I Quit My Job!!
Some of you may have noticed that 99% of the posts on this blog are written by Grizzly Dad — which may lead you to wonder, “Where is Grizzly Mom?” Well, for the last three months, while Grizzly Dad was writing this blog, working his day job, and taking care of Baby Bear, I was sailing around the world on the Capitalist Princess, our 40-foot yacht.
Just kidding! Obviously, we don’t have a yacht (though if we ever bought an inflatable raft, I might name it Capitalist Princess). And the Grizzlies haven’t spent much time or money on vacations; I have taken a grand total of two vacations since I started practicing law in 2010. The much less exciting reason why I haven’t contributed to this blog in months is that I have been holed up in my office, drowning in work from my corporate law job, with barely any time to help Grizzly Dad with Baby Bear, let alone blog.
But my prolonged absence from this blog is about to change because I officially quit my job (!) Last week, after seven years as a corporate litigator for a global law firm, I quit — with no new job on the horizon. I had expected to feel nothing but pure euphoria as I packed up the books and knick-knacks in my office, but I have instead been grappling with an unexpected sense of anxiety about my future. Like many people who are seeking financial independence, I had focused almost exclusively on saving up enough money so that I could leave my job — and did not think very much about how I would feel after quitting. But a pervasive sense of uncertainty has clouded my first week of freedom — a sentiment that I have described to Grizzly Dad as “the void.” I’ve identified a couple of reasons why I am flailing around in “the void” and how I plan to snap out of it — which I hope will help some of you who are intrigued by financial independence but feel similar anxiety about falling into “the void” after quitting your jobs.
Why did I quit my job?
Warning: This section is basically a rant about the workaholic culture of large law firms (known as “BigLaw”) and how BigLaw attorneys are expected to devote all of their time to their jobs. If you are not an attorney and (understandably) believe that attorneys are overpaid and should not whine about their jobs, please feel free to skip this part and jump to the next section! Or, if you are a BigLaw attorney and think that BigLaw is WONDERFUL, feel free to skip this part too. (And if you love being a BigLaw attorney, I wonder why you are reading this blog at all, since this blog is about saving up enough money to quit demanding jobs. But I digress).
That warning aside, I want to provide some context as to why I decided to step off the BigLaw treadmill. After all, shouldn’t I be grateful that: (1) I went to law school, and (2) graduated with a high-paying job at an elite law firm? My answer to (1) and (2) is yes. Thank you, law school and BigLaw for providing me with a well-paying career. And my seven years in BigLaw were not completely bleak — my work was often interesting, I had the privilege of working with very talented and bright people, and I made some great friends at my firm.
But a career in BigLaw wasn’t sustainable for me. Here are a few reasons why I walked away from my BigLaw paycheck:
The billable hour model is awful
My measure of worth as a Biglaw attorney was based in significant part on how many hours I billed. I was required to keep track of my time in six-minute increments. The more hours you bill to clients, the more money the law firm makes, and the more “valuable” you are to the law firm. If you don’t bill “enough” hours, you get fired. (Officially, my firm asked that associates bill at least 2,000 hours a year, but I had a number of bosses who said that billing 2,000 hours was not “enough”). Keeping track of your time in six-minute increments is tedious, but the real problem with the billable hour model is that you feel bad taking any time off. Any time that you spend chatting with another associate or lingering at lunch is time that you are not billing to a client. Which is bad, because if your hours are low, you will either be given more work to do (because the Firm thinks that you aren’t busy enough), or you will be fired.
The hours are horrendous
You might think that because my law firm required attorneys to bill 2,000 hours a year, we only had to work 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year. Nope. Billing 2,000 hours a year is different from working 2,000 hours a year. You don’t bill clients for every minute that you are in the office. If you are efficient, you can maybe bill clients for 80% of the hours that you spend in the office. So, in order to bill the minimum of 40 hours a week, I had to work at least 50 hours a week. That doesn’t sound bad either, right? But the reality is, if you are any good, you will be asked to work far more than 50 hours a week. Working 10 hours a day is generally considered to be a “light” day in BigLaw. A heavy day — like when I was in trial or coming up against a major deadline — was 16-18 hours a day. On those heavy days, you do not go home. You barely sleep. You nap in the office for a few hours, splash some cold water on your face, drink another cup of coffee, and keep on working.
The expectations are unreasonable
To be fair, not all BigLaw partners are unreasonable and I worked for some wonderful partners who respected the limited amount of time I spent with my family. But I also worked for some seriously unhinged people who worked all the time and demanded that their associates do the same. While working for these partners, I did the following: (a) worked on Christmas, New Year’s, and every other holiday, (b) canceled pre-paid vacations and/or spent those vacations working, (c) worked 16-18 hour days while pregnant and suffering from severe morning sickness, (d) slept only 3-4 hours a night for months on end; (e) worked while I had high fevers, bad cases of the flu, and other assorted ailments, when I really should have been resting at home, and (f) missed funerals, weddings, and other momentous life events. At other jobs, any of these reasons might allow you to skip a day of work. Not in Biglaw.
There’s more to life than work
Basically, I left Biglaw because I wanted to spend some time doing things other than working. Most importantly, I wanted to help raise Baby Bear, spend time with Grizzly Dad, and see family and friends. I wanted to be able to plan vacations that I know I could take (with Biglaw, you never know when you might have to cancel your vacation), or more simply, plan social events on the weekends. Even more basically, I wanted some time to take care of my health — to sleep, eat right, work out, go to the doctor, and hell, maybe even put on some makeup or brush my hair every now and then.
As I once told Grizzly Dad during a hectic month at work, with tears streaming down my face, “I have no time for anything! I don’t even have time to shave both of my legs in the shower! I only have time for one leg!” That’s right, folks: at a very basic level, I quit my job so I could have time to shower and shave both of my legs.
So why didn’t I celebrate quitting my job?
You would think that I would be celebrating now that BigLaw is in my rear view mirror. I am celebrating — some. I am enjoying the fact that I have time to sleep, shower, and shave both legs. I relish the time I can now spend with Grizzly Dad and Baby Bear. And I am very grateful that Grizzly Dad and I have slashed our spending and ramped up our savings so that we could get to the point where I could walk away from my job. To mitigate the loss of my BigLaw paycheck, Grizzly Dad is continuing to work his day job for another year (we agreed that I should quit my job first because my job was driving me and our family insane), and we are leaving the very expensive Bay Area to move to Kansas City. I am celebrating all of these developments.
But what I am not celebrating is my loss of sense of identity. Despite the horrendous hours and draconian bosses, I was proud to say that I worked at that law firm. After seven years of introducing myself as a lawyer of that firm, I felt an unexpected sense of sadness when I dumped my business cards into the trash can and deleted my biography from the firm’s website.
My sense of sadness intensified when attorneys at my firm asked me what I was doing next. Usually, when attorneys leave my law firm, they move on to prestigious jobs in government, or at large companies or other law firms. But my plan is to start my own little legal practice after we move to Kansas. I plan to offer a mix of family law, bankruptcy, and general litigation services. I hope to continue practicing law – because I enjoy it – but also have time to help raise Baby Bear and do other things with my life. When I tried to explain this somewhat vague plan to other attorneys at my firm, I was met with inquisitive stares and sometimes disapproving looks. Several well-meaning attorneys at my firm to offer to help me find another job. “I can put in a good word for you at [large regional law firm] in Kansas City,” one partner offered. Another partner offered to send my resume to the headquarters of a few corporations in Kansas City. Other attorneys straight-up told me not to open my own legal shop. “You aren’t going to make any money on your own,” one colleague said. Still, other lawyers assumed that my real plan was to be a stay-at-home mom. “It’s OK, plenty of women stay home with their kids,” this particular attorney told me, ignoring my statement about opening up my own legal shop.
These reactions have filled me with doubt. I invested a lot of time and money in building my legal career, and I do not want to throw it all away – especially since there are aspects of practicing law that I enjoy. But I’m bothered by the idea that I have walked away from a successful legal career by quitting my BigLaw job and not moving on to another “prestigious” law job. “Once you step off the treadmill, it’s very hard to get back on,” one partner warned me.
Learning to Love the Void
For the past week, instead of celebrating my escape from BigLaw, I keep worrying about that damn treadmill. Did I step off too soon? Should I have run a little farther, made a little more money, built up my career more? And if I want or need to get back on the treadmill, will I be able to get back on? Or will I be sidelined forever?
What I am slowly realizing is – don’t take advice from the people who are still running on the treadmill. People who are still running on the treadmill will tell you that you need to keep running too. When you have worked a job for many years, it’s hard to envision an alternative path to success. And in American society, we tend to define ourselves according to our job titles and the amount of money we make. So, if you want to “succeed” according to conventional American standards, you should stay on the corporate treadmill, where you can earn a high salary and have a fancy job title.
But these are bullshit reasons to continue running on the treadmill. Success does not have to be defined according to the size of your paycheck or your job title. You can define success according to the satisfaction you have with your job – and more generally, your life. “Success” can mean balancing your job with the rest of your life. Success can mean devoting your life to people and issues you really care about.
To get out of the “void,” I need to re-define success. I need to realize that I can be “successful” even though I don’t have a big paycheck or glittering law firm name behind me. A successful day can be one where I help a client or two with their legal problems in the morning and then help my daughter with her homework in the afternoon.
I also need to stop defining myself according to my job title or my career. It sounds trite, but this is something I found worth repeating – our jobs are what we do, not who we are. I am not worthless as a person now that I am unemployed than I was last week when I was a litigator at a global firm.
Finally, in order to love the “void,” I need to learn to be comfortable with unstructured time. After years of working at a frenetic pace, it is a relief to finally have some free time, but it is also somewhat unsettling. I have had a grand total of six days off, and I have told Grizzly Dad that I already feel like a “waste of space.” But I really haven’t been a “waste of space” – I have spent those days taking care of Baby Bear, running errands, and preparing for our move to Kansas City. And even if I simply caught up on sleep, I wouldn’t be a “waste of space.” (Sadly, working in Biglaw has convinced me that sleep is a waste of time). But I need to figure out how to structure my days so I feel productive “enough” to be satisfied with myself. This will take some time.