Leaving biglaw behind
To any readers out there, whether you’re a biglaw attorney, law student, engineer, working professional considering law school or spambot, here’s an update on my life just over a year after my exodus from biglaw. It’s been just over a year since I left:
I still remember the day I gave my notice to my boss, a young and rising partner in my law firm, that I was leaving for a startup. My former partner, a highly intelligent and skilled attorney, of course sensed my reasons for leaving. But instead of speaking candidly about my experience, we spoke through with the layers of etiquette built up over time by biglaw attorneys.
I told him how much I enjoyed working with my fellow associates and for him, how much I respected him and appreciated his mentorship, and how the opportunity was too good to pass up. He told me how he appreciated my contributions to the law firm, how I was practicing at a level beyond my seniority and about my bright future at the firm and that he would regret seeing me go. And though we spoke truthfully to one another, we managed to miss the truth entirely.
I didn’t tell him how much I disliked working at the law firm; nor did I tell him that I probably would have accepted any position that gave me the opportunity to leave. I didn’t tell him about the aggregate toll that responding to emails 18 hours a day had taken on my sense of normalcy and happiness. I didn’t tell him how I, in desperation after having worked the first 8 weekends in a row, applied to engineering jobs after just two months in biglaw. I didn’t tell him about the numerous spreadsheets I had created and obsessively updated detailing how much money I would have each month, the day my net worth would be zero, and the day when my ROI on law school would overcome the opportunity cost of giving up my past engineering career. I didn’t tell him how many late nights I had spent in the past 6 months fighting to keep my eyes open while I watched old CS lectures and studied abstract data types and binary tree implementations. I didn’t tell him how scared I was to accept the position because I seriously doubted the viability of the startup and knew that it was completely leaving behind my legal background to perhaps never be used again. I didn’t tell him that despite all my fears and doubts, how easy it was me for to make the decision.
The decision to leave
What had caused my desperation to get out after just two months? It wasn’t just the long hours. I thought that might be the case, that perhaps I was just lazy, but in the aftermath of leaving my law firm, I still continued to work 50 hour weeks with about 20 hours of work a week on my personal projects. In fact, I was still putting in more time than I had at the firm. That actually led me to discover about myself that I didn’t shy away from work.
It wasn’t just the unpredictability of work, although that was a huge contributing factor. It’s really hard to describe what it’s like being tethered to your work phone and being on hook for any quantity of incoming work at any waking hour on any day of the week. I lived in fear of my phone, having been burned many times in the past by “short fuse” deals that needed me to drop everything and work the weekend. Like a traumatized animal, I learned to fear the words “what are you working on at the moment,” knowing that my answer would inevitably lead to more work. It turns out that it only took a few months of Friday night emails asking me to drop everything and work the weekend to break me.
It wasn’t just the nature of the work either, although each deal on which I was staffed meant the drudgery of hundreds of agreements, leases, and licenses being dropped into the dataroom at any time of day, waiting to be reviewed and summarized by me. It wasn’t solely the environment either, although it was astonishing to see the facades of contentment when so many associates were unhappy. You see, biglaw attorneys are exceedingly polite to one another. So polite, in fact, that the real feelings of biglaw attorneys rarely manifest themselves, except to those closest to the associate. This can’t be unknown by biglaw partners, but because associates don’t openly vocalize their discontent, biglaw partners have no incentive to improve conditions. Instead, we pretended to have fun, making casual jokes or observations about current affairs. We had RC car races, eating contents, a goodbye party for every associate or staffer who left. These events made for great PR to those outside the firm, but it was never mentioned how the attorneys would just sit there either awkwardly making small talk or checking their mobile devices waiting for an excuse to get back to work. It was of course all of these things, and more, that brought me to my breaking point.
In the month leading up to my departure, after I had my offer in hand from the startup, I constantly wondered to myself if I was insane for wanting to leave my biglaw career behind. I was at one of the most prestigious law firms in the country, had spent the last 4 years of my life devoted to learning the law and had a clear ticket to society’s elite and comfortable wealth if I could just put in the time. I sought counsel from others who had made the leap. Perhaps not coincidentally, almost all of them are startup founders. They, for the same reasons as me (and probably all associates), hated the biglaw machine and wanted out. Unlike me however, they had already mustered the courage and taken the leap. I was still waffling back and forth with whether it would be worth trying to make it to another year or at least six months until I received my year-end bonus. Ultimately, it wasn’t anything any one of those other biglaw deserters told me. In fact, I heard nothing new from them. If you’re a biglaw reader, you’re also likely not reading anything new. No, I knew all the facts, had considered the cost numerous times, and was just trying to convince myself to do something about it. It turn out that I already had made my decision.
Once I decided I was leaving, I knew that nothing my partner or anything other associates could say would convince me to stay. I knew that it was the right decision to leave, not in a year, not in six months, but at the very moment I was planning. It wasn’t about the startup or all the work I had put in to get back to the level of engineering competence to get hired. It turns out that it was just about the opportunity to leave. It turns out that any opportunity to leave was good enough. I’ll never forget the feeling when I gave my notice to that young partner. I didn’t begrudge him at all, not for the weekends he made me work, the workload, or anything else at the firm. I knew it was just part of his job. Instead, my sense of unadulterated joy came instead from the hope of a better future and of a happier life that leaving instilled. As I told that partner that I was leaving, I felt an enormous weight lifted off my shoulders like nothing in the world was or could go wrong. I felt emboldened, powerful and most importantly, free. I joke to my friends that I’ll never have as good a feeling in my life ever again, not unless I become a slave and receive my freedom.
So then, what’s the postscript after leaving -has my attitude changed in the last year?
No. The short answer is that I have not regretted once leaving biglaw for engineering. I regret some of the things biglaw afforded, like the salary or prestige of being able to call myself a lawyer. But when evaluating things as a whole, I would change nothing about my departure.
In the past year, I’ve set to work on several projects, one of which I’ve described on this blog called Dockumo. I have other projects in the queue, like building a solution to bluebooking, an insane kind of drudgery that law students subject themselves to involving following imprecise rules on how to cite certain legal works. As I stated before, I still work long hours, but the biggest difference is the fact that I’m now working for myself. The work that I do feels like it has purpose, that it is bettering me and my skills as an engineer, and can build upon itself to enable me to create bigger and more expansive projects -projects that can help others. Software, to me, is still the most efficient solution to many of the world’s biggest problems. Being able to program software is a powerful concept and skill, and it leads to ability to create anything I can dream of if I just put in the time and effort. That feeling of hope and potential to me is the greatest motivator of all; it is what gives my work purpose and it was exactly what I was missing when I was a biglaw attorney.
2 thoughts on “A candid look at biglaw and big law firms from a biglaw dropout”
Great read! Thanks for sharing. I too think about going back to engineering.