Leaving Litigation: A First-Hand Account

BigLaw DepartureI got an email recently from a friend who’d done what lots of other young lawyers want to do — she left BigLaw for a job she liked better (without leaving the law entirely). When she offered to tell her story, I jumped on it, naturally!

Today, Elaine gives a bit of background and explains why she wanted to leave her BigLaw litigation position. Later on, she talks in great detail about how she did it — how she left, and how she ended up in a position she likes a lot better.

It is possible! Stay tuned.

Without further ado…here’s Elaine.

The Background

In the last three months, I’ve received emails or phone calls out of the blue from nearly a dozen current/former litigation associates who:

  1. Sounded like they were about to have a panic attack if they billed another minute.
  2. Wanted to know how I left my litigation job and eventually ended up as in-house counsel at a start-up, despite my having absolutely no corporate experience whatsoever.

I knew some of these attorneys previously, but others were pretty random and contacted me through a friend or relative.

At first, I didn’t feel like I had anything special to say, as I’m still fairly green in my new job. But as time went on, I realized that I was hearing a lot of the same questions and anxieties over and over again — the same questions and anxieties I had agonized over before I pulled my risk-adverse self out of litigation.

I also felt dismay when I heard how these bright, interesting people no longer felt that they were bright and interesting. Instead, they were too paralyzed to do anything except loathe jobs where they spent sixteen to eighteen hours a day (or more), seven days a week.

Many of the people with whom I spoke just wanted some reassurance that it wasn’t professional suicide to quit without having a paying job lined up.

I therefore decided to write about my experience with quitting, unemployment, uncertainty, and some floundering.

But before I go further, I should give a little of my background. I got a science degree from Stanford University, graduated from Yale Law School, clerked for a federal district court judge, and then worked at a litigation law firm for nearly three years. I left the law firm and, ultimately, litigation.

It would be another seven months before I had a regularly paying job again.

I’m now an attorney in a start-up and, at least for the time being, feel like one of those mythological breeds: a happy lawyer.

Why did I want to leave the law firm?

Countless blogs and articles have talked about law firms’ long and unpredictable hours, billing pressures, unreasonable demands ad nauseum. So I don’t need to rehash that. If anything, I was actually fortunate enough to have worked with good people and to have substantive experience early on — such as taking depositions (poorly), writing briefs (mediocrely), conducting discovery (all the *&$# time), etc.

But something didn’t feel right.

Whereas many of my coworkers were very excited about taking depositions or arguing in court, I just felt anxious. (Oh yeah, I also had a public speaking phobia as a kid and, if I carried notes for some speaking assignment, my hands used to shake so hard that I couldn’t read my handwriting.) I wasn’t as careful or detail-oriented as I should have been because a lot of the details seemed inane to me or I simply didn’t notice that they were there. I disliked confrontation and didn’t take joy in sticking it to the other side.

What I failed to articulate at the time was the fact that, while I had the ability to be at least a mediocre litigator, I didn’t have the personality for it.

I worried that I was making far too many sacrifices for something that I wasn’t even that into. I once heard being a litigation associate at a big law firm described as “a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie.” Ugh, I didn’t want more pie. I didn’t want to wait another five, ten, fifteen years before I got into a courtroom to do what every litigation associate/document monkey had been striving to do — opening statements, cross-examinations, and closing arguments — and then discover that the end game wasn’t really worth it.

I was afraid that if I continued to make excuses for myself and stayed longer, I would feel increasingly paralyzed and committed to a path I wasn’t that passionate about.

— – —

Next Up: The logistics of leaving.

Image by liquid008 via stock.xchng.


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