Why I Quit My Six Figure Attorney Job

why i quit my six-figure attorney job
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At 11am on a nondescript Monday in February, I noticed that nothing unpleasant had happened yet.  That was unusual. And noting that peculiarity seemed like reason enough to quit my six-figure attorney job.

I told people it was a spontaneous decision. I hadn’t picked a particular day, but I knew that day I couldn’t do it anymore. Rereading my journal, however, I came across this journal entry:

I just can’t continue on at my job. It’s never-ending. I’m constantly stressed and crying and there’s no relief in sight.

I wrote this in March of 2017, almost two years before I gave notice. They say it takes decades to become an overnight success, and it took me years to realize the toll that my job was taking on me.  I remember for so long actually liking my job.

The Rosy Past

I entered law school at an inauspicious time – right after the bottom fell through the legal industry. Our dean, rather than give us rosy predictions of the riches we would soon accumulate, acknowledged what a difficult and uncertain time we were in.

Still, after law school, I was lucky enough to obtain high-paying employment as an associate in a law firm. And for the most part, I enjoyed it.

The prestige of being a lawyer was great. The money was great. I liked my office and my work outfits. (Ok, I’m shallow). The challenge of the work was invigorating. The office emptied around 6pm. Most people were still working from home, but I appreciated that I didn’t have to do face time. I got free tickets to my first NFL and NHL games and got a host of other perks. Honestly, we were so spoiled that my parents would complain about the free food at these free events.

I didn’t even mind the long hours. It didn’t bother me that I billed 2400 hours my first year, and worked on my vacations. I worked no matter my condition. For instance, I’ve worked from a hospital bed on Christmas. I’ve drafted motions while my kidney was infected. And I still liked my job.

The Tides Change

Then, I was put on a case, which was new and interesting at first, but quickly, turned toxic. I hated my boss, and so did everyone else. Five associates left our team in two years. Eventually, I was the only associate left. I was doing the work that had previously been done by three associates, and probably should have been done by five.

In November, I was working more than 70 hours a week. I spent every minute of my waking hours working. Or worrying about work. And if I wasn’t worrying about work or working, I was having nightmares about work. It was terrible.

In December, I went to my doctor to address my six months of lost appetite. My primary care physician noted that I met the criteria for severe depression and anxiety (but she didn’t diagnose anything). She prescribed a diet of sunshine and exercise, and eating food. All good things. We were not going with drugs. We had hope that any dips in mood were situational and would end once new associates started joining the team. And I determined I would spend a little more time out of the office.

I had no time or energy to look for other work. Also, I had no idea what other kind of work I wanted to do. Another law firm would be similar in terms of work and hours.

Treading Water

In April of 2018, I called my parents to let them know I was quitting. They urged me to stay until I had a new job. And here in February of 2019, I still didn’t know where to go or what to do. Still, I knew that I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing.

In addition to the lost appetite, my hair was falling out. A few mornings a month I would have anxiety-induced dry heaving. I had double vision at the end of the day. I woke up every morning with an intense feeling of dread. The last time I felt relaxed or happy? I couldn’t remember it. Instead, I spent my “free time” figuring out if I could skip activities/meals and work instead.

It’s drilled in us that health is more important than wealth. But how many of us actually live in a way that doesn’t sacrifice our health for our job, let alone for wealth? Few people go into their work thinking that their job is more important than their health. Still it’s easy to sacrifice yourself when everyone around you is doing it.

Meanwhile, I had paid off my student loans. I had always been a diligent saver. I had even read many “financially independent, early retirement” stories with people who quit their jobs with the same amount of money I had saved.  I didn’t believe I could retire on this amount of money. Still I could live for a few years without a paycheck. I knew all of this and yet I still didn’t think about quitting.

My Future

In January, I was excited to hear about two of my friends getting engaged. One was getting married in March, the other in July. I was asked to be a maid of honor for one, but my work calendar was nonstop trials and nonstop work. And though I wasn’t going to quit my job over missing a wedding or two, I didn’t see the point in missing the weddings.

I could tell based on how understaffed we were, I would miss these two weddings, vacations, sleep, fun. And for what? I wasn’t learning any new skills. I was doing the same thing over and over again. And I would be missing my actual life to do it.

Months earlier, I had contacted a friend who was starting a nonprofit. I asked whether she would have work for me. She said she’d be delighted to have my help. I kept this in my back pocket.

My Legacy

I had honestly thought that those that needed their job to make a difference in the world were naive or rich. But when you’re working 70 hours a week, you start to think about what you’re giving up. You start to think of your legacy and the endpoint of all your struggles. Are you trading your life for something meaningful?

And while I defend my job and my line of work to all comers, I wouldn’t personally want to trade my life for it. Still, when I left my job, I was the most senior minority woman in my firm. I was the second most senior minority – male or female. It’s a white and male-dominated industry. I was honestly surprised and a little proud that I had lasted as long as I did. And I felt like I had some obligation to continue.

A Good Decision

It was a random Monday in February when I knew in my gut that I couldn’t do this anymore. I couldn’t imagine myself working here any longer. Then I walked into my managing partner’s office, closed the door, and gave my two weeks’ notice. Then when I told my supervising partner, she asked that I delay my last day by one week to help with the transition. I agreed.

The evening after I gave my notice, a man tried to get into my apartment building from the parking garage. He looked a little crazy-eyed. I was standing in the elevator vestibule and he gestured to me to help. If there was something wrong with the door or if he didn’t have the security fob, I didn’t want to help him. But as I entered the elevator away from crazy-eyes’ gaze, I worried that someone else would let him in. I was afraid that he would get into my elevator and retaliate. And I was panic-stricken that he would kill me. I had JUST quit my job, but BEFORE I had had any time to enjoy my newfound freedom. If he had just killed me yesterday, I would have felt relief. Today, I was panicked.

That’s when I knew I had made the right decision. My life finally had something to look forward to.

Reactions

In general, I don’t care about 95% of people’s opinions of me. But there were two groups whose opinion on my quitting gave me pause – my coworkers and parents.

A month before I quit, my mother called to tell me my brother was “in trouble.” I expected her to tell me that my brother had ended up on the wrong side of the mob. Instead, the “terrible” news was just that my brother might need to find a new job. My brother is a defense contractor so job hunting is typical. I told her that quitting his job was fine, and that I had been thinking about quitting. I also told her I had lost my appetite.

Now, you can tell your Chinese parents a lot of terrible things that they will just tell you to endure. But a lost appetite is a red alert emergency. My mother quickly came up with some herbal remedies that she would make the next time I came to visit.

When I told my parents about actually quitting my job, I braced for the worst. But, perhaps due to our earlier call, my mom did a quick gasp. She then quickly mollified herself by stating “well, you’ve worked there for a long time.” My dad just said “let’s go on a vacation!”

Overall, I received very positive reactions to my news. My coworkers were excited about my work for the nonprofit. My friends seemed relieved and happy for me, knowing how much my job had stressed me out. One of my friends pressed for more details on my future. Finally, he said if I was happy, he was happy as well.

The Last Three Weeks

I thought it was really funny telling people I had quit my job. It seemed like a huge momentous decision, but nothing in my life had changed yet. I was still in the office, still working crazy hours.

I worked really hard in my last three weeks. My last week, I wrote memos and created training presentations, and wrapped up all my final assignments. In fact, I was given a reply brief to write over my last weekend. It was gratifying that my team had so much faith in me when I could have really screwed them over. In another way, perhaps it showed a lack of respect for my own time and plans. In any case, I figured I would give it my all until I was off the payroll.

I gave notice on a Monday, so three weeks from that day was President’s Day. So I made my last day, the day after President’s Day. That would have been smart of me to snag a free three-day weekend, but I worked in the office every day of the 3-day weekend and until 6pm on my last day. I had drafts to write, edits to input, memos to write.  I made my rounds and said goodbye. And then I left.

The Rosy Future: Why I Quit My Six-Figure Attorney Job

I had scheduled dinner with a friend on my last day. The extrovert in me didn’t want to be alone. He asked me how I felt, and I told him, I had no idea.

But within a week of my last day, I had been texted, emailed, and received phone calls for help with projects, that were not urgent and did not require my expertise. If I were to do it again, I would have told everyone I was going on a several months-long expedition to a country with poor internet access or that I was planning on dying. I could tell you how I felt when I got all these messages asking for work – angry.

I’ll write more about how my sabbatical/retirement has been, but it’s been pretty rosy. My appetite has slowly returned and my hair looks a little fuller. My vision is a bit better. I’m in much better physical shape. But mostly, I find that I feel happy and I don’t miss my job one bit.

why i quit my six-figure attorney job

Author: Lisa

A Washington, DC attorney discusses the financial struggles facing women lawyers.

22 thoughts on “Why I Quit My Six Figure Attorney Job”

  1. I absolutely see why you quit. Just reading about your lifestyle before quitting makes me feel anxious! I quit a shittily-paid job to follow a more lucrative career in the law and I don’t regret it – earning no money really sucks. But my hours and working culture are fairly decent. Here in London it’s well-known that you can earn double the salary by moving to the UK-branch of a US firm. But you’ll do double the hours in exchange. My friends that work for US firms have a pretty non-existent work/life balance. The culture is completely insane.

    I’m glad things are working out for you.

    1. You know, you don’t realize how anxious you are until you’re outside looking in. And then you get used to the money and are trapped. Sorry, this comment got really dark. =P

  2. Congratulations we’re leaving! And thanks for sharing. It reminded me of my days in New York City getting into work at 5:30 AM and leaving after 7:30 PM practically every day.

    It’s too bad some law firms don’t treat their people better. Having to replace you and others must be a really big pain.

    Glad you are enjoying your new chapter!

    Sam

  3. Thanks for sharing! I had similar feelings (especially not eating due to stress) that caused me to leave my previous job but definitely not to the extreme situation you had.

    Enjoy your time off!

    1. I agree that these days, employers are expecting more from employees, and work has bled over into all parts of our lives. A lot of people can relate to my story. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Oh my, seven years in a law firm is no joke. I’m having my first truly busy year and will probably (because of the nature of my current workplace, it’s a bit more feast or famine than larger places seem to be) only end up billing around 2100 max this year. To be blunt, I feel like I’m already close to hitting my physical limits for work, so I really can’t imagine how other people handle more in the long, long term.

    It’s pretty common for my friends who are leaving their firms to find that the firm loads them up with a large quantity of busy work after they give notice. (I’m always slightly baffled because, in theory, it seems like a better move to leave the work with someone who will still be there 3-4 weeks from now?) It seems like I was really lucky not to experience this with my first firm: they seemed to not want to staff me on anything once they knew I’d be leaving to clerk soon. (I told them I wanted to come back after, but they still didn’t want to staff me on anything…)

    1. HA, I never thought I would be able to last seven years in a law firm. But it’s easier to put up with misery than you can imagine, trust me. =D It creeps up on you. Good luck!

  5. You made the only sensible choice.

    When your mental and physical health are compromised by the work, no amount of money will make the job worth keeping.

    I worked crazy hours in med school in residency, but there was always a light at the end of the tunnel. That doesn’t seem to be the case with big law. I quit my job this year, too, but I had this move planned for years, and was able to slowly cut back, working part-time the last couple of years.

    Cheers to freedom!
    -PoF

    1. Thanks for the encouragement. It feels like the right choice now but was terrifying when making it! I figured big law was comparable to medicine – you guys seem to work a lot!

  6. Sounds horrible. I decided to switch careers after clerking at a firm in Virginia my summer after 2L year. Best decision of my life honestly. I went ahead and finished 3L year and eventually took (and passed) the bar just for kicks and in case I needed it (during Great Recession). But I fell back on my engineering degree and did that for my whole 10 year career. 40 hrs/wk, great work life balance, minimal overnight travel. Respectful coworkers and bosses in general. Some stressful projects, clients, and adversarial meetings (most of which involved attorneys lol).

  7. This post really resonated with me and I bet it resonates with a lot of lawyers as well. I quit my job in March, around the same time as you, and the one thing I lot of people keep saying to me is that I look a lot happier.

    We lawyers are a funny bunch – so many of us complain about our jobs, and then do nothing about it. Or we convince ourselves that it’s not so bad. I’m glad to see you actually made a move. Looking forward to what the next chapter of your life brings.

    1. Wow, everyone seemed to quit their jobs in March! I guess March of 2019 was when none of us could take it anymore. =D Looking forward to your next chapter as well!

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