Trading in the Expense Account: Transitioning from Big Law to Public Interest: New Year, New You. New JOB?

Ah, January 2013. It’s the beginning of a new year and, perhaps, time to think about what lies in your future – personally and professionally. At this time last year, I woke up one morning knowing, not just thinking, that things needed to change. I wasn’t unhappy, but I knew that I didn’t want to keep doing what I was doing. So, I took a chance, quit my firm and my six-figure salary, and took a non-profit job making roughly a quarter of my previous salary.  And, I love it.

This series will be about what it takes to give up the expense account – not just financially, but also personally and professionally.  

Burnout” is defined on Wikipedia as the experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest. There are many reasons that may lead a lawyer to burn out, but the end-result is the same: an individual who doesn’t care about the work they’re doing or themselves. It may come at any point in your career – for me, it just happened to be two years after graduation. It went a little something like this:

  1. May 2010: Graduation = Stress (e.g. “What am I doing with my life?”)
  2. June-August 2010: Studying for the bar = Stress (e.g. “This is going to determine the REST OF MY LIFE!”)
  3. Sept. 2010-Dec. 2010: Begin work/Learn ropes = Stress (e.g. “Can they tell I don’t know what I’m doing?”)
  4. Jan. 2011- March 2011: Firm closing/Losing job = Stress (e.g. “OMG!”)

I got a new job quickly and I was EXTREMELY HAPPY. For about four months. Then, over the next twelve months, I became slowly disillusioned and the malaise set in. That’s when every day starts and ends with the general sentiment that “there has to be more to life than this.” But, at the same time, it seems like this is probably as good as it gets.

Certainly, not everyone faces so many challenges within their first year of employment, but, if I’m honest, I think the resulting malaise (“There has to be more to life than this.”) was essentially an overreaction to the constant, heightened level of stress that I had become accustomed to – rather than appreciating the calm after the storm, I quickly became disillusioned with the predictability of “normal life.”  

However, once the malaise set in, there was no shaking it and I realized that I needed to ‘reset’ things. I decided to do that by finding a new job. I had to consider a few things first though:

  1. Motivation: Where was my lack of satisfaction coming from?
  2. Type of Work: What did I hope to get out of a new job?
  3. Time Frame: How badly did I need to leave?

These are questions you should think about VERY CAREFULLY. There are many resources designed to help lawyers figure out what they want to do – including whether they even want to still be lawyers – and, if you’re having trouble with knowing whether or not you like law, they are a good place to start. Once you know you want to stay in the law (as I did) you still have to figure out practice setting/areas of interest/skills/long-term goals.  There are, obviously, lots of lawyers who don’t practice in large law firms, but, also obvious, you’re the only one who will know whether a non-profit or the government or perhaps even an international position is right for you. I knew exactly what issue areas were important to me and a non-profit was really the only option.

Timing is perhaps the one thing that is most important, but that you have the least amount of control over. In a perfect world, you would identify the type of job you want to do, a couple of different places that do it, and then, of course, you would either already possess all of the relevant skills or know the right people or whatever it is that will shoot you to the top of the pile. However, as most of us know, the more likely thing is you start poking around, looking for something to catch your eye, when, BAM, the perfect job shows up in your inbox as a forward or from some listserv you signed up for, but you aren’t where you need to be to go for it and this organization only hires new staff when someone dies.

But, as Tupac would say, “Keep ya head up [video].” The purpose of this series is to lead you through the practical, financial, and psychological/emotional problems you may face when you are preparing to fight people for a large pay cut. The first six months will focus on practical preparation for leaving a well-paying job. The next two will focus on the lived experience (perspiration, if you will). The next three will be about perspective (you’re not poor – it just feels that way), and the last post will be about how you can give yourself the ol’ kick-in-the-pants if you don’t have the flexibility to take a lower paying job.

Because, as a wise man once said – success is 50% preparation, about 16% perspiration, 25% perspective, and roughly 8% figuring out how to feel better while not doing too much else. Or something like that.

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