Why I Quit BigLaw, by a Harvard grad
Over three years have passed since I graduated from HLS and passed the New York bar exam. Yet I have never actually practiced law in any country or capacity, nor do I have any intention of doing so in the near future. To be sure, there are many occasions when I question the logic behind this decision. Given my academic background, there will always be a chance that I make a return to the legal profession in some form. But as of now I have no regrets.
It goes without saying that lawyers are often assumed to be of a relatively high socioeconomic class, and they also tend to command a considerable amount of respect amongst large segments of the population. T.V. shows such as “Suits” and “Making a Murderer” attest to the fascination that many members of the public continue to have with legal practice. And the incessant scandals surrounding the Trump administration have thrust the role of law itself into the spotlight, with the President straining the limits of his constitutional authority while judges are forced to take sides in an increasingly polarized environment.
As is often the case, however, popular depictions of legal practice do not conform to everyday realities. In my limited experience as a summer associate at corporate law firm in New York, I did not encounter any of the intricacies and legal puzzles that I grappled with in law school. While first-year law students are required to take foundation courses such as contracts, property, torts, criminal law and civil procedure, most of the concepts that we learned were irrelevant in corporate law. This was especially the case at my firm, which focused on capital markets work and did not have a robust litigation department. The tasks I was given as an associate were, in my opinion, quite mundane and more appropriate for a paralegal or a secretary than a lawyer. Even within the litigation department, most of my work involved monotonous “document review,” and it was extremely unlikely that I would ever step foot in a courtroom to present oral arguments. In conversing with junior associates, I was told that the nature of my work would be quite tedious for many years if I decided to return full-time.
My options within the legal profession have always been somewhat constrained. As a Canadian working in the United States, it would have been difficult for me to find an employer outside of a law firm that would help me obtain permanent residency. This meant that I would not be able to build a long-term future in the country. Also, few foreign lawyers are able to obtain permanent positions with the government or NGOs given the abundance of American lawyers in the workforce. Salaries tend to be much lower for lawyers who do not work in corporate law firms. Yet if I were to return to Canada to practice law I would have to expend considerable time and money to obtain a Canadian license, which would seem to defeat the purpose of studying American law in the first place.
My options became even more restricted after my first year of law school, as my first-year grades were below average and I did not possess any prior work experience or advanced degrees which may have mitigated my mediocre transcript. While I had an interest in sports and entertainment law, along with trademark and copyright law, I was unable to find a job at the small number of “BigLaw” firms active in these areas. In the end, while most of my friends obtained multiple offers from firms across different locations and practice areas, after interviewing with over forty law firms across the United States I received only one job offer.
I would still have returned to my law firm and endured a few years of legal practice if this was necessary for my short-term and long-term financial security. But I was not encumbered with student debt, and I had little interest in pursuing typical “exit options” in finance or management consulting that are sometimes available for lawyers looking to leave the profession. Moreover, after my summer associateship in New York, I realised that I was ill-suited for the corporate law firm lifestyle, which is often defined by expensive liquor and related festivities in between long nights at the office and take-out delivery dinners.
Before attending law school, I was reassured many times by schools hoping to attract me to their program that a law degree would open many doors in my career. In fact, I turned down full scholarships from multiple law schools in Canada and the United States, including my alma mater UBC, to attend Harvard for precisely this reason. Yet in my experience, the vast majority of my law school classmates ended up doing the same thing after graduation: working for a corporate law firm. This is in spite of the fact that many of these same classmates have told me in private that they have no interest in working at a firm and that they are simply working at these firms to pay off their student loans. Thus, given the fact that I did not have student debt, I almost felt obligated to try and pursue an alternate path.
It is a lonely path. I am essentially caught between two worlds. Most of my friends and acquaintances from the past five years are lawyers in the United States, but I myself have little interest in returning to the profession, or to the United States. Over time it has become difficult for us to relate to each other as our careers and personal lives have diverged. Non-lawyers, meanwhile, can find it difficult to understand my various complaints about the banalities of legal practice. But I remain convinced that this is the right path for me. Without the pressures that afflict many law students, I am free to do anything I like with my degree and test the limits of what it can offer.