I remember the exact moment I realized I wasn’t happy practicing law. I was sitting in my office on a Saturday afternoon, waiting for the phone to ring. The partner I worked for had made it a habit to ask me to come to the office on weekends and wait for him to call. It was a very nice and spacious office above the 30th floor, with a view of downtown Manhattan and the Hudson River. The visitors’ chairs were nicer than any chair in my parents’ house in Brooklyn or any chair I could have afforded before or after going to law school. The large wood desk conveyed prestige and expertise. The bookcases contained very impressive leather bound books that I was yet to read. The view of the Freedom Tower construction was spectacular.
It wasn’t easy for me to make it to big law. I wasn’t born in America, my parents couldn’t afford to pay for my law school education, I didn’t go to an Ivy League undergraduate school, and English was not my primary language. I had many excuses I could have made for myself, and many that I did make. Everyone was so proud when little old me, from Kiev, Ukraine and Pace University was admitted to Penn Law. At Penn, I was surrounded by people who were smarter, richer, better connected and better looking than me. During my first week there I called my parents from a bench on campus, crying and wanting to go home. I even asked my boyfriend to come pick me up. But I stuck around. I wanted to be rich and going to law school was the surest way I could make a six figure salary while having no work experience.
The first case I read in law school was about England and the sale—or possibly the death—of a cow that took place over 100 years ago. That’s pretty much all I understood from it after reading it about 5 times in my dorm room. This was my first time living away from home; I was hungry, confused and ashamed that I couldn’t understand what this case was really about. But the paycheck I was hoping to get in 3 years kept me going.
In college I wanted to become a Supreme Court justice. That ambition ended in my first year of law school when I learned a summer clerk for a top New York federal judge makes less than 1/5th of what a summer associate at a law firm earns. I interviewed with several judges and received two offers. But when the white-shoe firm Cadwalader came to interview on campus at Penn Law for the single spot they had for a first year summer associate, I made it my priority to research my interviewer. I did enough research that I could have written a fifty-page biography and the biography of every student that got this job in the three years before me.
At Pace University, I learned how to be creative and how to tackle any obstacle in my way. Here my obstacle was a lack of information. Through Penn Law’s Career Services office I found all the information I needed, along with the names of past students who got this job. I took them out to lunch with money I didn’t have. By this time I already had two offers from judges, but I asked both of them to give me more time. I was advised to never do something like this by Penn Law’s Career Services, but sometimes it’s okay not to follow the expert’s advice.
I got the Summer Associate job at Cadwalader as a 1L. That summer was one of the best I’ve ever had. I made more money as a 23 year old summer associate in three months than my mom earned in an entire year with 30 years of job experience. I bought my first pair of $1,000 shoes. I had my first $1,000 dinner. I rented a fancy apartment downtown Manhattan. I went to the Hamptons. I bought a piece of land in Pennsylvania in the Pocono Mountains so that my parents could build a “dacha,” the quintessential Russian Immigrant symbol of success.
My second year as a summer associate was even better than my first. Now I knew all the best lunch places in New York and could go to five fancy lunches a week. I could also position myself to get into the practice group of my choice at Cadwalader– financial services – or derivatives, as it was then called. I would be one of the very few women there and I would do cutting-edge work. At dinner parties I could proudly say that I was a derivatives lawyer and my parents could tell their friends all about their accomplished daughter.
I enjoyed the work at Cadwalader on most days but being the only junior woman on the team I was never invited to lunch with the guys, drinks after work, or many of the other social activities of the group. It was lonely time in my life and I looked forward to the time outside the office very much.
Now, as a business owner, I understand that when someone pays you a ridiculous amount of money despite your lack of experience and expertise they expect a certain commitment to work; rightfully so. When I started full time with Cadwalader after graduation in 2006, I thought working seven days a week no matter what salary I was getting was crazy. I shared my views with the partner in charge of my group one Saturday afternoon after I waited all day for him in the office and he shared his views with me. I had six months to find another job.
Once again I went for the money. What’s the golden promise land many corporate lawyers dream of? Being on the business side! So I built out my LinkedIn profile, contacted all of my friends who had anything to do with a bank and went from there. It helped that this was not the first time I reached out to my network and I’ve always helped a friend in need. Networking, and supporting my network, has really been the key to my career success. Within a few weeks I had interviews lined up at most of the major banks and I even managed to convince Deutsche Bank to give me a nice guaranteed bonus, despite it being 2008.
At Deustche Bank I was finally on the business side and my job was very simple: every day I was able to do everything expected of me within 1-2 hours. In the beginning I asked for additional work, but no one seemed focused on my job and I didn’t want to step on too many toes. The two best things about that job was my salary and leaving work before 6pm every day. The frustrating part was my inability to do anything that wasn’t cookie cutter or vetted by six committees, legal and outside counsel. One idea after another was turned down by someone or other and after a while I no longer felt motivated to give any ideas or effort at all.
By 2010 I decided to perform a very simple exercise. I took a wall calendar and for every day that I wasn’t happy I put an X and for every day that I was happy I put a check mark. After two months of doing this I realized I wasn’t happy and decided to change my life. Complicating things was the fact that I had just bought an apartment in Manhattan and had a huge mortgage to pay.
Happiness has to take a back seat when you have $200,000 of student loans to pay, a $350,000 mortgage, immigrant parents with high expectations, and fear of change. I was talking to a friend from high school late one night and we both decided that we wanted to start a business. We talked about the industries we were familiar with – banking and law – but couldn’t come up with anything innovative there that wouldn’t require a ton of startup capital. So we each talked to more friends and did research. One day I was shopping online from the office for furniture and called a friend who had a furniture store in Brooklyn. I asked him if he had a website. He said no. He thought my friend and I could build a website for him. Not because we knew anything about websites or ecommerce, but because he considered us smart people in general since we were bankers and lawyers.
With $25,000 of my friends’ money I began www.bedroomfurniturediscounts.com in 2010 while working at Deustche Bank. My family did not approve. My friends did not approve. My boyfriend didn’t like my new obsession with e-commerce. I don’t even know if I approved. My goal was to test out the business concept while also putting away two thirds of my salary every month for the future. I stopped buying fancy things. I simplified my life. I got rid of my fancy car. I subleased my spare bedroom. I sold my fancy things on eBay. I came to the simple conclusion that a $15 dinner with someone you love is just as nice as a $150 dinner.
At Deutsche Bank we had a corporate health center right in our building. One day in March of 2011 I felt so sick from a conversation I had in the office that my head started pounding and I went to sleep in the middle of the day in a dark room at the health center. The blanket in the room was very coarse and the noises from the outside prevented any restful sleep. That was the day I decided I was going to quit my bank job. It helped that by then my new company had made $100,000 in revenue and I had been able to save $50,000 from two years of working at Deutsche Bank. I went straight from the bed in the health center to my boss’ office.
In the next installment I’ll tell you what happened next.
When Sara Shikhman was 10 years old, her family left communist Ukraine with a one-way ticket across the Atlantic Ocean and $5,000 hidden in a set of screwdrivers to become part of the American Dream. Unable to speak or read English, her motivated parents helped her to learn the language quickly and she soon excelled at school. Earning a B.A. in Finance from Pace University in New York in 2003, Shikhman was one of the first Pace graduates to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2006. Since 2010, Sara has grown BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com, a customer-focused online furniture company, into a $10 million a year revenue business.