Three challenges in transitioning from big law to public interest: Part II

It’s incredibly common to hear 1Ls say that they want to begin their careers in big law, pay off their loans, and then transition to a public service job. While I absolutely understand the motivations behind this sentiment and respect the desire to pay off loans as soon as possible, there are several reasons why actually accomplishing this is very difficult. That’s not to say you can’t do it but if you want to put yourself in the best position to take that path, it is best to know the challenges ahead of time so you can game plan how to overcome them.

This blog post will explore reason #2. 

2. You don’t have time to job search while working in big law.

The job of a big law associate is all consuming. I recently spoke with an alumna who said she worked seven day weeks her first three years and I have had several friends in big law who consistently had to cancel plans almost every time we were supposed to meet. 

The billable hour makes your working life pretty intense. You must track all of your time in six minute increments and thinking about life from that perspective rewires your brain. I once had a friend who was on a date and the thought occurred to him that he had been on that date for 7 six minute increments. Even if you are in the office for ten hours a day, you can very rarely bill all of that time. You’re expected to have your phone pretty much always and to always be prepared to get an email telling you that something needs to be done, even on holidays and weekends. 

As a result, if you’re interested in leaving big law, finding time to job search, put together application materials, and interview for jobs is extremely difficult. The rare free moments you get, you understandably want to spend relaxing and unwinding. So it’s no surprise that I have known several people who left their job at a big law firm without another job lined up because they didn’t have the time to job search while working for the big firm. But don’t take my word for it. Here are some comments from former big law attorneys on what working in big law was like and how they found time to search for a job while working in a big firm:

Former big law associate in the South:

It was hard to job search while working in big law. Big law expects its associates to be available to work at any time of day with no advance notice, so a three hour absence (or even just a lag in response to email) to complete interviews is conspicuous. During one screening interview, which I took from my car in the parking garage at my big law office, I was monitoring my firm email because I was managing a deal that was closing that day. There were some opportunities that I lost because I had to ask to reschedule interviews in order to meet one of the firm’s deadlines. Having said all that, once you reach the point that you are committed to leaving the firm you are willing to take more risk to attend to the interview process.”

Former big law associate in Chicago:

In your blog post, I would love it if you could make the point that sometimes a person needs to be willing to take risks to find a satisfying job. All of the conventional wisdom said that I should have lined up a new job before leaving the big firm, but that was not helpful advice. I needed space from it to figure out what I wanted. 

I left without anything lined up after two-and-a-half years. I landed at a small plaintiffs’ side employee rights law firm after a two month gap. I got the job through informational networking — going for coffee with people and asking them about whether they liked what they did and why. I’m still at the same plaintiffs’ firm and really like the people and work. Night and day from the big firm. 

Former big law associate in Chicago:

 I find that government work suits my disposition much better: more predictable hours, more control over your own schedule, not getting emails asking me to do things at night or on weekends,not worrying about whether I will get an email asking me to do things at night or on weekends. So, I am very happy with the move.

Conclusion from Katelynn:

It’s not impossible to search for a job while working in big law but it is very, very difficult. That’s why many associates resort to quitting their big law job without another job lined up in order to have time to engage in a job search. Those who stay in big law while job searching have to consciously carve out time to job search. Doing so is not the end of the world but it is a reality to be aware of as you plan for your future. 

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