An Eager Junior Associate
I’m a quintessential “good girl” who studied hard, always did what she was supposed to do, went to a couple of the best schools in the country, and landed, pretty much accidentally, in a prestigious career as an attorney at a law firm in New York City. On the brink of partnership and burned out beyond what I even thought was possible, I threw in the towel and gave it all up for something yet to be determined.
It took a lot of self-reflection, endless conversations with friends, family and co-workers, and years of “should I or shouldn’t I,” until I finally realized that an undetermined something, anything, was better than the path I saw laid out before me. I decided to take a chance and quit my job with nothing lined up to see what that something might be.
You can read more about my story here: About Me.
My path to burnout, which ultimately led me to leave my job, began years ago, a few years into my career as an associate at a “Biglaw” firm. Biglaw, to the uninitiated, is the term given to the behemoth law firms of the world that are headquartered, mostly, in New York City and have offices spanning across the globe in all major cities and many, many more.
Eager young law students are recruited to work at these firms during the summer after their first year of law school and usually begin their careers as associates at that same firm when they graduate law school, working hard and eventually becoming partner eight or ten years later.
At least, that is the traditional path, but times have changed and most people who enter Biglaw as associates will not stay long enough to make partner, either because they are not cut out for the job or because they simply do not want that life or career.
During that first summer, there are cocktail parties, boat cruises, Broadway shows and drinks. So many drinks. I naively dipped my toe into this world during the summer of 2008 after my first year of law school. In a totally ill-fitting suit and pantyhose (who still wears pantyhose? In August? Even worse, this was before Kate Middleton made it semi-acceptable to sport the tan nylon garment, and I’m pretty sure she only wears them because the Queen of England makes her, while I wore them because I thought that was what business ladies did), I bumbled my way through interviews and landed a job at a Biglaw firm in New York City. If I was going to do Biglaw, I was going all in, and the best place to do that was the mecca of the legal world, New York City.
Fast forward almost ten years, and I had reached the end of my career in Biglaw (I promise stories from that time, including lots of advice based on what I got right, what I did wrong and how you can get it right, will fill the pages of The Unbillable Life). To understand how I reached the end of my career, I need to talk a little bit more about how I got there.
Because it wasn’t always bad and I truly enjoyed much of my time as an associate. Looking back at it, that’s the tricky thing about burnout. You don’t just wake up one day and a switch has flipped and suddenly you are burned out. It happens slowly over time, and this is the most dangerous part about it, because it’s hard to see it in yourself.
While the first few years of being an associate in Biglaw are extremely challenging – everything is so new, fast-paced and demanding – they can also be very rewarding. For many associates, myself included, being a junior associate in Biglaw is their first real job and it is a pretty prestigious (and well-paying) one. Along with the stressful situations and long nights with little sleep came a sense of accomplishment for closing very complex and time-sensitive deals and cases.
I loved the feeling on the morning of a deal’s closing when our team was able to provide excellent services to our happy and grateful client. It was a definite source of fulfillment and pride for me and I really enjoyed working with the team of people in my little group. Not only that, but I was compensated greatly for the work I did and treated by my bosses and colleagues with respect.
My bosses at the firm were and are two of the hardest working people I know, and I respect them even more for being able to do what they do and making Biglaw a pleasant environment to be in. It wasn’t my colleagues that ultimately burned me out and that did me in.
I knew from the very beginning that if I ever left the firm for another job, it would never be to go to a competing law firm. Why would I ever leave people I cared about and who treated me like family, to go do the same thing somewhere else? No, that would never be my path and I knew that almost immediately.
A Totally Burned Out Associate
What I didn’t know and could never have predicted was how much I would slip and slide down the path to burnout. Mentally, you can never really leave for the day when you work as an associate in Biglaw.
While some people are better at compartmentalizing the job and life than others, I was certainly not one of those people. Even on vacations, when the partners I worked for and the other associates on my team would kindly cover for me, there was always the underlying stress and tension about what I was missing at the office, what was going on without me, and whether I was doing a bad job because I was out of the office.
Going on vacation always felt like I was doing something wrong. Even when there was no work to be done, I’d constantly be checking emails and thinking on an endless loop about the job and the office. It wasn’t a healthy mindset as this was supposed to be a time of recharging and checking out.
Sure, I’d come back from a weekend off or a week-long vacation and I would have gotten more sleep, some sun, and some exercise, but the morning back at my desk those positive vibes would instantly be erased. If I couldn’t even recharge on my time off I realized that the only true way for me to disconnect from Biglaw was to quit, so that’s what I did.
I reached the end of my burnout when was in my 8th year at the firm. I was somewhat of an anomaly since I chose to throw in the towel with the possibility of partnership in my near future.
As I approached that prospect of partnership, I questioned more and more how my bosses could possibly do it day after day, year after year. And the job only got harder after one became a partner – more responsibilities, more client contact, more headaches. When I saw my future, it wasn’t one I was looking forward to.
Right before I quit my job I read as many career and self-help books as I could to see how others had faced similar decisions. One quote I read in particular that stood out, and still stands out, is from a story about another woman’s burnout from Biglaw.
She wrote about struggling with what she was going to do if she gave up her career as an attorney and a friend who asked her, “if you are so successful doing something you hate, imagine how successful you could be doing something you loved?”
That quote struck a chord deep inside of me. It was as if the friend was talking directly to me! I did not enjoy my job in Biglaw, and yet somehow I was successful at it. Imagine how successful I could be if I started doing something I loved? If you’re feeling this way too, check out my post on Signs You Should Quit Your Job and see if any of them resonate with you.
A Bum With No Job, But a Happy Bum
When I left my job, many people were worried about what I would do since I did not have a job lined up and there were no prospects on the horizon (because I wasn’t trying to get one). Sure, it would be nice for a few weeks or maybe even a month, but then wouldn’t I get anxious and fidgety and just be desperate to return to the office setting, perhaps even to the same law firm where a job was likely waiting for me?
To the contrary, I found myself content, and so happy, doing absolutely nothing. Well, that’s not true. I wasn’t doing nothing. I cleaned my apartment, went grocery shopping on weekdays, actually cooked, printed out and put up photos of my friends and family around my apartment that I’d never gotten around to doing and, most satisfying of all, donated or otherwise got rid of basically all of my business clothes.
Now that a couple of months have passed and I’ve organized my things and my life as much as I can, gone on a couple of amazing trips, spent quality time at the beach and with my family, I’m realizing that those people were right about something – I am itching to do something more.
While I have a few other projects on the horizon, I felt pulled to write about my experience at the firm, my decision to quit, and the aftermath of my departure, to offer a perspective to others who might be facing similar decisions. To be one more example for someone who might be looking for permission to do something different.
My decision to quit was not one I took lightly, and I was lucky to have the support I needed to leap without any idea where I was going, so as I write this blog I recognize that, in addition to working hard, I was given many opportunities that most people in this world are not lucky enough to get, and I try to always keep that in mind as I reflect, write and plan my next moves.
Ultimately, as I struggled with my decision to quit, I realized that you can be grateful for what you have but still want something more or something different, and that’s ok. I hope you’ll join me as I launch The Unbillable Life and my new chapter as a blogger!