A How-To Guide For Escaping Your Biglaw Job (Part I)

A lot of attorneys that come to my mindfulness classes do so because they’re miserable. I also started practicing mindfulness because I was completely stressed, constantly anxious, and I lived in denial for a long time before I decided to do something about the misery. Actually, to tell you the truth, it wasn’t until I was planning our wedding and I started losing hair — clumps of hair — that I decided enough was enough.

Lawyers are trained from law school to suppress or deny our emotions. We are never allowed to talk about our feelings. Much of the law school experience is governed by pretending everything is just fine. Then there are the a-hole professors who seem to get off on humiliating the students under the guise of “teaching you to think like a lawyer using the Socratic method.” At the end of law school, we’re subjected to an antiquated hazing ritual called the bar exam.

Once you pass the bar, the pot of gold that’s waiting for you is comprised of even more misery. It’s like winning a pie eating contest where the prize is eating more pie.

If you hate your Biglaw (or even not-so-big law firm job), here is a how to guide for Escaping Your Biglaw Job. Please note that escaping any job, especially one that you probably spent many years striving to get to, is not a linear process. It’s a journey.

1. Admit that there is a problem.

Albert Einstein famously said:

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

This may sound completely obvious, but many people feel ashamed about admitting that there is a problem. Saying, “I am constantly miserable. I dread going to work every morning. I really hate my job,” can trigger a lot of fears. What will other people think? What does it mean if I say I hate this thing that I have spent so many years working so hard to get? What am I going to do with my life? I’m a failure.

Give yourself permission to say what is true for you. And make room for all the doubt, fear, judgment, or whatever you may feel. It may even mean admitting that I Suck at Law.

2. Don’t chase other people’s dreams.

As a Korean-American, I was constantly told work hard, try your best, apply yourself. Growing up, I was convinced there were only two professions: doctors and lawyers. I couldn’t do math, so I went to law school.

To admit that this thing that I had worked so hard to achieve perhaps wasn’t right for me felt as though I was taking my parents’ hopes, dreams, and everything they wanted for me, and stomping on it.

However, for me to find my own path, I had to stop chasing other people’s dreams. I had to stop measuring success by someone else’s yardstick.

3. Ask the right questions.

These are the questions that changed the course of my career. When my friend Kit asked me these questions, I cried. I cried not only because no one has ever asked me these questions before, but more importantly, I never asked myself these questions.

  • Why are you here?
  • What makes you feel alive?
  • What would truly make you happy?
  • What is the unique gift of yourself that you bring to the world?

If you’re like me, chances are, you have no idea how to answer these questions. That is okay! Like I said, this is a process.

4. Find your joy.

When’s the last time you felt joy? I’m not talking about temporary, fleeting happiness like when you received your annual bonus check but eudaimonia, which is a result of right action that leads to a state of well-being.

If your brain screeches to a stop at the word joy because you can’t fathom feeling such a thing, stop reading this article — immediately and go do something that makes you happy!

For me, it meant going for walks, listening to my favorite cheesy 80s songs, taking classes (art, improv, writing, meditation), cooking, brewing beer, baking bread, and skydiving.

It’s entirely possible that you’re completely consumed by how much you hate your job and thinking about the possibility of joy just makes you feel even more depressed. I get that. So, onto the next step.

5. Planning your escape.

Chances are, you know you hate your current job but you have no idea what you should do with your life. After all, if you knew what you should do with your life, you would’ve done it. Right? Because lawyers are smart.

This is where things get tricky because when you’re working around the clock, it’s challenging to spend time daydreaming or experiencing life, which opens doors to different possibilities.

If you’re in this stuck state, you have two options.

Option A:

Start stockpiling money and downgrade your lifestyle. Remember the days when you were in law school and you used to go out for $1 beer? Chances are, whatever you’re going to pivot into won’t pay nearly as much as your Biglaw job. At least, not at first. So, if you want to be able to quit your job and go on a journey of self-exploration to find the thing you’re supposed to do, you’re going to need to stockpile money. Preferably in large bills, under your mattress. (Just kidding. Keep it in the bank.)

Sit down and calculate your minimum monthly living expenses. There are lots of nifty budgeting softwares like Mint to help you with this. Ask yourself, how much money do I need to have in my bank account to take 3, 6, or 12 months off?

Life is all about give and take. The more you can reduce your expenses and increase your savings, the sooner you can give your two-week notice. By the way, if you haven’t read Legal Nomads, by Jodi Ettenberg, you should. She quit her job to travel the world and is now a full-time blogger.

If you don’t like the idea of quitting your job without a safety net — because, let’s face it, lawyers are risk averse — you can consider Option B.

Option B:

This option also includes taking a critical look at your financial situation. Again, because it’s highly unlikely that your next job will pay you the kind of paycheck you’re earning now. If you’re a prisoner to your job because of the golden handcuffs, fix it. You can choose to reduce your expenses so you can start saving money instead of living paycheck to paycheck. (Or worse, living beyond your means and carrying a balance on your credit card.)

I’ll go into much more detail on Option B next week, but you can go listen to my interview with Dan Lear, who quit his law job to go work at Avvo, in the meantime.

Also, have some perspective. There are so many others who are far worse off than you. So, if you can’t seem to stop dwelling on your own misery, try Mark Twain’s suggestion:

The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.

This article was first featured on Above the Law.

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