Reason #1: Kidney Stones
When I decided to quit the law a mere 3 months after passing the Bar exam, nobody asked me “why” I had made that decision. Instead, my proclamation to move on to something else was always met with skepticism, judgment, or mockery.
“It’s too early to decide that. You haven’t given the law a fair shot.”
“But you just spent all that time and money on your degree!”
“[Condescendingly] That’s funny.” - A lawyer, obviously.
Interestingly, it seemed that nobody had noticed that I had gained 20 pounds on my petite, 5-foot frame since the beginning of law school. Nobody noticed that I was losing my hair. And nobody - except for my poor mother - seemed to notice that I had transformed into a raging bitch during law school; while she was doing my laundry and cooking meals for me, I snapped at her while under severe stress from the Bar exam and managed to make her cry.
Except for my body. While my physiological and psychological changes were deemed “normal” amongst my surrounding group of ultra-competitive, fear-driven law school students, my body tried to tell me otherwise. Two weeks before I sat for the California Bar exam, my body tried to communicate by sending me an unexplainable pain in my lower left abdomen that forced me to see a doctor immediately.
Going to the doctor when you’re in pain is what normal people do. But because I was so focused, so busy, and so fearful studying for a 3-day, 18-hour exam that was supposedly going to determine my future and redeem my 3 years of law school hell, going to the doctor felt like a choice I had to make. And the time it took away from my studying added more stress to the already insurmountable stress I had been feeling for nearly two months.
Initially, the doctor thought the pain was a simple UTI. The visit was fast, and I was sent home with some generic antibiotics so I could continue my studies.
But the pain didn’t go away. So I went back to the doctor, even more anxious. Regrettably, I was less anxious about my ailment and more about the time I was losing to prepare for that damn exam.
That’s what the doctor suspected based on everything I told her and how the antibiotics didn’t work. So I got an X-ray.
Nothing. The results showed that there was absolutely nothing physically wrong with me.
“It’s just stress,” the doctor finally concluded. I ignored the pain and took the exam. Luckily, the pain disappeared after that.
We all know other lawyers who don’t get so lucky when they ignore what their bodies try to tell them for long periods of time. One lawyer I know had to have painful fibroids removed in order for her to realize it was time to change jobs. She was working in big law, where not sleeping and working weekends are worn like badges of honor.
Every single big law client I've coached has suffered from a panic attack. Another lawyer I know even attributes her miscarriage to the extreme stress and harassment she was facing at work. And it should come as no surprise to us that lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from severe depression than the general population and that our profession’s suicide and alcoholism rates are at least double the national average. But why?
Reason #2: Law school and the Legal Work Culture
While I was waiting for the California Bar exam results (an agonizing 4-month period that cuts into Thanksgiving- WHY???) I started working for a solo practitioner. The firm’s limited resources - essentially me and the Solo - forced me to learn more and at a faster rate than most attorneys who start at a “traditional,” well-funded law firm (that only the top 1% - determined by a skewed bell curve - of any law school’s graduating class can get into, anyway. Law school teaches us that there isn’t room for all of us - remember?).
I was researching and writing legal documents all by myself without the help of paralegals or any support team. I was attending settlement conferences all by myself (against White, middle-aged, attorneys). I was getting yelled at by court clerks for not understanding basic procedural and filing rules (in our sick culture, this means we’ve been initiated. I remember my boss gave me a high five when this first happened). I was constantly criticized by my boss, judges, and opposing counsel for not knowing things that weren’t taught in law school (because law school doesn’t teach us how to practice law; it teaches us how to pass the Bar.)
I passed the Bar exam on my first try. “I am NOT doing THIS again” was motivating me throughout the entire marathon.
I realized that I had passed the exam before many Ivy league law school graduates that sat for the Bar with me. So technically, I was “ahead” of them. But because of my law school’s ranking, and because I didn’t make it to the top of my graduating class (even though I received the HIGHEST score in the class on my Criminal Procedure exam, won Second Place in a regional moot court competition, and organized California’s largest legal conference for Asian-American attorneys while attending law school full-time),
I was stuck making $15 an hour, as a licensed attorney, in the expensive Bay Area right after the Great Recession.
My law school loans exceeded $150,000 upon graduation. When the solo offered to increase my annual salary to $45,000, I laughed in his face.
My sarcasm had gotten me into trouble at other law firms before; once, I was “disciplined” for rolling my eyes at a partner. The firm's two partners called me into their office and shut the door without telling me what was going on. Being the only female on the entire floor now cornered by two men, my body went into fight- or - flight mode. They told me I wasn’t taking my work “seriously enough.” The partner that had taken offense to my eye-rolling asked if “I even wanted to be there.”
They made me feel so shitty about it that I went to my law school counselor and confessed what I had done.
Then I remembered that it was an “internship” where I was earning course credits, but no money. My tuition bill for that semester was around $20,000. I think the partners bought me lunch once.
I stayed at the solo’s office for another 3 months after I passed the Bar. During that time, I never felt like I helped anyone. My first client wore a different Rolex each time he came into the office to vent about how much money his affluent sister owed him. We were helping him sue her. That’s when I realized I was working in one of the only countries in the world where wealth is required to assert your legal rights.
I worked right next to the Bay Area’s most dangerous subway stop in Oakland, California. One day, we witnessed a carjacking right outside our office building in broad daylight. Because of the legal field’s toxic attitude towards “working hard,” I was mocked for leaving the office “early” every night, because I, a 5-foot, unaccompanied woman in America, just felt safer seeing the faintest amount of daylight when I walked to that dangerous subway station.
So when I received a regular 9-5 job offer that paid more than twice my current salary, paid me to stay at the nicest hotels in cities like Miami, Los Angeles, and Palm Springs, dine at Michelin-starred restaurants, and take clients to boxes at NBA games at least 3 times during the season, do you think I took the offer?
Hell yeah, I did.
Did I care that my title was no longer “Attorney,” “Lawyer,” or “(Bitch) Associate?”
My new job was in Legal Services, which meant that, even though I was no longer practicing law, I was still in a related field, and all of my clients were lawyers. Turns out that partying with lawyers was way more fun than working with them, anyway.
Unlike so many of my peers, I never viewed passing the Bar exam as synonymous with reaching my dreams. I viewed it as a way to move the f*** on with my life. Especially after my kidney stone scare. I told myself I would never again put my mind and body through that type of ordeal.
So when a new and exciting opportunity presented itself, I took it.
Everyone told me I was crazy. Everyone thought it was a “waste” to throw away all that time and money. But I viewed the new opportunity for what it was: a better one. Better pay, better work/life balance, opportunities to travel (which I loved), and a chance to try a career that sounded more interesting to me: Marketing & Business Development. I didn’t feel like I was losing anything. Nowhere does the California State Bar say that if I stop practicing law for a period of time, that I can never practice law again. My new company even paid my annual Bar Assocation dues. My new company paid for my CLE courses. What did I have to lose?
Reason #3: Lawyers
I loved the year I spent wining and dining lawyers all over the United States. I thought it was my dream job. Many of my coworkers were also former lawyers who became some of my closest friends and mentors in my life. I looked forward to going into the office every day.
I was ultimately driven away from that job by lawyers. Not my clients, but the literal “boys club” that ran the place. The Board was dominated by privileged, White, male attorneys who went straight from law to leadership. Just like most Managerial Partners in the legal field, they lacked any formal management training (one survey found that 66 percent of law firms don’t even have a job description for Managing Partners, while 77 percent of firms “don’t actively identify, mentor, or train the next generation of leaders for their firms.”)
As successful, middle-aged attorneys, they were surprised when a female employee once asked them to stop yelling at her.
And just like most lawyers, their legal training had shaped them into over-analytical, risk-averse professionals with little to no business acumen. Not the best fit for the C-suite members of a small company tasked with entrepreneurial things like increasing profits and expanding the company. The CEO’s idea of increasing profits was making annual staff cuts and enforcing a furlough during the holidays. My father is an immigrant from Taiwan who showed up at his first job with an empty suitcase. He sold cars and earned enough money from commission-only paychecks to put his daughters through college. He could have run the company better.
There was no room for me to try new or “risky” things at this company. My co-worker and I couldn’t even get the Vice President to approve sending a box of marketing materials to an overseas conference (even though the company was already spending $3,000+ to send my co-worker there to speak).
Oh, and I was “disciplined” here, too. Not for rolling my eyes or laughing out loud at authority. By that point, I had already learned never to bruise a male lawyer’s ego. In an attempt to create some sense of fun and work culture in the office (there was none) I once sent a simple email asking the Board if they would like to pitch in for some birthday treats for another Board member’s (my boss’s) birthday. If that Board member weren’t female, it may have gone over differently. Instead,
the CEO called me into his office to tell me that such an email was “inappropriate;” he said it gave him the impression that all I did all day was “plan cupcake parties.”
Because HR was also a lawyer (who made it a point to tell me she “wouldn’t be participating” in my “cupcake party,” either) I lost any counterargument I had.
When I told my feisty, also 5-foot-tall, Italian-American mother what had happened, she simply chuckled and said, “You’re not going to last long there.”
Reason #4: Zero sunk costs (or fucks given)
No amount of money could pay me to continue waking up every day to work with those types of people. And no amount of debt could keep me in such a stifling environment.
I wasn’t even practicing law in my new role. But I knew I had to get far away from anyone who had so strongly identified themselves with being a lawyer, or who had simply spent too much time in the profession to not know how normal, non-lawyers think and behave. My coworkers threw me a HUGE party in the office on my last day. They bought balloons, cakes, and gifts because that is what you do to celebrate and thank your employees. We filled the conference room where I had had my initial interview with the company. It took over 2 hours to answer questions from 4 lawyers on the Board during my interview. None of them were present at my final “cupcake party.” My coworkers were all so genuinely happy that I had escaped that place. Many followed suit afterward.
I explored non-legal industries after that. I got into tech in San Francisco. No one cared that I was a former lawyer that had quit the profession. Except for people whose egos were similar to that of lawyers. Upper management once expressed confusion as to why I would choose not to “use my talents” anymore. Then, when they fired me and didn’t pay me the commission I was owed more than two months and three ignored emails later, I typed a “legal” email explaining what the consequences would be if I still didn’t receive my pay. HR called me two hours later and asked, “Where can I send the check?” I think that answered any questions the higher-ups may have had.
I will always be able to use the critical thinking, analytical skills, and legal knowledge I acquired in law school and during my brief, but accelerated, time as a lawyer. And yes, it “cost” me 6-figures of debt and three years of my life in law school, but that’s the definition of a “sunk” cost: you can never get those costs back, no matter how long or how hard you try. They are gone. Sunk. Like a ship. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to waste another moment, another breath, or even another paycheck doing something my heart didn’t want to do.
Leaving the law was never hard for me. It was just hard for the people who I told it to.
In my heart, I knew that the culture, the environment, and even the work itself didn’t sit right with me. So I left to explore other things. I now live in Taipei, Taiwan, where I - in addition to coaching lawyers - pursue my passion as a paid blogger, collaborating with the country’s tourism bureau to show the world this beautiful island.
If you found this article, know that YOU ARE NOT ALONE in your desire to move on from your legal career and live a life you love. In fact, this year I’ve helped dozens of lawyers do exactly that. If you have any questions about how to quit the law, please feel free to reach out to me at any time. It may be a longer journey for you than it was for me, but just remember that the only journey you can fail is the one you never begin.