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How I Knew It Was Time To Leave

Updated: Oct 23, 2018

"When you're out there doing what you're doing...Are you just getting by? --Pink
My law firm profile photo! I was just a baaaabyyyyy!

One of the questions I'm asked most often is, "How did you know you didn't want to be a lawyer anymore?" Well, it took me a lot longer to figure out than I would have liked.

I never planned to be a firm lawyer for very long. When I started the job, I figured I'd stick with it for the requisite two years in order to get the star on my resume, and then jump ship for something that would be a better fit for me.

But year 2 came and went, and while I wasn't exactly HAPPY with my job, I was certainly comfortable. And besides, if I left, where would I go? No other job jumped out as being particularly appealing, so sticking with what I knew seemed like the best way to go. After all, my job was allowing me to live quite a nice life outside of work. *And* there was a chance I could get sent to Paris for work sometime in the next year or so, so surely that was worth sticking around for, right?

Sometime in year 3, the slow creep of dissatisfaction began.

I started to feel like the work I turned in was just being swallowed up by a black hole, never to be used or read or referenced again. I spent hours, days, weeks, months on doc review that a trained monkey could have done. (Ok it'd have to be a pretty smart monkey, but still. I really didn't need to go to law school for this, did I?) I spent week after week drafting countless gigantic, boring, dry-as-a-bone reports that I was confident no one was ever going to read. At this point I was starting to get some more responsibility and a wider variety of assignments, but each new task was just as mind-numbing as the last.

And the few "exciting" assignments I got - like being put on a trial team - were SO incredibly stressful that anything good that may have come out of the experience was totally cancelled out. There were literally nights where I worked til 6am, went home to shower, and turned right around and came back to the office. As the youngest one on the team, I got screamed at for everything that went wrong, whether it was my fault or not. (This included accidentally bringing the lead attorney the wrong coffee order because she had changed her mind about what she wanted and I had failed to read her mind. Yup, this is totally what I went to law school for.) I made sure I was the first one to arrive and the last one to leave every day, and busted my tail the entire time. But everyone's nerves were fried (and no one knew how to manage their stress in any kind of a healthy way) so nothing I did was ever going to be good enough.

I know...hashtag dream job! Ugh.

But I chalked it all up to paying my dues. The early years are supposed to be drudgery, right? This is the time to work your butt off and build your stamina and earn the respect of your superiors and the right to ascend the ranks. This is all part of the plan. Right? Right?....

And then, finally, the lightning bolt hit. I was handing in yet another gigantic regulatory report, when I realized it: I was purposely not doing my best or trying to be the best. Instead, I was doing the bare minimum required to get by and keep my job. I looked at the people who are at the "top of my class," the partners' favorites, and saw that their "reward" for being the best was more mind-numbing work, longer hours, even less work-life balance. And all I could think was how glad I was that it was them and not me. Because god knows I didn't want any of those things!

But here's the thing. That's also not the kind of person I wanted to be.

My whole life I had always been an overachiever. I worked hard and it paid off, shooting me to the top of the class, choir section leader, debate captain, etc. But I wasn't doing all those things just to please my parents and teachers (though, people-pleaser that I am, those were certainly major bonuses). I genuinely enjoyed doing the work and reaping the rewards. I loved the feeling of being at the head of the pack. And I enjoyed doing the work it took to get there, because it came easily to me and was interesting. I've always genuinely enjoyed reading, writing, and learning. (As long as the subject matter actually interested me...a key detail that I did not zero in on until well into my legal career.)

But that all changed when I got to law school.

My very first class of my very first semester was Civil Procedure. With the infamous Amy Wax. And let me tell you folks, it was all downhill from there...

I positioned myself squarely in the middle of the pack - just good enough to check all the boxes required to land a cushy job at a good firm: secure a position on a journal (but not Law Review -. who wants to work that hard?), average a B+, join a few clubs. But my heart wasn't in any of that stuff. I put in the minimum amount of time required to get the job done, and then spent as much time as possible on extracurricular activities: singing with the Penn choirs, taking classes at the Restaurant school nearby, cooking and baking and entertaining as often as possible, playing house with my boyfriend and our dog.

Long story short, I liked business school a LOT more than I did law school, and in retrospect, I should have paid a lot more attention to that. But hey, hindsight is 20/20 and all that. Instead, I just put my head down and did what it took to get by - and not a lick more.

And so it continued into my professional life.

Until finally, one day, the full ugly truth of the hole I had dug myself into finally hit me. I wasn't living my best life, I wasn't being my best self anymore - hell, I wasn't even trying! The person I had become was barely recognizable. I had gone from being an ambitious, driven leader to a lemming flying under the radar. Holy shit!!

And once the shock from that realization started to fade, I was finally able to admit to myself that I was on a path that wasn't leading me anywhere I wanted to go. I didn't want to be a partner or counsel. As I said above, I'm all for working hard and paying your dues.

But what's the point of paying your dues if it's just going to take you places that you don't want to go?

Now, keep in mind, it still took me a couple of years after experiencing this moment to *actually* leave. That's a whole 'nother story. But this was where it started.

One thing I want to make very clear - this is NOT meant to be a takedown of the world of Big Law. I truly believe that if that career path had been the right fit for me, and if I had been trying to my best, I would have gotten a better variety of assignments AND I would have found my work a lot more interesting. (I also truly believe that there ARE people who are meant for that life, and would be truly happy with it. I'm just not one of them.) Because that path was such a bad fit for me, I created a self-fulfilling prophecy. I was operating at a C- level instead of A+, and the firm was treating me accordingly. That's on me, not them.

And that, I think, is one of the most important lessons from all of this: One person's dream job is another one's prison.

You have to find the best fit for YOU - and that has absolutely nothing to do with what the best fit is for the person sitting next to you, or even the people you love the most.

So ask yourself: Does your job inspire you to be your best self? Or are you just getting by?

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