In January 2019, I walked away from an offer of partnership at the law firm where I’d worked for seven years.
I traded the tenure-like job security of equity partnership at an established firm to become an at-will employee, and the most junior attorney at a six-person firm.
I downsized from a fancy office in downtown Chicago to a shared workspace in an industrial part of town where I had a month-to-month lease and logged in to connect with my new coworkers, who were mostly all remote.
I gave up the prestige of a traditional firm with a storied history to join a progressive, woman-owned boutique with an alternative compensation structure and a niche practice area.
I gave up 40% of my salary.
Partnership at a law firm was not the plan when I went to law school or when I graduated or when I accepted my first job offer or even when I started working at the firm that would become my home. I stuck it out through the grueling associate years, paying my dues, because I liked the people and I liked the work and I was good at it. When it became apparent that I was on the partner-track, and that I had what it took to be successful (i.e., manage cases and bring in business), I figured I’d be there for the rest of my career. That was the model. Most of the partners I worked for had been there for ten, twenty, thirty years.
The prospect of partnership was, on one hand, a relief. I graduated from law school at the height of the recession. Former classmates of mine are still underemployed, a decade later. I was lucky to get a job in private practice, one that paid well, but being an associate is like an eight-year job interview. I spent most of it anxious and afraid.
As much as I craved security, the notion that I’d spend the next 35 years working at the firm was, on the other hand, panic-inducing. I couldn’t put together an image of it in my mind that wasn’t bleak. The trouble was, I knew that law firms didn’t get much better than the one I was at. Like I said, the people were good, and so was the work. I was well-paid. My work-life balance was miles better than my peers at other firms. I knew I could stay as long as I wanted and be pretty happy.
When I left the law firm I shocked myself. The reasons I left are manifold and beyond the scope of this post but suffice it to say that I discussed them ad nauseum with almost every person I know and, in the course of those discussions, one point kept rising to the surface: the new job might not work out over the long-term. As much as I wanted it to, and as much evidence as I had that it probably would, I had to admit and accept that I might not be at the new job in five years, or even one. I had to give up the dream of security.
The only way I was able leave behind the kind of security the law firm gave me is because having the rest of your life mapped is its own kind of death. Certainty in a future you didn’t choose is another, as is certainty in a future you know you don’t want. Walking away from that kind of security was like setting myself free.
I left the law firm terrified and excited for the future. I thought everything would change. Imagine my surprise then, when the first thing I noticed about my new job was how easy the transition was. The nature of my clients and my work, the fact that I was good at it, all of that stayed the same.
What did shift dramatically were my feelings about my job. I was happier, less anxious about the future. Stepping into uncharted territory was not, it turned out, like stepping off a cliff. True, I did not know what would happen in a year, but I knew what I would be doing for the next few weeks and I was excited about it. Embracing the uncertainty freed me from my fears about the future so that I could enjoy the present.
The security of the law firm was, of course, an illusion. The law firm I left ceased to exist the same day I started my new job, which is when it merged with, folded up into, another firm. If I’d stayed, I would have joined the new, larger entity as a non-equity partner, not so different from an at-will employee. The big salary was only guaranteed for one year. It turned out that what I was leaving behind wasn’t so different from what I was walking into.
I have been at the new job for a year and a quarter now. There have been some shake-ups, some twists and turns, in that time but I’m still here. Every time something like that happens, my boss checks in with me. “How are you doing? I know this isn’t what you signed up for.” My response is always the same: “I knew what I was getting into. This is exactly what I signed up for.”
Now, with the all the upheaval from the global pandemic, the future is hazier than ever. Will we have a vaccine? Will my daughter go back to school for second grade? Will my elderly relatives survive? Will I see my parents and siblings and nieces and nephews this year? What will happen with my job? Will our clients still need us? Will my firm still need me? At one point, all this uncertainty would have been too much to bear, would have made me a veritable flight risk from my own life. At the moment, though? I’m doing okay. I might not know what I’m doing next year or even next month, but I know what I’m doing today, and I’m excited about it. I’m okay in the harder moments, too, because I know that the future never was clear, not even before COVID-19 came along and fogged up all our windows. Today was all we ever had.