing that rescued me from my upside-down world. I thought to myself, circumstances may change, but no one can take away the things I achieved: school merit awards, MIT degrees, etc.

I equated academic achievements with prestige and I strived towards prestige. I did the same with my career in law. I took pride and comfort in my professional identity as a lawyer for Simpson Thacher and Davis Polk, two of the pre-eminent highly ranked firms in the world, at least according to Vault. As hard as it was to cut the umbilical cord to the bi-weekly paychecks, it was in some ways more difficult to eject myself from an organization that was part of my identity. The stark choice I faced was between being a BigLaw attorney or a “nobody”.

To complicate the matter, I knew that the sole reason my parents went through all the hardship to immigrate to America was to enable me to have a better future here. For me to be a “nobody”, my parents did not have to make such a sacrifice. I knew my dad took a lot of pride in my professional success (my mom passed away when I was in college). He kept — and probably still keeps — a stack of my business cards in his desk drawer. I was worried that my decision to quit law would disappoint him. Before I quit, I discussed my thinking with him. To my surprise, he full-heartedly supported it. He was actually concerned about the toll the job had taken on my health and my happiness.

Is prestige worth the happiness and the health? With my husband and my father’s support, I tried hard to push aside this niggle when I pulled the trigger.

In retrospect, I think the preoccupation I had about prestige was mostly in my own head. The irony is that many people outside of New York or outside of microcosms of law and finance have never heard of Simpson Thacher or Davis Polk. Moreover, at least in New York, lawyers aren’t even that highly respected compared to other professions. After all, “lawyers are lapdogs in the Wall Street palace of New York,” as one Above The Law editor put it.

Having said that, I still have this niggle sometimes. My struggle was apparently obvious to some of the readers of this blog. “Another in-house lawyer IV”, a commenter to Part II of this series, wrote:

“I find the following phrases incompatible and rather telling: ‘first-tier,’ ‘second-tier,’ ‘career advancement,’ ‘hierarchy,’ start as a ‘VP or associate general counsel’ v. ‘work-life balance.’ You are clearly very concerned with prestige (kudos to you for being so accomplished, etc.). When you let that go, maybe you’ll find something that meets your (adjusted) requirements.”

I agree. I am working on separating my next career choice from the need for prestige for its own sake. I do hope that one day I will have a fuller view of success.

Niggle 3. The idea and perception that “I couldn’t hack it”

When I was an associate, every time I heard other associates leaving the firm, especially relatively senior associates, my first thought bubble was usually “where are they going?”. The next was: “maybe they couldn’t deal with the hours” or “maybe they weren’t going to make partner”. Well, it was now my turn to be the subject of such inevitable conjectures. I suppose it served me right. Perhaps some even wondered whether I was fired.

The idea of other people thinking “I couldn’t hack it” bothered me and to some extent still bothers me. On the road trip, one person asked me what I did for a living, to which I answered: “I am a ‘recovering’ lawyer, just quit my job”. “Do you mean you are unemployed?” she asked skeptically. “Unemployed” is an ugly word. Especially in today’s economy, it implies a lack of choice. Part of me cringed. I could feel the need to explain my lack of professional identity rising in my chest.

I think one reason I am sensitive to other people’s perception is because I have my own doubts, despite the consistently positive feedback I got in performance reviews and the on-the-spot offer of a leave of absence when I gave notice. Do I have the technical ability to be a great lawyer? Do I have the persistence and the stamina to put in the grueling hours? Do I have the charisma to bring in clients? I know that the answers to these questions are moot because even if the answers are yes, I would still have quit, and in any case, I actually *have* quit. But these questions swirl in my mind every now and then and make me doubt myself.

Maybe I should just assume that I wasn’t good enough. At the end of the day, does it matter whether it’s “I couldn’t hack it” or “I didn’t want to hack it”? Whether leaving was truly a choice or not, the end result is that I didn’t hack it because I failed to pick a sustainable career for myself. I made a wrong choice and, in some ways, that is a failure.

So, I failed. It is not the end of the world. Buck up, stop the navel gazing and the worrying about things I cannot change. This is an opportunity to overcome my insecurities. I tell myself that my priority is to make sure that I don’t make the same wrong choice again. Easier said than done, I know.

Niggle 4. Not making money

This topic is going to be a long one and deserves its own entry because my relationship with money has been a complicated one.


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3 Responses to Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Part IV – Dealing with the Emotional Niggles

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