I Want to Quit

by | March 10, 2009

Dear Sang:

I am a third year litigation associate but have only been at my firm for two years because I clerked for a judge after I graduated from law school. I've been working on a very large team on a high profile matter for the bulk of the last two years and my billable hours are consistently in the range of 225 to 250 hours per month. I do a lot of document review and research memos and I don't really get the sense that I'm going to get any deposition experience in the next few years (there are fourth and fifth years at my firm who still haven't taken a deposition!). I have not had one weekend off in the last four months and I have had to cancel every vacation (except one long weekend) since joining this firm. I'm really angry at life and I never thought I'd say this, but I hate my job. I really loved law school and my clerkship -- it just wasn't supposed to turn out this way.

I want to quit my job at this firm but the idea of going to another law firm to potentially do exactly the same thing and potentially feel exactly the same way is even more depressing. Right now, I think I'd rather do anything than this. I really want to quit and take some time to figure out my life. I know that people say that you shouldn't quit a job without having another one lined up but I don't know what I want to do and I don't have the time to figure it out while I'm billing like a maniac. If I quit my job without anything lined up (legal or non-legal) in order to get my head together, will it be hard to get another job at a law firm later on if I decide that I want to give it another go?

Signed,
Depressed Document Reviewer

Dear Doc:

I'm sorry that you're going through such a rough spell. It sounds like you've had a truly difficult stretch, especially these last four months without much down time. You sound tired. Very very tired. And while I don't gravitate to overly dramatic characterization, your note suggests that you're in real professional and existential crisis and it's never a good idea to make big life decisions (like quitting your job) when you're in crisis. Over the years, I have worked with many incredibly qualified professionals who, when thoroughly overwhelmed and overextended, think they "want out" and fantasized about jobs completed unrelated to their professional training. But it's important to give proper consideration to exit strategies before making a dash for the nearest exit. You've worked too hard to throw everything away. Don't you agree?

While I would love to be the pal who says that it's okay to walk into your managing partner's office, graciously tender your resignation and promptly break into a full-blown elementaryschool-esque "skip-skip-skip-to-my-lou" as you dance out the door, I would be remiss in my career counseling if I said that quitting without having another job lined up is a good idea. While I have known quite a few lawyers who left their law firms without being gainfully employed by another firm or company, these same lawyers confronted some pretty skeptical and tough interviewers when they were ready to seek full-time work again. As fair or unfair as this may sound, there's some truth to the clichi that "nobody likes a quitter." Even if you decide to leave the universe of legal employment -- which I must confess sounds a bit drastic for someone who is so young in your career and so academically accomplished -- future employers might wonder whether you are someone who picks up and heads for the nearest escape hatch when the going gets rough.

So, what are your options? As hard as it may be to believe, you actually have several to choose from. But before you can really evaluate your options, you must critically and honestly examine your current situation. You say that "it just wasn't supposed to turn out this way." What was your expectation coming into your law firm? What did you think your day-to-day professional existence would look like? You are working at a firm that is representing a party to a high-profile litigation which suggests that you are probably at a fairly large firm. Forgive the inferences but it sounds like you are a classic achiever (overachiever?) who probably fares quite well in high-pressure situations. Is it fair to deduce that you are someone who would have correctly anticipated that high billing requirements are part-and-parcel of a "big firm" associate's life? So, what went wrong?

Perhaps you expected, post-clerkship, that you would be conducting research, participating in litigation strategy sessions, drafting portions of briefs, drafting motions (maybe even arguing a few) and second-seating depositions; in other words, you hadn't braced yourself for nearly two years of document review and memo writing. If this is part of the problem, it is totally fair and appropriate to be disgruntled with the quality of your work. At this stage of your career, you are correct to crave some meatier assignments beyond sitting at a computer screen reviewing e-documents or traveling to a warehouse in a remote destination to face hundreds of dusty boxes in search of a smoking gun. So, here's option number one: try to get better work at your present firm. Before you start shaking your head in disbelief and accusing me of failing to understand how busy you are, consider the following course of action: give your firm an opportunity to correct the problem. Talk to your assigning partner or better yet, your partner mentor -- do you have one? While it's true that law firms are increasingly more bottom-line oriented, focusing on activity that will increase revenue and decrease expense, firms must also operate as intelligent businesses and you are an important asset in your firm's business. If you are so unhappy that leaving is a serious consideration, the leaders of a good business should want to address your discontent in an effort to keep you because you are important to the bottom line. While you might not be pulled off the case, your partners just might add more colleagues to the team so that you can get some much-needed rest. It's not always obvious to partners (who are plagued by their own set of unique pressures) that the associates who work for them are dissatisfied because associates don't express their unhappiness, assuming that their partners simply don't care. While it's true that some partners might not care, it's more likely that your partners do.

It's also possible that you'll find yourself miraculously pulled off the team. After almost two years of non-substantive work, your partners might realize that your skills are not being put to their best use and decide to staff the matter more appropriately with a first or second year associate. There is, of course, the possibility that talking to someone might make the situation worse. If that's the case, you're correct to consider leaving your firm. But before you quit with nothing in hand, why not explore option number two: search out a better work culture (where open dialogue isn't punished) AND better work at a different firm. As difficult as it might be to embrace, well-managed firms do exist. Are your law school classmates happy at their firms? Are the "hands" in their "hands-on" experience grabbing something other than another box of documents? If so, you owe it to yourself to investigate the marketplace. I assure you that your conversations with potential law firm employers today will be radically different than those strange 20 minute interview slots you fought for as a 2L/3L during on-campus recruitment seasons. You are no longer a law student with a perma-grin, good grades from a top school and little else. You are an associate with true work experience -- familiar with the daily pressures lawyers face while representing their clients' needs; you understand time-sensitivities, law firm culture and efficient billing. Most importantly, you really understand -- in a way that you simply couldn't when you were in school -- that you have a duty to protect your client from exposure and risk. You're not a student anymore, your name isn't Dorothy and this certainly isn't Kansas. You're a big-time New York lawyer and you have leverage. Use it to your advantage: honestly assess the type of professional environment that would suit you, stop assuming that all firms are the same and consider interviewing somewhere else. I know you're tired but you owe it to yourself to give it one more shot. It could turn out to be the best thing you've ever done.

Exploring either of these options will require you to expend some emotional and physical energy. So, if you've determined that you can't make the situation better at your present firm and the idea of going to another firm makes you break out into a rash, there's option number three: request an unpaid leave of absence. You refer to yourself as "angry" in your note and say that you "hate your job." You've worked every day for four straight months (that's 122 consecutive days). Of course you're angry. Heck, you probably hate your job, your friends and family, your apartment, this city, and everyone on the street, even the really nice guy in the coffee cart on your corner who always remembers to save you a bear claw. Why? Because you're exhausted and everything is hazy. If this rings true and you need to get out, then, get out -- but extricate yourself responsibly. Wait until a good transition point in your current assignment, i.e., maybe after the next motion is drafted and filed, and then talk to whichever of these individuals you are most comfortable approaching: department head, senior partner on the litigation matter, partner mentor or director of professional development. Present your situation clearly and honestly. You might be surprised to learn that lawyers request leaves of absence quite often and for a wide variety of reasons. It is important that your colleagues understand that this is a personal issue and you are requesting time off in order to prevent the personal issue from flowing into your professional life. With the kind of hours you've been logging, I would be surprised if your partners didn't appreciate your need for a break.

Once you've secured a leave of absence, sleep for a few days, go to the gym and do whatever you need to do in order to feel like a human being again. Be careful that you don't waste this precious time and avoid the bigger existential issues that seem to be troubling you. Try to be emotionally productive during your time off; I've noticed that lawyers who are "on-leave" occasionally slip into further despondency because they can't adjust quickly to the all-too-sudden and copious free time. Try to ease into the transition by having a loose schedule of activities and agenda of goals, like finally reading "Ulysses" or your twenty back-issues of People magazine. As my knowledge of you is limited to your inquiry, I am ill equipped to provide you with in-depth counseling but I think you would benefit from talking to someone. You may want to engage a professional career counselor or meet with the alumni relations director of your law school to discuss your professional development-to-date. Try to work with someone who is familiar with this industry and your career path so that she/he might help you to realize whether your troubled experience is specific to you, your firm, the economy, this city or any weird combination thereof.

After your leave of absence has ended, you may want to return to your law firm, refreshed and with a clarified ambition. Perhaps you'll be better at setting boundaries, expressing your preferences and/or eager to get back into the swing of it all. Alternatively, you will want to start anew, with a different firm or maybe even a different industry. In any of these instances, starting over won't be hampered by the stigma that would attach if you decided to exit your firm today without an exit strategy in-hand.

Good luck with all of it and please stay in touch,

Sang

Do you have a question about your legal career? Click here to email Sang directly.

SANG J. LEE, ESQ

Sang is the President and Managing Partner of SJL Attorney Search, LLC. Over the years, Sang has placed hundreds of attorneys in the New York metropolitan area with global, national and boutique law firms and has partnered with numerous Fortune 500 corporations, investment banks and technology companies in identifying top talent for in-house legal departments.

Sang has been invited to speak at Stanford Law School, New York University School of Law and New York University's School of Continuing Education and City College of New York. She was a panelist at the 2004 NALP End of Season Series for the session entitled "Dog Eat Dog: The Reality of the New York Legal Market" and has also been featured on panels for NYCRA and the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Sang consults for the Office of Career Services at New York University School of Law where she counsels, coaches and prepares law students and alumni for interviews with prospective employers.


ABOUT SJL ATTORNEY SEARCH, LLC

Founded in 2003, SJL Attorney Search, LLC is a legal recruitment firm that works closely with law firms and other sophisticated legal employers to identify, recruit and ultimately hire qualified attorneys. Our consultants have successfully placed associates, partners and corporate counsel of varying rank in all practice areas of law, including mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, global finance, real estate, bankruptcy, tax, labor and employment, ERISA, intellectual property and litigation. In an industry that has a reputation for sharp elbows and cutting corners, we hold fast to our core values of integrity, quality, team work and accountability.

We understand the immense value of relationships and so, we have assembled a team of proven relationship builders in the firm. In addition to a research staff that supports our firm's goal to cull and store the best market information, SJL Attorney Search is proud that our consultants include former practicing attorneys with tremendous academic credentials, a former senior law firm administrator, a former law school professor and a former senior marketing executive. Please visit www.sjlsearch.com to learn more about our consultants and our firm.

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