If you work in Biglaw, you know that your firm’s business model depends on you quitting. Okay—not YOU necessarily, but the majority of associates, so that when it finally comes time for a class to be up for promotion only a hardened few are left to vie for the spots. Blacklines & Billables (on the Associate Success side) is dedicated to helping Biglaw associates succeed. And while that usually means providing tips and tricks for how to excel in practice and prepare to move up the seniority ladder, for most associates, an important part of having a successful Biglaw career (whatever that might mean for you) is realizing when it’s time to move on.
I was an early leaver. I quit after about two years—a decision that had much more to do with me than my firm. I liked most of the people I worked with, and I felt super cool walking into my fancy high rise office in midtown each morning. But, in the end, it just wasn’t the place for me. So I left, and went to a smaller firm that focused on an industry I was interested in and had what I thought to be a better work-life balance for me. I hadn’t actually been planning to leave at the time, but I got a recruiter call at just the right moment–coming off a few tough deals and a lot of late nights. (A number of my friends have also found new jobs through well-timed recruiter cold calls, which I suppose is why that industry thrives.) I was one of the first in my class to go, but, in the years since, almost all of my classmates have followed suit–which is how it’s supposed to work.
So how do you know if and when it’s time to break up with Biglaw?
Before jumping in, I want to acknowledge that there might be some serious social pressure involved in your decision whether and when to leave (depending on whether you’re as susceptible to this pressure as I am)–after you’ve been told how prestigious your firm is, how great it is to be making as much money as you are, how living in the city you’re in is the only place worth living, etc. If you do feel that pressure, I hear you. But try to ignore it. Or at least think deeply about whether you actually believe the hype. Only you can decide the right choice for you, your life, and your career. That said, having gone through the quitting process myself—and having watched many friends do the same—here are some signs that it might be time to start looking for something new:
1. You don’t like your job. Clearly a sign. But do you know what it is exactly that’s making you unhappy? Is it the actual job itself? When I left Biglaw I honestly didn’t know whether I liked my job or not. I just knew that the hours were grinding me down, and I was tired of getting yelled at by one person in particular (He Who Must Not be Named), whose grasp I seemed unlikely to be able to shake.If you find yourself not enjoying your job, it could just mean that you should be trying another specialty or practice group.But sometimes it’s just that you don’t like working at a big law firm, regardless of practice group, and you realize that you really dislike the work that is done at a big firm (or maybe just find it mind-numbingly boring). Figure out what’s driving your dissatisfaction to determine whether it’s a fixable problem or a legitimate reason to leave.
2. You think you’ll like another job better. I didn’t really do a good job of exploring all of the different kinds of jobs that were available to someone with a law degree. It was easy to interview at law firms at my school, so that’s what I did. What I’ve learned since is that there are a lot of different kinds of legal jobs out there (and even more non-legal jobs). You might like a lot of them better than your current one. It’s ok to try another one, even if you had to work hard to get your current gig or the new one doesn’t look quite as good on paper.
3. You don’t like the hours. No one likes the hours. But there is a perverse and terrible kind of one-upmanship around hours that grips attorneys in Biglaw.All of a sudden, even though you know that the actual winning outcome would be for everyone to go home at 4 pm every day, you find yourself in a competition about who knows the late night cleaners better. But sometimes you snap out of it and realize – wait, why am I bragging about keeping a sleeping bag in my office? Why am I acting like this is the goal? I’d like to have a full night’s sleep again. I’d like to remember what my (life, not supervising) partner looks like in daylight. It’s important to have a clear, independent picture of the investment of time you’re making, the sacrifices that requires, and whether or not that’s worth it to you. Depending on that picture, your specialty, and your firm, you might need to make a change to escape those ruthless hours.
4. You don’t like the city you’re in. Maybe you hate the dirty, loud, liberal/conservative hellhole you’ve ended up in. New York (or LA, or Chicago, or DC, or Houston…) sold you a bill of goods. Being told over and over that New York is the greatest city in the world does not always make up for the smell of the garbage baking on the sidewalk in the summer. You don’t have to stay, even if means working for a smaller firm (or taking a different type of job altogether).
5. You don’t like your clients. Do you work for a lot of the same clients over and over? And are they terrible people, with terrible interpersonal skills, who are terrible to work for? Or maybe you just do not like the type of clients your firm represents generally, and it makes you think less of the firm for taking them on. Either way, when it’s your full-time job to be serving your clients’ interests, the relationship you have with them is important. If those relationships make you miserable, get outta there.
6. You don’t like the people you’re working with (and there is no way to work with anyone else (or everyone is terrible). Few things affect your work life and level of happiness more than your rapport with your teams. Are the ones causing you headaches senior to you, and seemingly unlikely to be going anywhere? Is the firm’s culture a problem? Firms really do have cultures, and the people who fit within them. And that might not include you. Take stock of the real problem on the co-worker front. Individual personnel, and even culture, can change over time… but how long do you want to wait for that to happen?
7. Your firm doesn’t like you. On the flip side on the coin, if you and your firm are not a great fit, you might not be the only one who’s noticed. If you’re not getting good work, if no one seems to want to work with you consistently, if you’re only getting put on deals with the worst clients – you might take that as a hint, even a gentle nudge, that it’s time to start looking.
None of the above are groundbreaking observations. But when you work in Biglaw, you are likely spending the majority of your waking hours working, and it’s so easy to just put your head down and miserably plow throw any number of warning signs that the life you’re living isn’t the right one for you. It can be hard to get perspective and even harder to make changes. I encourage you to take the time and make the effort to actually think about whether this is the way you want to be spending your limited days on this planet. If the answer is yes – or if you just think the upsides are worth it —more power to you! But if it’s no, then it might be time to start reaching out to recruiters (or at least not hanging up on them immediately when they cold call you).