I’ve dithered and dallied over whether to write the following lines for quite some time. On one hand I think, perhaps my words might clarify something lurking or fortify someone hiding? If so, they would not only be not-wasted, but actually important. A (minute) public service if you will.
But on the other I think, no one really wants to hear me talk about the law.
Least of all me. I don’t even have a practicing certificate anymore (thank you kindly for lapsing and thank you kindly-in-advance everyone I know for ceasing to enquire as to how you can best avoid your speeding fine. Even if I knew, I could no more assist than Google.)
Aside from that, commenting on the law, on the profession, seems somewhat uncouth. As though, in opting out of the 18-hour-daily-grind and the absurdist jokes about work-life balance (really, guys, they’re not funny, they’re a cry for help) I also revoked my licence to pass utterance on what I had seen. What I still see. Because a curious thing happened when I quit the law. People started to confide in me their tales of dissatisfaction.
Perhaps I should have expected this. It doesn’t sound outlandish to anyone outside the profession that this sort of exchange might take place; you’re fed up with your job, you hate your boss, you wish you’d picked that pysch major instead – you tell someone right?
Wrong. Not in law. In law, everything is always, if not outright ‘good’ then ‘going well’. Monkey work is cloaked as a learning experience, while being out of your depth with no support is similarly tarted up. Relying on the halogen glow to get your vitamin D? You must be learning so much. Still in the office at sunrise? You lucky thing, all those hours of uninterrupted learning!
I truly can’t count the number of times when, on conclusion of a terrible tale of enslavement, the unlucky captive would add, “but really, it’s all good, you know, I’m learning.” In fact, so persuasive is this double-speak that I fear I may have been guilty of it myself – I can think of no other reason for the expressions of surprise at my own top-tier exit, intertwined as it was with my then-well-established-daily ritual of crying in the disabled bathroom. (PS: if your job ever makes you cry with anything other than happiness you need to leave. A job is not a romantic partner; it deserves no second chances and will not change).
It was a friend’s recent confession of a developing a similar affliction that made me realise the extent and danger of this pretence. This friend had carved out a niche at a top-tier firm in a specialised area with a better psychopath:people ratio than most. Less hideous hours with less hideous colleagues for the same pay and with the same illustrious (if illusive) promise of A-grade legal work for ‘blue chip’ clients? Golden.
Except of course that it wasn’t. As an escapee, a renegade, I started to hear they were so unhappy that they were sneaky sobbing on the regular. The main reason they hadn’t left, they said, was they simply didn’t know what to do instead. ‘I don’t have an art school’ they told me; as they I had known immediately what I wanted to do instead of law and, once chosen, was assured of success in that path (manifestly incorrect on both fronts by the way).
I suppose you could say that everyone knows top-tier commercial firms eat souls at a rate that puts their coffee consumption to shame. This is no surprise, no cause for reflexion. And yet, a couple of months ago a long-time friend, who is one of the most personable and bubbly souls you’re ever likely to meet, confessed that they too were deeply unhappy. I was honestly taken aback. Sure, we’d drifted but social media suggested a life abounding with exotic holidays, domestic pets and romantic bliss. They worked at small firm, decidedly at the ‘hip’ end of the legal spectrum. A firm that prides itself on its difference, that positions itself as anti-establishment and anti-‘Big Law’. They too were unhappy – unsatisfied not with pay packet but with purpose. They too didn’t know whether to leave or, if so, when.
Then, very recently, I had an unexpected coffee date with someone who’d been a couple of years below me at university. They’d chosen to tread a different path, heading to fight the good fight in a small criminal defence practice. They hadn’t been there a year and while they weren’t crying in the bathroom they felt deeply unfulfilled. They were considering throwing it in and retraining in a different field but were worried about being judged for that decision. They felt isolated in their concerns, as they were sure than no one else was harbouring such heretical thoughts about almost-holy Law.
Of course there are a myriad of seemingly fulfilling paths along which a multitude of souls walk. But there are also many who enter law thinking it is something other than it is, or perhaps thinking that they are something other than they are. These people, of pooled uncertainties and fostered fears, are the ones for whom the next few paragraphs are written.
Don’t stay because you think the growing hollow-space inside you might be some flaw of your own creation – some individual issue that only you are experiencing. Lawyers are not generally good at sharing what unsettles them (clients after all pay assurance as much as anything else) but you are not alone in those feelings and they should not be dismissed.
Don’t stay because you don’t know what else to do. Once you realise law is not for you – leave, search, seek, try and fail. Find what makes your soul hum with joy.
Don’t stay until some external event occurs to trigger your departure. Don’t wait for financial stability (what even is that?) or a pay rise or even Christmas. There will never be a better time to leave than now because you will never feel confident in the decision you are making and you will never have enough money to feel as though you are risking nothing. You are risking something, and although the combined weight of law school and legal practice cautions against risk taking, the thing you are risking is worth less than you worry.
Don’t worry what others will think. Some will judge you. These are nearly universally the bland and boring souls who will one day form the partnership and drive European sedans. Most will praise you and call you courageous in a way that feels both flattering and disconcerting, as, once rationalised, leaving was the only choice. Many will ask how you knew to leave, looking for guidance as they walk around similar questions and grapple with the same uncertainties.
For myself, leaving law has been an immensely positive experience. I am happier and more fulfilled than I can recall, like, ever. Were I to count on my (often clay covered) fingers, I would need both hands to list the good things in any given day (coffee not even making the list it would so often have topped in yesteryear).
Of course I am also poorer financially… but honestly? It seems like such a small price to pay.