This is a copy of a guest post I published on Leave Law Behind, a great resource for lawyers looking to transition out of the law.
The decision to leave my six-figure law firm job didn’t come quickly. But as I looked down into my desk drawer, I realized I had to do it. Lined up neatly were orange prescription bottles of Adderall, Xanax, Effexor, and various headache medicines. I had the Adderall to wake up in the morning, the Xanax to relax at night, and the Effexor as a backup if I had to stay all night at the office.
I knew the statistics. Lawyers suffer from depression, anxiety, and substance abuse at higher rates than most professions. I could see it around me; everyone looked miserable, exhausted, or insane. Now it had happened to me.
I began to get bitter. I kept a folder of resignation emails I’d written. I daydreamed every day about walking out and not returning.
But there was one thing I had to do first: forgive myself.
At the firm, I’m not sure which was worse: the anxiety or the depression. The anxiety floated all around me. I was in a perpetual state of vigilance, constantly on guard of making a mistake. I checked my work email first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Even leaving the office was dangerous because any second a work email ruining the night could come. I jumped when my phone vibrated.
Physically, my heart rate and blood pressure soared. My shoulders bunched up around my ears, my face and jaw tense. It was exhausting just keeping up the front of being okay, of acting interested.
The depression left me listless. I was bored, and I felt boring. It’s a strange feeling to be anxious yet bored at the same time. During the week, I struggled to roll out of bed. On the weekend, I swung between drinking excessively and doing nothing, worried about leaving my apartment because work might surface.
A law firm is a perfect place to make depression worse. I had an absolute lack of control over my schedule. There was little time to exercise, and I ate terribly and gained weight. During the winter, I sometimes wouldn’t get sunlight for days. I’ve been on a lot of antidepressants, and I’ve been diagnosed with depression for over a dozen years. But the law firm amplified everything.
In retrospect, I think the depression was partly an expression of my disappointment. I had worked so hard to get here, and it wasn’t what I wanted. There was also guilt – so many people would want this job, so why didn’t I? And of course the shame of leaving. I couldn’t allow myself to think these things, so I became depressed instead. I devoured self-help fluff articles, not realizing I was so frustrated and desperate because I couldn’t face how I felt.
How had I put myself in this position? I was a liberal arts major as an undergrad, which meant I didn’t have a career path when I graduated. I taught English abroad for a few years after college. It didn’t feel sustainable. For me, law school was the path to a stable, lucrative, and prestigious career. I remember receiving my law school scholarship email on a beach in India. I was ecstatic.
But now, I had to accept that this path was not for me. In a way, this was a bigger challenge than everything that had come before: the LSAT, law school, the bar exam. I hadn’t learned to be friendly to myself, to allow myself to quit.
I had a wealth of intellectual arguments for quitting: If I didn’t leave now, it was going to be too late. I didn’t want to be in golden handcuffs for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to endure the broken relationships I saw in the lives of senior associates and partners. It would be risky to leave, but considering what I was going through, it would be actually riskier to stay.
But before I could accept that reasoning, I had to practice acceptance of my unhappiness and take responsibility for it. This was unfamiliar. For years, I had been shuttled from one achievement to the next. But I would be fully responsible for the decision to leave. I realized I had no idea what success even meant.
I vacillated between remorse for making a terrible decision and trying to convince myself that it didn’t matter how much money I made if I were so miserable. Who knows what the correct decision is? Narratives are necessarily created by looking backward. And it’s really a moot point: what I do now doesn’t change the past. Move forward.
I saved up an emergency fund. Every time I was tempted to buy something non-essential, I told myself that saving thirty dollars meant gaining another day travelling. The fear tried to convince me I didn’t have enough money. It was absolutely important to have a financial cushion when I left, but I had to be careful not to use money as a pretense to stay.
I had spent so much time and money following a dream that I didn’t have anymore, so being able to let go didn’t magically happen. I hesitated. Because I was afraid, I invented reasons to stay. It took a long time before I finally quit.
The process of quitting was much less dramatic than I’d thought. Step one, tell my managing partner. Step two, tell HR. Step three, walk out the door. It wasn’t a dramatic scene, full of bravado and yelling. Instead, it was a process composed of very small steps. Broken down like that, it wasn’t impossible. Scary and stressful, but not impossible.
I’m not sure what’s going to happen, and I get scared sometimes. But without accepting my unhappiness, I wouldn’t have been able to make any sort of transition. I’d still be looking into that desk drawer and wondering when the next reprieve would come.