Life is Short
There are a lot of reasons why lawyers don’t leave the law.
Maybe they love practicing law. Maybe they can tolerate it.
Maybe they never thought of doing anything else. Maybe they don’t know what else to do.
Maybe they need the money. Or the prestige. Or some other intangible validation.
There are a lot of reasons why lawyers may stay in the law. But one reason is the worst.
They wanted to leave but never tried.
I get it. A full-time job can be draining, especially one as demanding as law. Put on top of that all your other obligations and it is tough to make such a significant change. Once you go to law school, you’ve built up some momentum that is tough to stop.
But if you want to leave the law, the worst thing you can do is nothing.
One of my favorite essays is by Paul Graham. It is called “Life is Short” [http://www.paulgraham.com/vb.html]. Everybody says that life is short, but its tough to know just what that means. How do we measure it? Short relative to what? Graham says that he struggled with this question until he had kids. That helped him put things in perspective.
Having kids showed me how to convert a continuous quantity, time, into discrete quantities. You only get 52 weekends with your 2 year old. If Christmas-as-magic lasts from say ages 3 to 10, you only get to watch your child experience it 8 times. And while it's impossible to say what is a lot or a little of a continuous quantity like time, 8 is not a lot of something. If you had a handful of 8 peanuts, or a shelf of 8 books to choose from, the quantity would definitely seem limited, no matter what your lifespan was.
I have two kids. My conception of time is very different now than it was before I had kids. Now, everything that happened is referenced based on my kids’ ages. “I changed jobs when my daughter was in kindergarten.”
Before I had kids, my conception of time was based on my job as a lawyer. We got a new car the weekend before my first big preliminary injunction hearing. I changed jobs right after the big M&A deal that almost went sought. 2012? That was when I billed 2100+ hours.
A lot of people see time through the lens of their careers. That may not necessarily be a bad thing. But it wasn’t great for me and it probably isn’t great for most lawyers. When you see things that way, it is easy to miss how quickly time passes. You start every year with 0 billable hours, and before you know it, you’re at 1900+ before Thanksgiving. You tell yourself that you’ll look into alternative careers when things slow down. But things never really slow down. Another year passes and you’re back at 0. You still want to leave the law, probably moreso with each passing month. But you haven’t done anything to act on that. Like the Red Queen, you’re running as fast as you can but not going anywhere. Before you know it, 3 years have passsed. That’s about 6000 billable hours. Maybe you can identify each year based on a certain case or deal that you had. Oh, I remember 2 years ago, that’s when the CEO flew to Barbados and we couldn’t get his signature on the closing docs!
I talked with a lawyer once who was an associate at a AMLaw100 firm. He said he always knew when it was Christmas when he started to see extravagant dinner spreads in the conference rooms. Client events? I asked. No, he said. It means associates will be working through the holiday. Life seems shorter when you count your Christmases by how many dinners you ate in the firm’s conference room.
If you want to leave the law but don’t try, you’ll be counting those dinners each year.
Nobody who left the law ever said that they were glad they stuck around as long as they did. Nope. Everybody says that they wish they would have done it sooner. Why? Because if you’re miserable practicing the law, the longer you stay in without trying to leave, the longer your misery.