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

  1. UWC says:

    I found your blog via a comment on the Amy Chua controversy. Your blog is wonderful and thought-provoking, and I look forward to seeing how things unfold.

  2. Ex-pat says:

    I just found your blog through a Vivia Chen article. I too just left BigLaw after nearly 10 years (not including summers) and I find it very compelling. I’m a new follower!

  3. Another MIT Alum says:

    Same here – was reading about Amy Chua and somehow stumbled onto your blog. I’m another Asian MIT alum (class of ’85). Just want to say good for you for having the courage to leave an unsatisfying Big Law job. I similarly left medicine after 9 years of full-time/part-time practice, finding it not as fulfilling as I expected and way too stressful. Up until then, I too had been on the StairMaster non-stop, from MIT to med school to residency to fellowship. For the past 6 years, I’ve been a stay-at-home mom to a 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. We live frugally on my husband’s salary, clipping coupons and budgeting carefully so that we can still save for the kids’ college funds. It’s been a big lifestyle change (and I never earned as much as you did in Big Law), but I have no regrets. You are not alone. It CAN be done!

    • everysixminutes says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience. It is always good to know that there are others on the same journey.

    • Doctor on Stairmaster says:

      Not so different story here, but I’m your ghost of Medicine past — still on the Stairmaster. I went to Berkeley, then on to a power-med school in California, residency and then Harvard for fellowship. I worked frantically and constantly (night/day — 36-hour shifts or more), fueled by status, thrill and fear. Ushered immediately into an academic appointment at a medical school where the next step was working for promotion from Assistant to Associate Professor, where “tenure” is achieved (except that it no longer is achieved, due to insufficient state funding). Made promotion in 8 years, and I’m now clawing my way toward Full Professor. Stairmaster. Never satisfied. I’m a few years shy of turning 50. I work between 75 and 105 hours per week. Seldom feel as though I’m producing enough, a mentality that is pushed, tacitly expected. Sometimes not so tacit. I haven’t yet found the courage to jump off. I know it’s irrational, I know it’s siphoning my life away, yet I buy into it.

      • Concerned at age 50 says:

        Commenting on stairmaster pursuit:
        I can appreciate the postings, having gone through an experience quite similar where achievement got gradually replaced by the kinds of fun that the job would offer but was not necessarily tied with increasing success. Going through severe illness after feeling for the past two years for the first time totally exhausted (having taken on another new and prestigious job), I am now looking for a way of softening the my work world without however, giving up the job. That will be a challenge, since it requires going against the tides of my long-established behaviors, initially as first-generation immigrant to the US, finally as returnee to my home country, which was like another immigration.

      • everysixminutes says:

        Doctor on Stairmaster: Thank you for being so honest. Something may seem irrational on the outside, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own emotional logic.

  4. Careared says:

    Great, thoughtful post! I can really relate to the stairmaster analogy. When I left my firm, I finally admitted that although I was moving upwards, in a personal sense I was going NOWHERE. In fact, that professional trajectory had caused my personal life to stagnate. The hardest part is knowing when to jump off the machine.

    • everysixminutes says:

      Thanks for the comments you have left on my blog. I really enjoy reading yours. It is definitely hard to know when to jump off the StairMaster. It is also hard to fight against the urge to quickly replace it with a treadmill or an elliptical… (As you can see, I have been going to the gym!)

  5. UWC says:

    Hi Everysix,

    Two points you brought up interest me a great deal, and if you have answers or could blog about them, I would appreciate it.

    (1) Finding your passion. I, too, wonder about this. Especially with the economy so bad, everyone is always exhorted to find their passion and make it their career (or, to be crass, to monetize it). But wouldn’t someone just naturally have a passion or know what it is, without the need to go looking? I know people who are very artistic and do hairstyling or interior design, which certainly suits them and which they love. But I myself don’t know whether I have a real, true passion. I feel more like a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none — a generalist rather than a specialist. This concerns me. The testing you are doing notes interests vs aptitude, which is a meaningful distinction. While I am competent and smart, I fear that have little aptitude or talent or passion.

    (2) For those of us not in the legal field, can you explain more about lateral moves? I know people who left the partner track because they hated it, but I don’t know anyone who has made a lateral move to a different firm. Why would one do this? What are the advantages and disadvantages”

    Incidentally, I smiled when you mentioned owning Subway franchises. I know people who say they never wanted a desk job, and so they have gone into the retail or restaurant field, and really have fun. One investment-baker acquaintance said he would be happier running a hot-dog stand if it paid better. (I am letting that Freudian-slip typo stand.)

    • everysixminutes says:

      Really interesting questions!

      I will address your first question more fully in Part IV of this series. For me, I define passion as an interest that I would gladly spend time and energy to master and perfect. It is often not easy to know what that is. I try to approximate by envisioning “wild success” mentioned Part II of this series. And, I have no shame in trying to monetize it, but I do believe that the order should be to find passion first, then monetize, rather than the other way around. But easier said than done. I am having a hard time doing the right way because it is very much against my natural tendency.

      People in the legal field make lateral moves all the time and for different reasons. I actually lateraled from one firm to another when I moved to London early in my career because I thought the second firm had a better practice in my field in London. Other people lateral much later in their career because they think it would be easier for them to make partner in the new firm. I talked a little bit about that here. Then there are others who lateral from a big firm to a smaller firm or a more specialized firm hoping for better clients, better hours, etc. Lateral movements occur frequently, and the examples I give here tend to be the typical ones.

      Btw, love the Freudian-slip typo!

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  7. This post really resonated with me! I love your comparison to the StairMaster, although for me, I felt more like a hamster running on a wheel – constantly moving in a mindless way but not really going anywhere. The ability to really experience life, as opposed to being numb to it, is truly something special. If that’s all I’ve gained in the past few months since quitting my big law job, then that in itself makes it all worth it.

  8. Former Big Law says:

    I left a Wall Street law firm a year and a half ago. I had been there just about two years but had been aching to leave since my first 6 mths there. It takes perhaps a year to adjust, but I have remembered that I am a happy person after all! And all my friends still at BigLaw are still miserable — and have made no progress whatsoever in making changes. Congrats for getting out!!

    • everysixminutes says:

      You are spot on. When I am down (which is not as often as I expected, but did experience a more prolonged bout when I was sick), I try to remind myself why I decided to quit. I try to remember this “straw”. I try to remember in vivid details my past life in BigLaw — what it was like to pull an all nighter, what it was like to participate in a 5-hour conference call on a Saturday morning… Sure, I am only focusing on the downside, but sometimes I gotta do what I gotta to get myself over the hump.

  9. 3L says:

    Thanks for the post!

    T minus six days till I have to let my BigLaw firm know whether I am taking their offer. NO IDEA what I’m going to do!

    It’s a great firm, but the thought of making it my LIFE makes my heart hurt. I lose sleep over it. I would happily take the job, even at half the salary, if I were guaranteed a relatively normal work week–one that let me come home at night, cook dinner with my partner, and chill out on the couch with my Netflix; turn off my phone when I go home to see my grandma; and really be part of the community where I live. Oh yes, and have children and actually be there to help them with homework and tuck them in at night. Is that so freaking crazy? If that were an option, my decision would be a no-brainer. I know a lot of people who feel this way, so why this idea considered such heresy?

    Unfortunately, I also lose sleep over the possibility of being unemployed with a giant pile of debt…siiiigh.

    • everysixminutes says:

      I hear you 3L. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. You can go into BigLaw for a couple of years to pay off your debt without making it the rest of your LIFE. Sometimes, it is just a matter to know when to jump off the StairMaster. I do have to say that I did learn some valuable skills while being at BigLaw and made some great friends. Good luck!

  10. 2.5L says:

    Also found this via your piece in the NY Times. And then I realized I interviewed with you about a year ago! Was disappointed to hear you had left and wouldn’t be around when I arrived last summer. But it sounds like you’re on an exciting new path, and writing a really great blog.

    I don’t think I mentioned this in the interview, because it wouldn’t reflect the kind of person a law firm would want to invest in (I imagine). But my plan is to spend a few years working in Big Law (probably one of the two firms you were with) to gain some experience, then do something more entrepreneurial. I don’t know about New York, where things are obviously a little more established, but at least out in Asia it seems like a lot of the people I know are starting up their own businesses, or are doing exciting work at other people’s startups, or have plans to. It seems like it would be quite easy to jump off the stairmaster and join them after a few years. But maybe the steadily increasing six figure salary is more addictive than this naive student is giving it credit for.

    One more thought, which ties in with the first. I think a lot of what we (or at least I) consider possible is heavily influenced by the people around us. So I also think one’s ability to get off the metaphorical stairmaster would depend on having maintained a network of friends who were doing other things (i.e. not big law, banking, consulting, or in-house law). So, for instance, I think it would be easier to transition if I end up working in Beijing (where the expat population and population in general are working in a wide variety of fields) rather than Hong Kong (where it seems to be finance, finance, finance!).

    Anyway, those are my thoughts. Have only read this one post (so far!), so hopefully I’m not repeating what’s in your other posts. And again, great blog!

    • everysixminutes says:

      Thank you for sharing your insights. I agree with you on both counts. I think it is much easier to “downsize” your lifestyle in Asia than in NYC. You can live very cheaply in mainland China and even HK. I don’t know as much about Beijing, but I do think China is more entrepreneur than HK. Most of the expats in HK are bankers, financiers, and lawyers. I’d be happy to talk to you more about my experience at the firms you are considering. Feel free to email me.

  11. 1L says:

    Found this blog through your NY Times piece. Great blog, very pertinent to my position right now.

    I probably stress over the question of whether to go into biglaw ten times a day. I’m currently at UCLA, and it seems that most of my peers are so dead set on the whole biglaw game that it is pressuring me to as well. I wonder to what extent peer pressure and what the people around me do will end up affecting my career choices. Funny how I never felt this kind of “go with the crowd” mentality in college. Oddly enough, law school itself (exams, memo-writing, cold calling) hasn’t turned out nearly as bad as people claimed, but this career anxiety that I feel is without a doubt the main source of my stress…I can feel my blood pressure going up just writing about it!

    I’m glad to read about your experiences, and you are a wonderful writer. Keep it up!

    New Reader

    • everysixminutes says:

      BigLaw is not necessarily all that bad. Although it turned out not to be my ultimate path, I know plenty of people who have enjoyed and thrived at BigLaw. You should try to check it out for yourself. Go through your OCIP and callbacks and check out as many BigLaw or SmallLaw firms as you can during your 2L year. Use your 1L summer to explore other positions, such as externship with judges, non-profits or government agencies. Good luck!

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