Know When To Pivot: Making The Decision To Leave Your Law Firm In Order To Stay The Course Elsewhere

We know that the majority of women of color will leave their law firms before even being considered for partnership. While we have discussed the challenges that women of color face, we have spent considerable time over the course of this blog discussing concrete ways in which women of color can be successful at their law firms so that they remain long enough to be considered for partnership. Whenever I mentor women of color lawyers, I always tell them to stay the course at their law firms provided they are happy. That brings us to a very difficult conversation: What happens if you are unhappy? I am not talking to those who are unhappy because they get an itch every few years to leave their firm or who are ready to leave when they experience the slightest bit of adversity. Frankly, those people likely don’t have what it takes to stay the course and are beyond my reach. I am talking to those who are genuinely unhappy with their practice and do not believe they can stay the course because their law firm may not be a good fit for their long-term success.  

Now, there are plenty of unhappy lawyers as the profession is becoming increasingly more demanding with lawyers constantly working around-the-clock and having more stress and anxiety—stress from generating new business, responding to client needs, balancing work and family (just to name a few things). A 2016 report from the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association examined the responses of 12,825 licensed attorneys across 19 states. Overall, the results showed that 21 percent of lawyers are problem drinkers; 28 percent struggle with mild or more severe depression; 19 percent struggle with anxiety; 85 percent of lawyers used alcohol in the previous year; and only 3,419 lawyers answered the question about drug use—the majority of responders skipped the question. Of those who answered, 5.6 percent used cocaine, crack, stimulants and opioids; 10.2 percent used marijuana and hash; and almost 16 percent used sedatives.

This is a pretty bleak picture and confirms that a good number of attorneys are unhappy and are resorting to substance abuse in an attempt to escape their unhappiness (and we know substance abuse is never the answer). We need to take a step back and have a little perspective: Never stay at a law firm that fundamentally makes you unhappy. Sure, there will be challenging days, but those challenging days should not be frequent and all-consuming. Early in my career, I worked at a law firm for one year where I was practicing in an area of the law that I did not choose to practice and for which I did not have any interest. While I enjoyed my colleagues, I realized that the law firm was not the best fit for me. I made that assessment early and was able to course-correct and choose a law firm where I could practice employment law—my desired practice area—and where I could stay the course.

Know when to pivot. Never stay anywhere where you cannot maximize your full potential and where you do not have the institutional support to further your career. You should be perceptive enough to know when it’s time to pivot—when you are practicing at a law firm that is not the best fit for you—make that assessment early. Surely, you should not compromise your own mental sanity, health and well-being at a law firm that is not providing the institutional support and opportunities for you to succeed.

I challenge you: Think about where you are in your career. If you are unhappy, what are you doing about it? The journey is long and you should not stay a day longer at a law firm that is not a good fit for you. Are you at a law firm where you can stay the course? Think about it and really be honest with yourself. I was honest with myself six years ago, made the pivot and never looked back!

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