Another popular question I received when I made the decision to leave biglaw was how I got out. This is my story, and it won’t apply to everyone. However, I hope that other associates can relate to the fears and feelings I had when I was planning my exit. And I hope that it gives some hope to those friends and colleagues who feel stuck. The story is long, so I’ll have to give you some background first.
My desire to leave biglaw really started during my summer associateship. Bear in mind that this was back in 2011. The legal economy was still reeling from the economic recession, law firms were facing bleak times, and though things were improving, law firms had still not recovered. Salaries were still frozen, offer rates were way down, and law firm layoffs made the news daily. I think Cravath’s class size had dropped from 120 to about 30. Everyone I knew was worried about getting a job, even at the top law schools around the country. I monitored ATL on a daily basis, had a massive spreadsheet of every law firm that had conducted layoffs (I purposefully bid them all lower during OCI) and concerned myself with finding the best law firm (read: most profitable and highest offer rate) I could get into.
The circumstances at the time colored my decision and my actions during my summer associateship. Essentially, I arrived for the summer with my other classmates fearful for my job and potential offer, so I was ready to hit the ground running. I wanted to make sure that I stood out even among my other peers (no small task), so I would produce the best work quality I could while putting in the necessary time. It turns out that that is a lot easier said than done. On the third day of my summer associateship, I agreed to help one of the other junior associates with some bookkeeping tasks before a public filing goes out, a process called “circle ups.” A circle up, for non-corporate attorneys, is essentially the process of going through a public filing (in this case, about a 100 page 10-K), identifying all the “material” numbers, then cross-referencing them with previous filings to see if they were missing any relevant information. Then, the associate takes to the task of verifying these material numbers with accountants or other experts based on their level of significance. It’s a ridiculously tedious task (you can imagine how many numbers there are in a public filing about 100 pages long).
That day I ended up staying in the office until around 1:30AM to finish circling and sticking post it notes next to all the numbers in the 10-K. Tired from the long task, I turned in my work to the junior corporate associate thinking that I would finally go home. However, much to my surprise/dismay, she said that we would be hopping on a call shortly to go over the results with a senior associate (also my associate mentor for the summer). I was completely shocked. It was already 1:30 in the morning, I had just spend the last 15 hours in the office circling hundreds of numbers and now it was time to verify them? This was my first taste of the “real work” that corporate attorneys do. I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Things progressed much the same for the rest of the summer, but still at the end, and despite the long hours, I stilled needed a job offer (which I ultimately received). I already knew I wouldn’t like the job, but I needed one because my student loans were mounting. I remember on the last day of my summer associateship when my offer arrived, I felt a wave of relief but also the first feeling of desperation that this would be my life. While waiting to go home on that day, I started browsing our school’s career website for other firms to interview at 3L year in case I wanted to go somewhere less intense. I never tried.
Fast forward a year to my orientation week at this same law firm. The law firm flew the incoming first-year associate class out first-class (my first time), put us up in luxurious accommodations and eased us into the law firm experience with relaxed sessions where other more senior lawyers told us battle stories and how to succeed at the firm. In short, orientation week was good. We celebrated the end of the week with a night out where we heard whispers of new associates already being contacted by partners looking for people to work the weekend (the partner eventually changed his mind when he learned that the new associate hadn’t been issued a laptop yet). Though I laughed it off nervously, it turns out that this practice was not out of the ordinary at all, and the same fate was about to befall me.
Orientation week was the last time while at the firm that I called it a night at 5:00PM. Pretty much from the next Monday on, I started getting slammed with work. The trial run was over; this was real life. I had chosen this career, my fate, my means of survival, and it would be a long stretch before getting out. For the first three months, I never took a day off. I was on back to back deals, learning the ropes, drinking from the firehose, and working all the time. I hated it. My original plan of just biding my time for 4 years until I had saved enough to pay off my loans and gotten enough experience to jump in house eventually decreased in duration to three years, then to two, then finally to one. Each day was tortuous, and while I liked my coworkers and the pay, I lived in constant fear that my schedule and life would get interrupted by a “hot” deal. By November, I felt like I was burning out, and I looked forward to some respite over Thanksgiving. I made plans with my family to go away for the long weekend, to relax somewhere and not think about work. The plans were made, we were set to go. Then it hit. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving at 5:30PM, I received an email from our of counsel: “We just found out about a ‘short-fuse’ deal and need someone to staff it. Looks like it will run over Thanksgiving. Sorry.’ My heart sank. I felt empty, broken, powerless.
I had thought about leaving before then. It only takes so many late Friday night emails to break one’s spirit. Maybe my peers or others have more guts or a stronger will than me, but every time I got a message like that, my desperation grew. Somewhere during the two month marathon of work, I had actually prepared a resume, highlighting my software engineering background, which I planned to send out if things ever got really bad. It was a symbol of defeat, my ace up my sleeve, but something to keep in the back pocket just in case. I sent it out the same day the email came.
Of course, nothing happened at first, but even the act of sending out my resume made me feel triumphant. Though my grand plan to work for several years and go in-house flew out the window, I felt all right. I felt hopeful for the first time since starting work that there was an exit, and that the wheels were in motion. It turns out however, that it would be a long and arduous eight months before I finally had my opportunity.