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Top 5 Ways to Know When it is Time to Quit Being a (Big Law) Attorney
by Harrison Barnes, Managing Director
One of the more memorable depositions I did was for a woman working at O’Melveny & Myers who was being sued by her husband (who was not working) and wanted her to pay him alimony for the rest of his life. Incredibly, he was also arguing for child support and custody of their child on the grounds that she was “neglecting” the child because she was working all the time.
The woman was so completely stressed out by the prospect of (1) spending the rest of her career at O’Melveny, (2) losing custody of her child, (3) being declared an unfit mother, (4) paying child support and (5) paying alimony to her husband that she seemed to be losing her marbles.
- She shrank in size to the point where she looked visibly anorexic. She had formerly been a little overweight and now looked completely different.
- Her skin began showing all sorts of bumps and took on a greyish hue.
- Her long hair that, at one point, had been straight and healthy began to look dull and go in different directions seemingly on its own.
- She started picking at her nails and cuticles to the point where you could see blood crusted on them. (She no longer had nails that went beyond her fingertips.)
She also seemed to be going crazy. We were in mediation one afternoon, and she was seated across the room from me. She was whispering something to herself while rocking gently back and forth on a chair. At first, I thought she was psyching herself up for the next portion of the mediation. However, after a few minutes, I realized she was whispering to herself: “I have to quit O’Melveny … I have to quit O’Melveny.” It was nuts.
Her soon-to-be ex-husband was spending his days taking the child to preschool, surfing and lifting weights. I learned he was spending his nights with his younger and very attractive (and healthy!) girlfriend who was a yoga instructor. They had also recently taken a surfing trip to Costa Rica.
I did not think any of this was right. It made me angry that this woman was in this position. Someone who had formerly been a beautiful, intelligent and outgoing person was now reduced to working inside a law firm doing corporate deals for days on end with no break. Moreover, if her husband had his way, she would be doing this forever (and giving him lots of money). She was making about $275,000 a year at this time.
My job was to testify that she could not continue at this pace, tell the mediator that this could not go on and that she needed to quit her job and do something different. She needed to work for a smaller law firm, go in-house, work for the government, or even change careers completely. For this particular woman, working in O’Melveny no longer made sense for her. If you are practicing law with a large firm, it may not make sense for you to continue at a certain point in your career.
You are incapable of being happy in a large law firm. I generally recommend that attorneys find a different large law firm, or environment, before they move on and do something different, but not always. If you have tried different large law firms, spent a few years (or more) of your life doing this and have been unhappy all along, then you have your answer. You are unlikely to be happy in a large law firm.
I want to make clear, though, that this is a difficult determination to make. Before you conclude you are incapable of being happy in a large law firm, you should consider the following:
- Would working with different people make you happy? You can work with conservative or liberal attorneys or with firms that have a variety of attorneys with different cultures and personalities. You can work in firms that are composed primarily of:
- People of one religion
- People who are gay
- People who are straight
- People who are Republican
- People who are Democrats
- People who do not care what you are like
- People who are fat
- People who are thin
- Would doing a different type of work in a large law firm make you happy? I always loved writing briefs. I also love tax law for some reason. I was a summer associate at a large law firm in New York and was offered a position as a corporate attorney after law school. I knew I would absolutely hate being a corporate attorney. In my third year of law school and during a clerkship, I literally DREADED the thought of having to go to work as a corporate attorney. Due to this fear, I decided to apply to different firms and become a litigator. It was a good decision, and (for the most part) I enjoyed litigation. If you are unhappy with working in a large law firm, it may just be the practice area you are in, and you should change. In addition, you also need to “pay the price” in large law firms by doing less exciting work for a few years before it gets more interesting. Often times, your dislike of the work is just a function of the fact that you are not yet being given the sort of work you would enjoy. (See Changing Your Practice Area)
You get the idea. You just need to find a group of people that, for whatever reason, you are comfortable with. Personally, I once worked in an environment composed of right-wing conservatives where I was expected to address people as “Mr.” and “Ms.” and wear a jacket and tie at my desk that made me uncomfortable. In contrast, I’ve worked in liberal environments where partners addressed associates as “dude” and wore sandals. I was more comfortable in that casual environment. You need to make sure you are working with people you are comfortable with. (See Firm Culture Matters Most)
- Having access to the outdoors for hiking and recreation
- Being in a huge city
- Being in a small city
- Having access to affordable housing
- Having a short commute
- Being close to the ocean
- Being close to family
- Would working in a different geographic location make you happy? This is a huge one. I have a law office in Malibu, California. The attorneys working here would quit in ten seconds if I told them they were expected to work in downtown Los Angeles or Century City, even for substantially more money. While this is not a large law firm by any stretch of the imagination, the geographic location where you work can make a huge difference. For example, I am from Detroit initially. Detroit has such a small legal market that someone going to work for one of the largest law firms in the city is not going to have many choices if they are unhappy. In contrast, in a major market like New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, Houston, or Los Angeles, you will have your choice of hundreds of law firms. Choice and options are forms of security whose importance cannot be overemphasized. Here are some things to consider:
All of these factors can make a huge difference in whether you are happy practicing law. This is something you need to consider before you decide to leave the large law firm environment completely. (See Moving Your Career to Another City)
Many attorneys, possibly the majority of attorneys, realize that it is impossible to be happy in a large law firm. Due to this, they simply leave the environment. Before you do this, though, you need to look closely at your priorities to make sure you are making the best possible decision about your future.
Here are some options you have besides working in a giant law firm:
- In-house Attorney Jobs
- Government Attorney Jobs
- Public Interest Attorney Jobs
- Law Professor Jobs
- Even More Options
Your health is at risk. The woman from O’Melveny’s health was clearly at risk. Your physical well-being may be affected if you are in a position where you are working extremely long hours for weeks, months, and years on end. It is not healthy to lose your family and be forced into servitude you do not enjoy.
I’ve been practicing law for almost two decades. In this time, I have seen several young attorneys from large law firms die from heart attacks, cancer and even suicide. I am not 100% positive that practicing law did this to them, but I strongly suspect it did. I’ve seen more attorneys than I can count turn to alcohol, cocaine, crystal meth and other substances to either stay motivated or forget the pain of the work they are doing. No job should push you to your breaking point.
Even if a job does not push you to your physical limits, the issue with many attorneys is that they are naturally competitive. If they get into such an environment, they are going to start competing very hard with their peers. Therefore, even if they are not required to work hard in a large law firm, they always end up doing so.
I met a woman a few years ago that had worked in several large law firms. She would get to the law firm and work 3,000 or more hours per year for a few years before practically having a nervous breakdown. Then, she would quit. She would take several months off, interview with new firms, and tell them she only wanted to work less than 2,000 hours and take it easy. She would get to the new firm and do the same 3,000 hours again. She would not refuse work and always put in more effort than the next person. She could not help herself. She was programmed to work as hard as possible when in a competitive environment.
My advice to her? Get a job with the government, or somewhere similar, to save her sanity and health. (See Another Big Law Attorney I Know Just Died Young)
You constantly think and dream of doing something else. I’ve known attorneys who went home every night from large law firms to do things like:
- Sell pinball machines online
- Work on screenplays
- Study design
- Work on political campaigns
- Provide free legal services to indigent people
Having an outside hobby is great unless it is all you think about. If you constantly dream about another career path, and find yourself pursuing other interests in your free time, maybe you should consider trying to make a living at it. It may not pay as much money (initially) but the odds are you will be much happier. Also, when you do something you truly love, the money usually follows. The most important thing is the satisfaction you get from doing a certain type of work every day.
It is important that you do the work you want to do. If you are constantly dreaming of another type of work, you should move on and make the career change. It is nonsensical that you should remain in an environment where you are unhappy. (See Do What You Do, Not What You Think You Should Do)
You will never fit in (and you know it). Working inside of a large law firm means going to the office every day, sitting behind a desk for long hours at a time, recording and billing hours, being very detail-oriented and, for the most part, committing to the work 100%. In addition, in a large law firm, you will generally work with hundreds of other people who have bought into this way of life.
Working in a large law firm requires conformity. You may either accept or reject this lifestyle. Some attorneys benefit from working in large groups, while this may be a major drawback for others. If you are outspoken, unpredictable, independent and unable to work in large groups, then a large law firm is likely not for you.
If you know that you will never fit in with a large law firm, the best thing you can often do is leave. There is no sense working in an environment where you will not fit in. Some of the most well-known attorneys in the country (Gloria Allred, Alan Dershowitz, F. Lee Bailey, Shawn Holley, Johnnie Cochran) would likely be incredibly unhappy in a large law firm and probably would be ejected like a virus for not fitting in.
If you are unhappy in a large law firm and know you will never fit in, the best thing you can do is leave and find an environment that makes you happy. Being around people who respect and admire you is hugely important and necessary to your sanity. (See The Importance of Fitting In)
Your values are at odds with the work. Large law firms typically represent large companies (or those with a lot of money) who are using your intelligence and effort to get their way. While much of the work in large law firms may involve two large companies fighting over something, a substantial amount of the work will involve people with lots of money and resources pushing around (or even destroying) people with less money and fewer resources. In our justice system, those with the most money and resources to fight generally win while those without money and resources do not. For many attorneys, this is simply too much to handle. It sometimes takes attorneys a few years to realize that they are working and supporting causes they may be morally against.
- The work in most large law firms is often quite contentious. Many attorneys realize after some time that they would rather not constantly fight.
- Attorneys may realize they do not enjoy having to manipulate the other side of a case (withhold information, play games in discovery, not tell someone they are selling something for less than it is worth, etc.)
Regardless of the reasons, you may find yourself working in a large law firm where your values are completely at odds with the work. If this is the case, you should leave. There are a myriad of other options (the government, public interest work, your own firm) that you may likely enjoy much more. (See Values and Your Career)
When I got up and testified for the woman from O’Melveny, I explained that there was no way she could continue doing what she was doing. Her health was suffering, and she was going to push herself too hard. Even if she went to another law firm, she would not last because all she dreamed about was doing something else. She wanted to be a clothing designer. She did quit working at O’Melveny and, within a few years, she became a successful clothing designer. She was much happier. She also did not lose her child.
Most stories of people who leave “Big Law” turn out well. The key is doing what you love and knowing when it is time to go. Breaking up with a law firm is much like deciding to leave a significant other or dumping your best friend. You know it is something you have to do. Just as many people stay in unhappy relationships longer than they should, so do people stay with large law firms longer than they should.
If you really believe (and know) it is time to go, then you should go. Do not listen to your family, friends, family, or even logic. Listen to your heart.
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