[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a guest post by Hanna Clements-Hart of Beacon Coaching and Consulting. Hanna, a former BigLaw attorney who left the law behind, is now a San Francisco based strategic and career coach who works with attorneys and other professionals to understand their inherent strengths and maximize the value of these strengths in the context of new professional and personal opportunities or challenges.]
I remember when I got my first “big firm” job out of law school, how thrilled I was with my salary. It was New York City in 1995, and I was making close to $100k – more than my father had ever earned as a professor. He was delighted, my non-law school friends were impressed, and I was launched.
For a while, I liked being a professional – dressing in suits and working in a swank midtown office. I felt cool ordering dinner on the client and special in the back of my Town Car being driven home – never mind that if I hadn’t been working late I wouldn’t have needed a car home. I was not terribly interested in the work – the details very stressful. But I was not completely immune to the buzz of a huge deal with big name investment banks and lots of money at stake. I got lucky and made a few good pals in the trenches who made the work-hard-play-hard scene fun. They understood that plans were always subject to cancellation if work came up. Often we would all work late and then go out. I remember going out for a steak dinner at 2:00 a.m., without much thought for the hour or the cost. We could afford it.
We had plenty of disposable income. What we didn’t have was disposable time. Our time belonged to the firm (to dispose of at will). Saying no to nights and weekends was not an option. So we worked long and hard, and then when we did have time to play, we spent our money. This is where a lot of lawyers get caught in a vicious cycle. We get paid big bucks to work long hours. Then we compensate ourselves for the grueling pace by “treating” ourselves. Before we know it, we have developed expensive habits that depend on a high income, and this income level is only available if we work the long hours … see how this goes? On top of this, the only people we hang out with are other lawyers and hard-driving investment bankers (who make more money and keep even crazier hours, making us lawyers feel moderate in comparison!) We live in a bubble in which it is hard to imagine anything different. So we persist on the treadmill.
What, short of a heart attack, is the antidote to this seductive treadmill? For me, it was that I never got used to the six-figure salary. I looked at the partners, and I knew I didn’t want their jobs or their lives. From the outset, I figured that this income was only temporary, so I decided to enjoy it but not rely on it. I lived well but did not do anything that would bind me to the income. I rented, rather than buying a place. I did adventure travel rather than luxury. I had no dependents. And I sent as much money as I could to my pay off my loans early. Luckily, I had gone in-state at UVA, so I managed to pay off my debt in about two years, which coincided almost exactly with the point at which the stress and pressure threatened to overwhelm me and I found myself crying in a young partner’s office.
So I quit. I still remember the relief I felt when I gave notice, though I had no idea what I would do. I landed a gig with a small firm where I worked part-time for four years and earned less money but had more time and flexibility before transitioning out of law for good. I am still grateful for my two years in the Big League – both for the business exposure and for the income. For a while it worked for me to trade my time for money. But life is too short to allow money to be the measure of success. I have come to realize that I am far happier when I measure my standard of living by time rather than income.
Contact me if you’re interested in exploring a one-to-one leave law behind coaching course or reaching out to Hanna.