Many BigLaw associates are celebrating their work anniversaries around this time of the year. For some, this milestone can also mean considering a potential career change, whether to a new practice area, new firm, or new career altogether. This reflection often happens around the two-year mark, as associates have had time to experience the ups and downs of law firm life, and the allure of BigLaw prestige alone has begun to wear off. But how do you know if a change is right for you? It very well could be, but here are some things to consider before making a drastic leap you might regret later.
Is it burnout?
Two years into BigLaw, it’s possible that you are experiencing burnout. The first few years of law firm life are stressful—you started at the bottom of the totem pole and had to go through an immense learning curve. (Plus, this year, burnout is even more real if you’ve spent the better part of the past year working remotely due to COVID-19.) Before taking drastic steps, consider taking a vacation first. Spending time away from work gives you the mental space to consider whether you really aren’t enjoying the substance of your work, or you just have too much on your plate. If it’s the latter, then you should work on tackling that issue first. Find ways to make time for yourself outside of work hours: Go to the gym in the morning before work, take a 20-minute break to grab coffee with a fellow associate (and don’t talk about work), set aside time for a favorite show or dinner with with friends at night a few times a week, etc. During really busy periods, you may need to get creative and log back in later at night, but carving out me-time—even just for a half an hour—can go a long way in helping you recharge.
Another area to consider is your efficiency: How much time do you spend scrolling Instagram between billables? Keep yourself accountable for “wasted” time during the day and refocus those hours so you can get through work and have more time to yourself later. Of course, oftentimes, long hours in BigLaw are unavoidable even without distractions. If you feel like your hours have become unsustainable, seek out a mentor you can trust to discuss how to handle it. And if your hours are far above the majority of your associate peers, practice the art of saying “no,” making clear that while you would love to help, you are at capacity. (Of course, only do this if you are truly at capacity or you may not be taken seriously in the future when you need to decline.) The reality is that BigLaw means big hours—it is worth considering whether this is a schedule that makes sense for you.
Pinpoint exactly what you don’t like.
If you determine you aren’t enjoying the substance of your work, try to pinpoint why. Are you bored by the subject matter of the deals you’re working on? Do you feel you aren’t getting enough human interaction because you’re always tasked with doc review? It could be that you need to start asking for new opportunities—whether that’s taking on a leadership role, trying out different tasks on the matters you’re already staffed on, or taking on new cases (including pro bono). Don’t be afraid to reach out to senior associates or partners and let them know you’re eager to mix it up. Any practice area will get stale if you aren’t continuously growing, so don’t shy away from tackling new challenges.
Is another practice area a better fit?
If you’re truly unhappy with the type of work you’re doing, you might be able to finagle a switch to another practice group within your firm. But if you’re considering this, go about it carefully and thoughtfully—you don’t want to burn bridges with your current practice group. While the grass might seem greener in another group simply because it’s new and different, you need to do adequate due diligence to ensure this change is best for you. Speak to attorneys in your desired group and ask them about their practice—and be sure that in addition to asking what they enjoy about it, you also cover what they don’t like. If possible, see if you can take on a pro bono matter in your desired area before you do a full switch. And also brace yourself for the potential you might be told “no” based on the firm’s needs. No matter what, be careful to never trash talk your current practice group—whether or not you ultimately switch, you don’t want to burn the bridge for avoidable reasons.
Hint: If you want to read up on different practice groups before making it known to others at your firm you’re considering a change, start with Practice Perspectives: Vault’s Guide to Legal Practice Areas to get firsthand insight from attorneys who are at top-ranked firms in dozens of practice areas.
Is it time to switch firms?
Maybe you’ve realized your current firm is just not the right fit. Whether it’s culture, type of work, hours, or something else, if you’re really unhappy, it could be time for a bigger change. But make sure you put in ample research before jumping to another firm, or you might just land in the same situation you’re in now. Networking is an important part of this process. Reach out to contacts at the firms you’re eyeing up, or try to find someone in your network with a mutual connection. Beyond networking, be sure you’re using a variety of resources to learn about the firm—including the Vault law firm rankings and law firm profiles! And if you decide to work with a recruiter, you should still spend time on your own seeking out job opportunities to cast a wider net.
Leaving law firm life—or law practice altogether.
For some, an even more drastic change is in order. But the same rules still apply: Don’t jump without taking time to research and talk to people in your target job—whether it’s a government job; in-house; a clerkship; or a non-practicing position such as in academia, recruiting, law school administration, or in an entirely different field. If your law firm has a career coach, make sure you also use them as a resource—the firm’s existing relationships can help support your transition elsewhere. And if you do decide to leave the practice, you should be 100 percent sure about your decision. While leaving the law doesn’t necessarily mean you can never go back, it may make it harder to re-enter the field, especially as time passes.
As a junior associate, you’re still early in your legal career, and the choices you make now will shape the many years of your career yet to come. So before making any rash moves, carefully consider your goals and options, and be sure to conduct research, have conversations, and take enough time to be confident in your decision.
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