‘Soul suck’: Ex-lawyers dish on why they ditched their jobs

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REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

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(Reuters) - Making partner, the old joke goes, is like winning a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie. So perhaps it’s not surprising that some lawyers lose their taste for it.

Last week, Washington Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax ran a letter from a burned-out lawyer signed “Happy to Drop Out.”

“I recently resigned from my position as a partner at a law firm,” Happy to Drop Out wrote. “I killed myself to make partner, but once I made it, I began to realize it just wasn’t worth it.”

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The letter-writer – who wasn’t immediately looking for a new job and instead plans “to take six months or so to recover” – wanted to know how to respond to people questioning the decision.

Hax offered perfectly serviceable advice, noting that it's “not your responsibility to justify yourself to others.”

But what intrigued me more was the outpouring of comments posted by current and former lawyers. A few said Happy to Drop Out was making a mistake, but many more applauded the move and shared their own exit stories.

Perhaps now more than ever, lawyers are unwilling to remain in jobs that make them unhappy. A record numbers of workers in recent months have quit their jobs, and Bureau of Labor statistics show that those in the business and professional services sector have departed at rates even higher than the overall workforce. More than 40% of all workers are considering quitting this year, according to research by Microsoft.

Statistics about the number of people with J.D.s who don’t practice law are scant, although the American Bar Association in a survey reported that 24% of lawyers who passed the bar in 2000 were not practicing law in 2012.

From my perch as a legal columnist, I don’t tend to hear much from ex-lawyers. But the pseudonymous comments from Hax’s readers offer a window into why, despite the expense and effort of attending law school and passing the bar, so many lawyers still leave large law firms.

A common theme: Big Law is brutal. “A hamster wheel,” one commenter called it. A “soul suck,” said another. It’s filled with “shambling husks,” said a third, while another un-fondly recalled “sour old men partners.”

The biggest complaint – invoked again and again in dozens of posts – was the overwhelming workload and accompanying stress. (Lawyers who said they worked at small firms or for the government were much more positive about their jobs.)

One commenter recounted spending 10 years as a lawyer in New York City, sometimes working 80 to 100 hours a week and suffering “horrible” migraines.

“I quit law to become a nurse 7 years ago. I got a bit of flak, but I didn't care,” the commenter wrote. “Even with Covid, I still love being a bedside nurse in the ICU. I'm never going back to law.”

A former litigation associate at a Wall Street law firm went to medical school and is now a hospitalist physician. “Boy, leaving that rat race was the best thing I ever did,” the doctor wrote.

One ex-lawyer opened a flower shop; another launched a B&B in Vermont. Other second careers mentioned included teacher, bank consultant, salesperson, author and photographer. Still others said they became stay-at-home moms or dads or volunteer their time at nonprofits.

Across the board, they all said they were now happier. Poorer perhaps, but happier.

In all, it comes across as quite the indictment of the profession, albeit a potentially lopsided one. Presumably those who might sing the praises of Big Law were too busy working to comment on a letter to an advice columnist.

Some ex-lawyers did admit it wasn’t easy to walk away. “Law is a demanding profession full of people who have always done what's expected by their parents and peers,” one observed.

We “have been brought up in a culture that makes us value work more than self-care,” added another.

One woman wrote, “I left a lucrative Wall Street firm over 30 years ago and struggled with how to define myself TO MYSELF. Who was I if not a successful attorney? Was I interesting and valuable without my job title?”

Another woman wrote that the Big Law system was “developed when lawyers, almost exclusively male, had the benefit of a largely invisible and unpaid workforce: wives.”

“Even women who appear to ‘have it all’ are not really doing it all - they have a small army of nannies, grandparents, in-laws, life partners, etc. who make it possible,” she continued.

According to the National Association for Law Placement’s newly-released 2021 report on diversity, women make up just 25.92% of partners at major U.S. law firms.

After two years away, this woman decided to return to practicing law, though she wrote that the only job she was offered paid less than half her former salary.

“Still, I have hope for the attorneys in the next generation,” she wrote. “When we make the workplace more family friendly, we win in the long run. Greater retention. More productivity in the hours attorneys do work. Even the male attorneys who would traditionally fit the work-around-the-clock model are changing because they have life partners who are successful professionals - so those attorneys are not as willing to work to exhaustion either.”

I, too, have a sense some firms are getting the message. Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, for example, last year unveiled a new policy that calls for every employee globally to take one unplugged week off, separate from regular vacation, with no checking email or voicemail.

It’s a good start, and hopefully one that more firms will follow. Because as the commenters make clear, burned-out lawyers have many options besides practicing law, if they are bold (or miserable) enough to pursue them.

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Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com