You can check out any time you like. But you can never leave. Photo via Wikipedia.
I think every Biglaw associate talks about quitting. Kind of a lot. But doesn't it seem like not that many of us actually do it? I have a friend who is in her 6th year. She has been talking about quitting for all of the 3 years I have known her. I have another friend that I went to law school with, who has been talking about quitting for at least the last year, maybe longer. And as you know, I have also been saying that I am going to quit. So, why are we all still here?
I think the golden handcuffs are part of it, but not the whole picture. There's also the busy-slow-busy-slow problem, where you either don't have the time to look for a new job, or you don't have the motivation. But I think it goes deeper than that.
I had drinks with the law school friend last night, and she said that she was so unhappy, she couldn't even begin to think about how to go about making the change. She also talked about barriers to entry in other fields. She doesn't particularly want to rack up a huge amount of student debt unless she is sure she wants to do the new career. But how can you be sure about that? I mean, didn't we all think we wanted to be lawyers, too? Otherwise, how would we have gotten here in the first place? So we just keep working here.
This uncertainty is, in my opinion, what keeps people from making a lot of big changes in their lives. I know I am unhappy, but I can't quite pinpoint what would make me happy. So I do nothing. But maybe happy isn't the point. Maybe the point is happier. Do I know what job would make me happy? Nope. But I know it's not this one. So maybe I should just find something that would make me incrementally happier, and do that. And then, when I can improve upon that position, I'll make that change. And if I think something will make me happier, and it doesn't, that's okay too.
There are two caveats, though. First, it helps to have a situation that lends itself to some flexibility. I have a partner who is willing and able to allow me this time to search. But if my salary were supporting her and the three kids? Then the options are more limited. So any change has to be practical. That doesn't mean you can't make a change if you are supporting your family or have some other practical restraints. You can. You just have to do a more careful risk-assessment (who talks like that? A math major and a lawyer, that's who.) It also doesn't mean that if you are fortunate enough to have a situation that allows you some flexibility, as I am, that change isn't scary. It is. Any change means letting go of the security of the known for the possibility inherent in the unknown.
This is the second caveat. You have to face the fear and be willing to actually make a change. And maybe fail. Maybe I will quit, and not be able to find another job. Maybe I will be more miserable than I am now. Maybe, if I just stuck it out, it would get better where I'm at. But probably not. And I find that I more often regret things that I don't do, rather than things I do.