Leave BigLaw: How to Plan Your Escape
The best time to plan to quit your job is when everything is going well. But why would you plan to leave when things are going well? Thus, most people don’t plan.
The “plus” side for lawyers is that they love planning and many dream of leaving their law firm jobs early on in their careers. So let’s do some fantasizing and planning. Learn some lessons from when I quit my job and plan your escape from big law.
Overview of How to Leave BigLaw
Before you plan to leave BigLaw or another law firm job, you need to carefully consider the pitfalls of quitting. For example, if you rage quit, you won’t qualify for unemployment. That means post-rage quit, you’ll have no money coming in.
And you have to think about debt, money, identity, healthcare, and your next job. Also, there’s the small matter of figuring out what you’re going to do with your life immediately after you quit and in the future. There’s a lot to think about, so you should start thinking early.
Why You Need to Plan Before Leaving BigLaw
New lawyers feel like they’ll never leave. You’ve plunked down at least four years of your life preparing for and going to law school, prepping for the bar exam, and finding and working a job. It involves a complete turn in identity.
But spending a lifetime at one job is as rare as having a pension these days. Likewise, you are not likely to stay at your law firm job forever. You should start planning your last day- whether to another firm, another job, or another industry – on your first day. You never know when you’re going to leave, and planning takes time.
Quit Your Job After Six Months?
I’ve seen a lot of people find my blog through the above search term – quit your job after six months. And I should note that I didn’t leave my job that early, and leaving any job that early is going to be problematic. Any employer in the future is going to be wary of someone who jumps ship so early on.
I knew a friend who really wanted to quit his job after just six months. Ultimately, he didn’t switch until after he’d been there for a year and had secured a job in his former industry. I also have heard of people who rage quit – usually after a year. All these people landed on their feet eventually. I assume you will too, but it’s extremely stressful until you finish landing. Strike a balance between optimism and caution. If you can get your ducks in a row, it would behoove you to do so, but I understand if you can’t.
If the job is absolutely untenable, then quitting may be the better option. But if at all possible, wait to finish a year or switch to another job before quitting. Try to work to make your situation better.
You are not alone if you think you can’t take it anymore. Lots of people are searching for how to quit a job by the six-month mark.
Get Your House In Order ASAP
At your legal job, particularly if this is your first job outside of college or law school, you should be focusing on maximizing your experience and your references. In terms of experience, you should be considering what direction you want your legal career to take.
Even if you are happy at your current job, you should be scanning the marketplace for jobs that interest you and mapping out a plan to help you get the qualifications to apply for said jobs in the future. In terms of references, you should ensure that at least some of your coworkers and supervisors don’t hate you. Maybe that’s not a problem, but make sure they know you and your work.
Student loans are the 800-pound elephant in the room. You have to address them before you can plan to leave your law firm job. In fact, student loans are so monumental that you should carefully consider them before law school, during, and while you’re working at a law firm. You really need a plan to attack your debt, from law school and college.
If you have six-figure debt, it can limit your options after you leave your law firm. For instance, to pay off $100,000 in debt, Mapping Your Future estimates you would need a salary of at least $172k to afford the $1,150 monthly payments. If you whittle your debt down to $50,000, you can live off a salary of $86,000, which gives you a wider range in industries and careers.
Because you won’t know when you will leave your job, it’s best to attack your debt as vigorously and as quickly as possible. This gives you the most options in the future. A good way to do that is by assessing your money situation, as follows.
If you’re attacking your debt, you may have already started to consider your bare bones budget. That means no eating out, no clothing or unnecessary consumable purchases. Too easy? Well, you can go further.
Tim Ferriss discussed how he “simulates” losing all his money by sleeping on the floor, wearing the same outfits every day, eating rice and beans, etc. He writes that after doing these “exercises,” you may realize “there is more freedom to be gained from practicing poverty than chasing wealth.”
Once you realize that you are living the life you most feared, you gain mastery over that fear. There’s no better way to break the shackles of golden handcuffs than living your fear and realizing you’re not broken. It will save you the time of chasing after the golden handcuffs and realizing you’re not fulfilled.
I heard of a lawyer who bought a very expensive house as a mid-level associate, and she was pushed out soon after. There were certainly warning signs that her firm was unhappy with her performance, but she blithely pushed ahead.
I read in an idiotic personal finance book once that when a mid-level associate considers their five-year plan, they should plan on having a partner’s salary. I laughed so loud. Making partner is not a given for anyone. I’m saying you can be a shoo-in for the partnership to accept you, but you still might change your mind about it.
Now there’s nothing wrong with buying a house as a mid-level, but you can’t buy a house assuming you’ll be making partner in a few years. Do not make big purchases – i.e. those requiring decades of a certain salary – banking on staying in Big Law for the long term. People are often happy in Big Law – until they aren’t. And then with the hefty mortgage – they can’t leave.
Your Next Job
Many people jump from their law firm jobs straight to any other job that will take them. Because I live in the Washington, DC area, many people jump to the federal government. These are good jobs, but it’s not necessarily the dream.
While you’re dreaming and fantasizing about quitting your job, try to dream or fantasize about your dream job. Keep your ears open for job descriptions that interest you and seek out opportunities at your current firm to make yourself a viable candidate for these jobs.
If you want a career you love, you have to plan and prepare for it. It’s unlikely that you’ll just fall into your dream career by jumping desperately from one job to the next. Find what you like and seek that out.
If you’re quitting your job without something else lined up, it’s possible you just broke at some point. Even if you’re thinking of quitting now or even if you’re working quite happily, mental health, like physical health, is something that constantly needs mending.
Among your friends, ask around to see if anyone can recommend a therapist. It’s good to start going so that you can see what it’s like, try out a few different practices and people to see who you gel with. Maybe it’s helpful, maybe it’s not.
Just like planning for your escape, it doesn’t hurt to get familiar with the process before you feel like you need it. For me, it was always at least helpful to have the dedicated time to discuss my mental health with someone.
Also familiarize yourself with the ABA’s list of mental health resources.
If you’re switching from one job to another, then you don’t have to worry as much about your identity. You can assume the identity of your next job. But what many people fear when quitting their job is how they will think of themselves and how others will think of them.
Early retirees have reported suffering this loss of identity. Who are we aside from our jobs? Lawyers in particular derive a great sense of identity from their professions. We went for an extra three years of schooling and took a ridiculous test to be able to call ourselves lawyers, after all.
Health insurance has got to be top priority on your list if you’re planning on quitting your job before you have a new one. I bought my health insurance from ehealthinsurance.com. (Personally, when I logged on to the ACA website, I was spammed with so many spam phone calls, I could not use my phone for days, because every few minutes, a spammer would harass me.)
Short-term plans might be the right option for now because you aren’t necessarily planning to leave for a long time. Also, short-term plans are often cheaper than long-term plans.
What Will You Do With Your Time?
In the direct aftermath of quitting your job, you will have a lot of errands to do making sure you don’t lose your home or insurance coverage. You may consider working on your mental health and/or relationships. Likely you will also start to look for a job and contemplate your future (see next section).
But after that, you’ll have some time to think, what am I going to do with my day-to-day time? For me, I had a lot of goals. I’m sure you have goals too that have been buried deep inside you, waiting for a time when you didn’t have to measure your productivity in six-minute increments.
One of the best choices I made in life was taking the year off after college to travel. It wasn’t necessarily life-changing and it didn’t springboard me into a life of riches. It was quite honestly a year off. And the beauty of it is that so few of us ever get that freedom in our lives when we’re unencumbered by responsibilities or obligations to others. Cherish this time and do something that you’ve always wanted to do. This is where the ‘fantasy’ of planning comes in. And don’t feel guilty if you’re doing something just for you, with no profitable gain. Sometimes we just need time to live and create and recuperate. We would all be better people if we had more of this kind of time.
Consider a Career Break
Leaving your law firm job doesn’t mean you have to leave the legal profession. You’ve sunk time and energy into pursuing this career. And at one time you were likely inspired to become a lawyer. You might just be burned out.
It would behoove you give your career a second chance by just taking some time off. Many women will take a career break. Perhaps more female lawyers would continue in the field if they took a career break to recover from their bad law firm experiences.
Consider taking a career break or sabbatical before you cut ties with the law forever. If you make yourself valuable enough, you can guarantee having your job back, take time to pursue other interests, and perhaps even get paid for your time off.
What Is Your Future?
There are lots of resources out there for alternative paths and careers for lawyers. I won’t reinvent the wheel – I’ll just point you to them.
Legal Nomads – Thrillable Hours
The Unhappy Lawyer: A Roadmap to Finding Meaningful Work Outside of the Law
What Can You Do With a Law Degree?: A Lawyers’ Guide to Career Alternatives Inside, Outside & Around the Law
LawCrossing’s Guide to Alternative Careers
Judgment Reversed: Alternative Careers for Lawyers
Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the J.D. You Have
Conclusion – Plan to Leave BigLaw
This is not a comprehensive guide to quitting BigLaw or your law firm job – just things to think about. In reality, if you’re already thinking of quitting your job without something else lined up, you might not know the exact time or place when you actually quit. You will just be fed up and quit when you can’t take it anymore (which is also a popular search term to get to my site).
I wish you the best of luck in whatever you do, whether you continue in the law or go on to wild successes somewhere else. Happy planning!