I've been quitting my job for the last three days. When you're an associate at a large law firm, every partner is your boss. So when you quit, you have to tell every partner you work for or with whom you have a relationship. I've had to have the "It's been lovely but I'm leaving" (the non-burning your bridges version of the I quit speech) conversation more than a dozen times over the last several days.
But I've also been walking around with a huge grin on my face. I know I'll miss many aspects of my job, but I'm so excited to start my new life.And yeah, I'm pretty excited to leave behind the blackberry and the endless hours.
Here's the standard line I've developed to tell people why I'm quitting: I'm moving out of state, to northwest Washington. My husband accepted a job there as associate general counsel for a tribe, which is a great opportunity for him. I'll still be practicing some law, but I plan to focus on writing, and I'm also looking forward to spending more time with my son.
All of this is true, and all of it played a significant role in my decision. This is right for me in a number of different ways. But I wonder, each time I explain it, which part my listener is actually hearing. That I'm yet another woman abandoning her career in favor of her husband's? (I don't believe this, but I know that's what some people will hear.) That I'm yet another female lawyer with kids who found law firm life too hard on her family? (This part is true, and I know many of the people I'm talking to care deeply about this issue.) The people who seem to understand the most are probably those who have considered making a similar change, or who have at least recognized the tradeoffs they've made.
I know I'm leaving a lot on the table. Exciting, stimulating work with a salary that is totally out of scale with the rest of the world. When I go to work, I sit in a chair that cost $800, in a private office with a view of the Chicago skyline from 40 floors up. I have a large support staff available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I get paid to think. I'm encouraged to take charge. Those are real luxuries in the labor market. Speaking of luxuries, I get paid a salary that puts most luxuries within reach. I don't worry about money. My health insurance is top of the line. And my future is even brighter, with more money and power dangling within reach.
There are cons, obviously. Going three months without a single day off is standard, and vacations are when I take work out of town with me instead of working in the office. I didn't mind so much when I was single, but that's tough when you have a family at home. And while there's something to be said for quality time versus quantity, it's hard to have quality time when you're stressed and exhausted. On top of the loss of family time there's the loss of personal time -- because when finding time to hang out with your family is that hard, reading a novel becomes the ultimate luxury.
And then there's this part: my heart's just not in it. Sure, it's fun to win. Writing a great brief can be really satisfying. And I'll admit I love the ego bump of turning our good work product, and feeling important with my fancy business cards. But I don't spend all my time thinking strategically about my cases. I don't post here about "interesting" legal issues. I don't fantasize about making a killer closing argument to a jury. It's fun, but it's not everything to me. I'm not "hungry." And I don't think you can go the distance in this job without that.
But I'm not walking away because I don't want to do what I'm doing now. I'm walking away because there's something else I'm walking toward. If you'll indulge me in a moment of overdramatic self-mythology, I have a calling. I have stories I need to tell. It's not really a matter of what I want to do. I think in some ways a lawyer's work might be more enjoyable for me. But I know that no matter how happy and successful I might be as a lawyer, I would always feel like there was something else I should be doing. Like I was betraying myself and whatever force put me on this earth. Yet I cringe to put myself in the aspiring writer category. I don't know why, it just seems cliched and overdone and ... risky. Risky because of the high probability of a very personal failure. Because it's what Keats called "smokeable" -- subject to mockery. So it's not something I talk about much. But it's a significant part of this decision. (No matter what John Grisham and Scott Turow were able to do, I don't have it in me to write a novel while working at a law firm and raising a family.)
And I know that raises the question why, if I have this supposed calling, I've gone 32 years without making any serious attempt to actually write a novel? And more importantly, why did I spend more than $120K and three years of my life on law school, if that was my true ambition? It wasn't to get my M.R.S. degree, although, if for no other reason, I will never regret law school because it's where I met my husband.
I've always told people I went to law school to punish myself. I moved to a small town in Minnesota where I had a 9 to 5 job and I didn't know anyone, and I told myself I'd either write enough to get into an MFA program or I'd give it up. After two years without writing anything, I applied to law school.
But here's what I think now: I wasn't ready. I needed to go be a lawyer for a while. I did not have the courage and confidence to try this until now.
Nor did I have the ability to make enough to pay for two months of daycare by spending a couple days writing a brief. So there's that.
Speaking of daycare, there is the mommy track piece of this. Although I do not plan on devoting my energies to making elaborate homemade Halloween costumes, volunteering on the PTA, and chauffering my son to a dozen different extracurricular activities--and I am very quick to make it clear to people that I am not shelving all career plans to be a stay-at-home-mom--the needs of my family play a not insignificant role in this.
To be continued..