Last winter I decided to end my career as a litigator with a large firm. My work dealt with securities and white collar crime; if you ended up in court because of a financial transaction, someone like me was usually in the background. It made me incredibly unhappy. Although it took three years of law school, over a hundred thousand dollars in borrowed money and one brutal exam to get there, once I was in the front door all I wanted to do was claw my way back out. I wasn't nearly alone. A survey by the American Lawyer back in 2010 revealed that nearly two in three attorneys want to leave their firms, hoping to escape from jobs that the Syracuse Law Review once called "high paid misery." Even the usually sunny Australians get into the act, with their Lawyer's Weekly reporting a staggering 15 % depression rate across the profession. As any associate attorney will tell you, those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.
For most lawyers, myself included, the biggest problem is the hours. They never ended. They couldn't end. In the law your hours are what you sell. "Biglaw" firms bill the client for every six minutes someone spends touching their case, measured precisely. Those six minutes are what the partners make their money off of, not what you produce during them. In the same way that Coke produces fizzy drinks and Apple sells phones, a lawyer's product is his time, and the firm tries very hard to sell as much of it as possible.
In fact, the only thing I didn't want to escape was the camaraderie of people in the office. Contrary to what I'd learned from a lifetime of TV and movie references, my coworkers and supervisors weren't an army of backstabbing, spittle-flecked Gordon Gecko wanna-bes. Far from it. For the most part they were just like me, lawyers trying to be good at a job that's always just one bad day off from completely overwhelming you. We cut each other slack whenever the job allowed and helped each other out if we could. To my surprise, we were friends.
Three years later I decided to get out. Leaving terrified me, but not for the usual reasons. I never worried that my fiancée and I would starve or need to steal nickels from vending machines to make rent. I felt like I had most of the practical side of things planned out, almost obsessively so in fact. I'd saved my money, found health insurance, made arrangements for my student loans and so on. All of the details that I could think to list I did, then listed them over and over again. The moving pieces were, as far as I could manage, taken care of. I was scared of the stuff I couldn't put on a list. What would I do if I wasn't a lawyer? What would I be? I hadn't done anything else in so long that I had no idea what was even out there. Seven years in law school and practice, the better part of a decade, had prepared me for one thing and one thing only: to be an attorney at an American firm.