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Leaving The Law: A Risky Career Change Toward Passion

NEW YORK (MainStreet) —The day I told the law firm that I was leaving was one of the best and most frightening of my entire life. On the long walk up to meet my supervising partner I had the vague sense that I was doing something wrong, like being sent to the principal’s office for some reason you can’t quite name. On my last elevator ride down from the 22nd floor I kept repeating to myself over and over again, “I really, really hope this works.”

For the first time in my life I felt like I’d rolled the dice in a huge way.

Last winter I decided to end my career as a litigator with a large firm. My work dealt with securities and white collar crime; if you ended up in court because of a financial transaction, someone like me was usually in the background. It made me incredibly unhappy. Although it took three years of law school, over a hundred thousand dollars in borrowed money and one brutal exam to get there, once I was in the front door all I wanted to do was claw my way back out.

I wasn’t nearly alone. A survey by the American Lawyer back in 2010 revealed that nearly two in three attorneys want to leave their firms, hoping to escape from jobs that the Syracuse Law Review once called “high paid misery.” Even the usually sunny Australians get into the act, with their Lawyer’s Weekly reporting a staggering 15 % depression rate across the profession. As any associate attorney will tell you, those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.

For most lawyers, myself included, the biggest problem is the hours. They never ended. They couldn’t end. In the law your hours are what you sell. “Biglaw” firms bill the client for every six minutes someone spends touching their case, measured precisely. Those six minutes are what the partners make their money off of, not what you produce during them. In the same way that Coke produces fizzy drinks and Apple sells phones, a lawyer’s product is his time, and the firm tries very hard to sell as much of it as possible.

The result is less of a job than a marathon, one without much light at the end of the tunnel. Fourteen hour days were common, and weekends became an opportunity to start at 11:00 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. Advancement offered more money, but at the cost of working still longer hours. Even out of the office I was always on edge. Through my Blackberry people could always reach me, e-mailing with “just one quick thing” at literally any time of the day or night. I was on call, like a surgeon but with much, much lower stakes. I’ve never known anyone to die because a research memo waited until morning. With the Blackberry in my pocket another shoe could always drop, and I always knew it.

Over my years in practice I gained approximately 25 pounds from inactivity and stress eating; night after night spent in the office folding salt and sugar onto my tongue. When the work is that dull and the hours that hopeless, when even sleep doesn’t help because it’s only a four-hour nap and showers get interrupted by the Blackberry, you just actually need to feel something.

Although to me it felt like I waited a long time to get up and leave, this situation is not uncommon according to Judi Lansky, a Chicago career coach who’s seen a lot of professionals over the years.

“Generally they’ve been unhappy for a long time,” Lansky said of many of her clients. “I don’t think somebody wakes up one day and says, ‘you know, I’m going to make a career change today.’ You’re not going to [do it] because this week your boss was scary.”

In fact, the only thing I didn’t want to escape was the camaraderie of people in the office. Contrary to what I’d learned from a lifetime of TV and movie references, my coworkers and supervisors weren’t an army of backstabbing, spittle-flecked Gordon Gecko wanna-bes. Far from it. For the most part they were just like me, lawyers trying to be good at a job that’s always just one bad day off from completely overwhelming you. We cut each other slack whenever the job allowed and helped each other out if we could. To my surprise, we were friends.

I wish I could say I didn’t know what I was getting into. I did sign up for law school in all ignorance, doing so like many undergraduates, because I wanted debates and an intellectual challenge. In my senior year at the University of Michigan, I thought the legal system worked like a great game to be won. I loved thinking on my feet and didn’t mind doing some paperwork when I had to. I was like a kid who becomes a cop because he’s seen a few episodes of Castle, or a trumpet player who enlists in the Army because he heard it has a band. I was aggressively ignorant of what I was getting into.

By midway through law school, I knew better. It didn’t take long to learn that the practice is neither creative nor often interesting, and it certainly bears no relationship whatsoever to a complicated game. It’s signing up to do homework 24/7. For people at small firms or in government service the job may change, but I had $120,000 in student loans to pay. When Biglaw made me an offer, I didn’t see many options.

Three years later I decided to get out.

Leaving terrified me, but not for the usual reasons. I never worried that my fiancée and I would starve or need to steal nickels from vending machines to make rent. I felt like I had most of the practical side of things planned out, almost obsessively so in fact. I’d saved my money, found health insurance, made arrangements for my student loans and so on. All of the details that I could think to list I did, then listed them over and over again. The moving pieces were, as far as I could manage, taken care of.

I was scared of the stuff I couldn’t put on a list. What would I do if I wasn’t a lawyer? What would I be? I hadn’t done anything else in so long that I had no idea what was even out there. Seven years in law school and practice, the better part of a decade, had prepared me for one thing and one thing only: to be an attorney at an American firm.

I didn’t have the skills to do anything but litigate, and certainly not the résumé. As much as I didn’t want to be a lawyer again, I had focused on it for so long that I just couldn’t see myself any other way. The first day after leaving I sat down to make a list of other possible career fields. I came up with business, banking and insurance. Journalist and travel writer certainly never made the list.

According to Lansky people decide to leave careers at different times and for different reasons, but one thing that should never hold you back is the idea that you’ve already got too much invested in to turn around.

“There’s an expression in finance, throwing good money after bad,” she said. “You don’t want to tie yourself to a career that makes you unhappy just because you spent money on it at one point… Sooner or later it’s going to hit you right between the eyes.”

For me that was absolutely true. Although I had sunk nearly a third of my life into getting there, leaving the law was absolutely the right decision. As career moves go, leaving a good job in a prestigious field was probably a lousy one, but my motives weren’t based around a five year plan. They were much more simple than that. I had been unhappy for a long time and that needed to change.

So I left. My fiancée and I bought a pair one way tickets to Cambodia and decided it was time to see the world for a while. I started my website along the way and fell into being a writer. On a good day, I make a quarter of what I used to and have absolutely none of the perks that came with a top floor view. I can’t use the old instruction manual anymore, the one I followed from high school to college to law school to the firm. Life has gotten more complicated than that, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Besides, I’m already down ten pounds.

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