I spent over five years working as a corporate associate for a premier Boston law firm. I was ambitious and determined to climb to the top. I naively thought that I was making choices and taking charge of my life, all in the name of success, whatever image of success was driving me at the time.
Unfortunately, the definition of “success” for a big firm associate is very narrow: you say “yes” to every assignment (even if it means working all-nighters), you become a coveted associate (which means more all-nighters, working weekends and ruined vacations), and you politely listen to the raving annual reviews, waiting for the inevitable other shoe to drop, and cringe at the obligatory constructive criticism, no matter how forced it sounds.
For the longest time, I had not considered that the vicious cycle of driving myself into the ground in order to get a good reputation and more never-ending work was not my idea of a successful life. I was burnt out, spiritually empty, frustrated and discouraged, but still fully committed to selling my soul to the insatiable and unreasonable partners and clients.
If you haven’t experienced this, you might be thinking I was crazy. If you have gone or are going through this yourself, you know. You know how difficult it is to even entertain the idea of giving up being a big firm associate.
What is holding associates from leaving the law firm life behind? Money is a big one, of course. You would most likely have to take a pay cut, but you would gain some unheard-of benefits, such as getting a life. It does take a shift in perspective towards simpler living. You do have to detach yourself from the lifestyle the paychecks have provided.
What else? What also held me back was being attached to my identity as a big firm associate. That took up an overwhelming part of my entire being and self-image. Losing that identity meant losing a big part of who I was. Anxiety, uncertainty and fears skyrocketed. I couldn’t afford to lose myself until I found who I was outside of my role as a lawyer. It took a couple of years of excruciating soul-searching, but I did. As soon as I was able to disassociate my identity from my job, I decided on my next steps (going back to school), I was able to set better boundaries with partners, and I sensed a shift in my overall view of the revered firm I had thought I dearly loved.
I was finally free to make genuine choices and redefine success. You can too. And you don’t have to do it alone. There are excellent counselors (ex-lawyers who never looked back) and books to help you figure out what else can be in store for you. The transitional period is disorienting and scary, but it opens the door to the end of law firm enslavement and to exciting possibilities. Life is too precious to let the fear of the unknown or the claws of a law firm dictate the path of your career and happiness.
Guest blogger Dasha Tcherniakovskaia has changed careers after devoting 10+ years to corporate law. She has worked as a paralegal at a major financial institution and an associate at a large Boston law firm. She has since received a master’s degree in counseling and works with individuals struggling with the stresses of life.