Today I want to talk about a topic that many of us have trouble discussing—the idea of leaving the law behind; quitting it once and for all. As you hit that snooze button for the third time on a typical Monday morning, do you ever fantasize about what your life might be like if you were not a lawyer? Maybe you have a specific idea of what you would like to do instead, like fly airplanes, manage a Starbucks or teach kindergarten. Or perhaps you’re not that specific—you just imagine your life without that 11:00 meet and confer with opposing counsel over the ESI protocol, the 2:00pm “counseling session” with your boss where he’s going to lecture you about the questions you failed to ask in your last deposition. Your dreams may be as simple as freedom from billable hours. I’ll bet, however, that you never get beyond that daydream and actually make a decision to quit, or at least a decision to research quitting. When it comes time to put together a plan of action for getting out, many of us start feeling so overwhelmed that we just give up and go back to what we were doing, because the crappy situation that we know seems more appealing than the unknown.
If this sounds like you, I want to help you break out of this prison and live your dreams, as I am doing. But before we can develop strategies for how to leave, we need to first understand why it’s so hard to do. I think it’s because of something I call the “Four S’s—Security, Status, Sorrow and Sloth
Beyond the top line numbers, which show the profession growing at an average rate—the prognosis for lawyers isn’t good. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics “more students are graduating from law school each year than there are jobs available,” and clients, understanding that legal services is a buyers’ market are constantly demanding ever more for less and even cutting back their consumption of legal services altogether.
Still, if you are one of the lucky lawyers who already has a job, and perhaps for many years running, you may be terrified of letting it go. You may feel lucky to be one of the few on the inside (it’s a tough world out there, after all). You may still be getting a large, steady paycheck. Perhaps you have a mortgage, car payments, or kids you need to put through college.
This was me. In fact, this is still me. At the time I quit, I had two sons, ages 5 and 10, a wife who was a stay-at-home mom, and a relatively expensive co-op apartment in New York City. I honestly felt that I needed my job, and it was only my severe depression, which turned the decision to stay or go into a question of life or death that I quit. In a way the decision was made for me—I physically could not practice anymore if I wanted to stay alive. So I completely understand how tough this obstacle is.
Notwithstanding the lawyer jokes we’ve all heard 10,000 times, being an attorney still ranks high on the scale of occupational prestige. You’ve experienced this and are well aware of it. When you go to a cocktail party or community gathering or other place where people ask “what do you do” as an all purpose conversation-starter, law still carries a certain cache. There is a reason why long running tv shows like Law & Order and L.A. Law have been so successful. People romanticize lawyers, and we all absorb that to an extent. It’s hard to let go.
Have you ever left a long-term relationship? If so, you now how hard they are to terminate. Even if every molecule in your body is telling you that you need to get out—even and especially if you’re being abused, it’s still a terrifying step for most people to quit a relationship. A big part of this is because of all of the time and effort we put into them. Also, you get used to the person over time. They may have good qualities that you still appreciate. After all, there is a reason you got with them in the first place.
I’d venture to say that we have very similar feelings about the law. We put years of hard work into becoming lawyers and even more time into building our careers and climbing the ladder. Our whole identity is structured around the idea of “being a lawyer”. Also there probably are aspects of the profession we still enjoy. For my part, I have always loved being a trusted counselor who people felt they could take their toughest problems to. I got a good feeling from helping them. I also enjoyed the writing and research.
Many of us adopt a sunk cost fallacy in these types of situations. We now we need to leave, but we can’t help but feeling that if we do, we’ll have wasted years of our lives, thousands of hours of hard work, and hundreds of thousands of dollars we spent in the process of becoming lawyers. We focus more on what we have to lose than the new opportunities leaving the law may open to us.
Finally, there is a certain degree of laziness that comes into play when we consider leaving the legal profession. I now—what right do I have to call any of us lazy? We’re some of the least lazy people around. But think about it. In becoming and being a lawyer, you’ve dug a deep groove in your life. It’s very hard to get out of that groove. And it’s very common to avoid tough questions by focusing on our immediate problems and challenges, which our jobs provide no shortage of. It seems easier to keep doing what we are doing, as much as we hate it, than to take on the daunting task of starting again from scratch.
Think of the Four S’s as four walls of a prison cell that restrains us from leaving the law behind. I now that every person is different and we all have many complicated reasons for why we stay where we are or go elsewhere, but I think these reasons figure prominently in most lawyers’ decisions to stay in jobs they hate. In future blog entries, I’ll talk about things we can do to overcome these obstacles and leave the law behind for good.