Hello and welcome to The Unbillable Life! I’m a 30-something living in New York City who, until the spring of 2018, was an associate at a top 20 international law firm where I worked my butt off in a career that was at times challenging, rewarding, demanding, stressful and, ultimately, not for me.
Have you ever woken up one day (or many days in a row) and felt like the life you were currently living was someone else’s? Or maybe you felt like you were totally stuck in your job and your daily routine, but had come to accept that this was your only career option. A few months ago, that was me. I desperately wanted to leave the corporate law firm world, slow down and take a step back, but I didn’t know if I could.
Being relatively young, living in an expensive city like New York and having worked hard to pay off a significant amount of law school loans, I was not yet financially independent. As alluring as the concept of “FIRE” (which stands for “financial independence, retire early”) was and still is, I was not in a position to retire and leave the work force forever.
But I was craving time away from my demanding job to breathe and take some space to think about what my next career was going to be because I knew it wasn’t in the law. Even though I was not in a position to fully retire yet (and I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted anyways – even though I was burned out from law firm life, I still really enjoy working hard), could I leave the corporate world for at least a little while?
I so badly wanted to be free from that law firm job that I felt trapped in, but for some reason I couldn’t see how that it was possible. Until one day I realized that I wasn’t actually trapped. Nobody was forcing me to be there, and in fact I already was FREE. I had paid off my law school loans and been financially responsible for many years.
I had built up a safety net, too, so I could take an early exit from my corporate career and leave the working world for a while to figure things out, knowing that I had a decent amount of savings to fall back on. And so the idea of becoming FREE – “financial responsibility; early exit” came about. I may not have reached FIRE, but I realized I already was FREE and so I quit my job.
After leaving the law with no idea what I was going to do next, I began to write down my reflections on the eight years I spent as a law firm associate, as well as what steps I was taking and what I was thinking as I worked (and continue to work) to figure out an entirely new career. From these reflections, The Unbillable Life was born.
“The Unbillable Life” Mean?
Why is this blog called “The Unbillable Life”? It comes back to my time spent at the law firm. At a law firm, the “billable hour” rules everything. Each attorney is required to record her time in 6-minute increments, with ten 6-minute blocks adding up to one hour “billed” to the client.
For example, if you have a call on your deal that lasts 30 minutes, you would record 0.5 hours of billable time into your “diary” (an electronic tracker each attorney records her time in every.single.day so that the partner in charge of the deal can send a bill out to the client based on hours worked and ultimately get paid). Each attorney who bills hours and records them in her diary is called a “timekeeper”. For 8 years, every day, my most important role was that of a timekeeper who recorded my life in those 6-minute increments.
Over time, my life became more and more “billable” as those hours creeped into everything I did. It was not that I necessarily worked more hours each year that my career progressed, it was just that my brain was always thinking about work and I was beginning to lose my ability to separate life from work. Some people can turn the work switch off, but I couldn’t. For me, it was all or nothing and the time had come to switch from all to nothing.
Associates at law firms are generally expected to bill a total of 1800-2000 hours a year, depending on the firm and its particular policies. At my firm, 200 of my required 2000 hours per year were allowed to be “firm chargeable”. Firm chargeable hours were things like pro bono work, time spent on firm committees, certain volunteer projects, or preparing and presenting continuing legal education presentations.
All other work and time spent physically at the office that was neither billable nor firm chargeable essentially didn’t count in the eyes of the firm. It was as if the time didn’t even exist because, although the time certainly passed, if it was not able to be recorded in your diary as either billable or firm chargeable, it made no difference to the firm.
I call this time “unbillable time” and it was my absolute favorite time at the firm. It’s the time I spent at work getting coffee with my friends, eating lunch at our office cafeteria, and spending hours upon hours hanging out and drinking at firm and client events at spectacular venues around NYC with people who I plan to call life-long friends.
“Unbillable time” is also all of the time that comes after work and on the weekends that you spend with your family and friends, taking vacations, relaxing, sleeping, exercising, shopping, cooking, laughing, hanging out and everything else one does in life. I came to realize that the unbillable time is what matters most to me and I had let that part of my life get so small that it was almost disappearing, so I gave up the billable life to live a full, adventurous, fantastic and unbelievable “Unbillable Life.”
This Blog About, Exactly?
And What Can You Expect to Learn Here?
I hope you’ll join me as I write about my own Unbillable Life and help you to create your own. This blog is all about creating an unbelievable life during, between and after the billable hours. That means that whether you are in the thick of things, working your tail off and billing like crazy as a law firm associate (or at a comparable corporate job, at another fast-paced job or in some other high-stress environment) or, like me, have reached your moment of “FREE,” and left your former career behind and are looking to start fresh, I want this to be a resource for you. Below are some things you can expect to read about on The Unbillable Life, divided into the three general categories of DURING, BETWEEN and AFTER the billable hours:
An Unbillable Life During the Billable Hours:
All about maximizing your billable time – tips for succeeding in Biglaw (and other types of law firms, as well as high-stress corporate jobs in general) and how to be the best associate or employee at the place.
How to know if the job you’re at is the right job for you.
When the job isn’t what you want, advice on how to figure out when it is time to leave (hello, burnout) and where to go once you take the leap.
An Unbillable Life Between the Billable Hours:
Maximizing your unbillable life while you are still holding down a demanding job. There isn’t always an abundance of free time between the billable/working hours for other stuff in life, but that doesn’t mean you should neglect those other parts of your life.
Spotting burnout in yourself and others and preventing burnout.
Carving out a new path or future career while still at your current job.
Financial planning – interested in taking a leave from your job, and having enough money to support yourself for 1, 3, 5 or more years? Tips on getting to FREE (financial responsibility; early exit).
An Unbillable Life After the Billable Hours:
The billable/working/office hours have officially ended and you’ve quit your law firm or corporate job. Now what?
The thought process you go on to make the decision to leave, and then what happens when you finally decide to jump and make a move.
This is the most open-ended time of all – it’s what I’m in the middle of figuring out myself!
My goal for this blog is to tell some stories from my experiences and those of fellow Unbillable Lifers, while providing helpful tips to others in high stress jobs who are looking for advice on how to successfully navigate their careers or who are maybe, like I was for so long, questioning whether the path they are on is the right one. My experience is distinctly my own, but I hope that there are elements of my story that someone out there reading this might see themselves in and be inspired by. Thanks for reading and joining me on this trip!