… Dejected, I made the long trek back to my office, where I closed my door and contemplated my future as a lawyer. I looked at the spreadsheet that I had made, counting down the months until I my net worth was $0. Still over two years away. I knew I wouldn’t make it. I abandoned my plan to stay in law, and began to draft a new resume…
This is the final part of my story, and follows the trek from abandoning my plan to go in house to the decision to leave the law entirely. On above the law, you often come across stories of biglaw associates who burn out and leave the law to do something else entirely. For example, there’s the lego guy and the cupcake girl. If you’ve been reading along, you’ll know my story isn’t as glamorous as the stories of those attorneys. It’s just an ordinary tale of one biglaw associate who in desperation, decided to leave.
Part II of this post: How I left biglaw (Part II)
Part I of this post: How I left biglaw (Part I)
It turns out that no one outside the legal community cares that you work for a V5 law firm. Lawyers, however, and law students in particular (myself included), are obsessed with prestige: “Where do you work?”, “How much were your bonuses?”, “Where’d you go to law school?”, “Where’d you clerk?”, “What’s your class rank?” While in law school, I adopted this attitude, and it heavily influenced my decisions when applying to outside jobs. After abandoning my plan to go in house, I was left with the alternative to reapply for engineering positions. I had never stopped considering going back to engineering (from my first application submitted during Thanksgiving of the previous year), though I thought it would be more rational to try to get another job in a legal capacity first. But after a string of failures, I reconsidered my reasons for wanting to stay in the law. When viewed in retrospect, my reasons for wanting to stay in the law were very similar to the reasons I went to law school in the first place. I wanted to continue telling others that I was a lawyer, I wanted to make my parents proud, and I wanted the financial security and social stature that came with being an attorney. Compounding that was the harrowing sunk cost effect -hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of my life spent devoted to law, the mental effect of giving up, of facing my friends and family after the fact. However, conspicuously absent from my set of reasons to stay was the desire to actually practice the law. Law school was an isolated experience free from the restrictions of looming bills, demanding partners and a professional career.
By March, I had fully turned my attention from going in-house to going back to engineering. When I began applying for software engineering jobs, my resume was still structured as a legal resume. At the top, I listed my accolades: law school, legal journals, published papers, leadership experience, law firm. Towards the bottom, I broke out my work experience into two sections, “Legal Experience” and “Software Engineering Experience.” With each application submitted, I attached my cover letter, which I refined multiple times over the next several months of applications:
Dear [Company X],
I am a software engineer and attorney who has been working on coding projects for the [Y] since 2011 and was previously employed with [Z] in 2009 as a developer for our web portal on the __ team. I spent the last three years furthering my studies through attending law school and received my Juris Doctor degree from Stanford Law School in 2012. Since graduating and becoming an attorney, I have come to realize that my passion remains in software engineering. Though studying law is intellectually demanding and stimulating, I find software engineering to be a better outlet for my career goals. In short, I want to create products that help others and software engineering gives me that opportunity.
To that end, while I was in law school, I kept up with my software fundamentals through coding projects on the side. I am eager to more deeply engage in my software engineering career again, and I hope to be able to continue learning and doing so with [Company X]. Thank you for considering my application.
I spent the next two months applying without any success. At first, I targeted only well known companies, thinking that a bigger company would have the resources and financial security to take a chance on an ex-software engineer to do their coding. But application after application was rejected or ignored. By this point, I made my desire to leave biglaw public among many of my non-lawyer friends, many of whom were working in the software engineering field. Some of them, to whom I’m still grateful, put their faith in me and referred me to positions with their companies. I found, however, that even with their endorsement, I wasn’t able to even get past the resume screen. During this time, I kept an ace up my sleeve. I had spent several years in the software industry prior to going to law school, and one of my former companies had an office in my town. My old boss still worked there, and I had departed on good terms (for law school). I was fairly confident that if I reached out to him, he would be able to get me through the initial screen. However, I waffled back and forth on whether to reach out to him again. Part of me knew that by doing so, I had to commit to actually leaving the law or else burn bridges and perhaps my best hope of getting out. It felt final, and I kept asking myself if I was really prepared to leave everything I had spent the last four years working for. But after all my mental debate, I eventually decided to make the call. I was going to do this.
After contacting my old boss, the mental burden of leaving was lifted. I decided to widen my net. I redoubled my efforts and by this point, 100% of my free time was devoted to applying to jobs or preparing for interviews. I would come home weary from work each day, spend an hour or two looking at relevant job postings on any site I could find, and then spent a few hours brushing up on algorithms, data structures and catching up with the last several years of advancements made in software. It was grueling. Balancing individual study with a biglaw job is obviously not easy, but the allure of freedom kept up my morale. At first, the challenge seemed insurmountable. However, with time, my efforts began paying off. A few weeks after I started applying to startups, I actually began hearing back from recruiters. Some were willing to talk with me, many others were simply curious about my background. I still had many rejections. However, even getting the opportunity to speak with a recruiter was a step in the right direction. I even had a few phone screens in the beginning (all of which I failed miserably). The software world had changed dramatically in the past four years that I had been out of the game. Though I had kept up with programming on the side, I was woefully unprepared for jumping straight back in.
Then one day, which I consider the turning point of my application process, a contract recruiter contacted me regarding one of the many applications I had submitted. She saw my background, was intrigued, and decided to submit my application to her client because she thought I was a good fit (that client eventually rejecged me without interview). However, the most valuable thing she did for me was suggest that I remove references to my legal accolades from my resume, something I never considered. The idea of removing my legal accolades was foreign to me. After all, they are the factors by which lawyers as distinguished. I was skeptical about this advice, but since I wasn’t having much luck, I prepared a second resume (I still have it, and called it [codeandcodes SE.pdf). I widened my net yet still, and began to apply to every job I could find, some with my SE.pdf resume, and others with my hybrid law/engineering resume. By the peak of my application cycle, I was applying to thirty jobs a day. And I started getting hits back. Previously, with only my hybrid resume, I had a response rate from recruiters of about 5% -for every 20 resumes and cover letters I wrote, I would receive about one response. Out of all of those responses, I received only one phone screen. With my new resume, which left off every tie to law (except my law school), my response rate from recruiters jumped to 20%. And because my resume had no reference to the law firm at which I was currently employed, these recruiters viewed me without bias (except maybe as an unemployed software engineer with a very large gap on my resume).
Meanwhile, my late night study sessions were also paying dividends. The concepts that I used everyday in the past as a software engineer started coming back to me, and I grew sharper and more familiar with the current technical buzzwords. I also purchased several software engineering interview books, and attempted each problem, no matter how long it took me. Slowly, I started getting more phone screens, and they started to go better. I was still far from a callback, but my efforts showed promise. This process continued for months. By July, I had applied to hundreds of jobs and was speaking with recruiters on a regular basis. Finally, the day came when one of my phone screens went well enough where the interviewer wanted to bring me in onsite interview. The CEO of this startup told me that he would have his Director of Engineering contact me first to verify the interviewer’s feedback. Long story short, after a conversation with the Director of Engineering, which fortunately was less technical in nature, the CEO and the director agreed to bring me in. The director gave me a homework assignment before my onsite interview, which I still have to this day. He was experimenting with Scala (a functional programming language that runs on the JVM) and wanted me to research the pros and cons of Scala versus Java. I had never heard of Scala or functional programming before, but I attacked this assignment with incredible vigor. Before my onsite interview, I researched dozens of articles on Scala, Java and functional programming languages. I put all my notes into a digestible chart in Microsoft OneNote, ironically my favorite application for note-taking in law school. When the day of the onsite arrived, I was well-prepared.
The rest is mostly history. Once I finished the onsite interview, I had a strong suspicion that an offer was coming. But when it finally came, I didn’t celebrate or rejoice. It wasn’t the compensation or the company. Again, it came down to the decision to leave. Leaving the law was no longer just a fantasy. It came down to the simple choice that I had debated all this time. All my work in the past half decade, from studying for the LSAT, to applying to law school, to my 1L year, my hours at the law firm, passing the bar, was about to become my past. All of my fears were coming to a head. I wasn’t sure if I was making the biggest mistake of my life by leaving the law behind and again, and the fears and doubts that I was just being immature about my job situation resurfaced. I began reaching out to everyone I knew (including several people I didn’t know) who had left biglaw to do something else. Over the next two weeks, before accepting, I sought the advice and counsel of many of these people. All of them told me to take the leap of faith and leave. In the end, their reassurances were all unnecessary, because I already knew what I wanted. I finally realized that my life was being spent doing something I didn’t want to do. I called up the recruiter and accepted.
After accepting the position at the startup, I told my partner I was leaving. He was respectful and supportive and wished me well. It was done. That moment, the moment where I gave notice that I was leaving, remains one of the happiest moments of my life. It’s hard to describe the relief or joy, or whatever feelings that accompanied that decision. It’s been two years since I departed, and I haven’t regretted my decision for a day.