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That takes some serious cojones (Part I)

I’m a few months into my new government job, and am just writing to say… if you’re in a big law firm, or another similarly demanding, type-A, fancy job, and you’re feeling frazzled and overwhelmed and stretched thin, but don’t think you can leave because money/prestige/whatwillpeoplethink…..


You know that New Yorker cartoon depicting New Yorkers’ view of the world, where New York is the center of the universe and everything else outside it is just an amorphous blob?  That’s how it felt inside the law firm — we’re all Very Important People, with Fancy Pedigrees, and anyone doing something different must be, in some sense, kidding (to paraphrase John Updike).

It wasn’t just me.  I’ve lately seen some people I know do some seriously crazy things.  Things that place Doing What People Expect above… well… everything else.

To illustrate:

A little over a year ago, I saw a friend and former colleague for the first time in a while.  She was still in a big firm and not loving it.  But she was senior enough that she was up for partner later that year.  Although she thought she had a good shot at being made partner, she was terrified of actually getting it because she hates the work.  Meanwhile, she’s been devastated by some of the things happening in politics lately, and was looking to get involved with some immigration work — she even mentioned that she was considering applying for a job at the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Exasperated, she said, “Why can’t I just win the lottery so I can go do whatever I want?”

Does this sound like someone who should spend their youth and energy being a partner in a big law firm?

No?  For those of you non-lawyers out there, it’s no small thing.  In the years leading up to your partnership year, you work your ass off.  You glad hand.  You build relationships with partners and clients.  THEN, if you’re one of the “lucky” few that makes partner, you pay a s* ton of money into the firm, so that you hold an equity stake in it.  And then, the kicker — once you get that golden ring, you’re just a lowly junior partner, and you have to KEEP working your ass off to build your own book of business and earn your keep.  And if you don’t like the work… well… buckle in because you’re going to be doing a lot of it.

So it’s not just a normal promotion that you earn and then life gets better and the pressure’s off and you’ve made it and you make more money, and happy days.  No.  Actually, it can be kind of a bitch.  But you can also make a lot more money and you’ll definitely feel like a fancy power broker.

Annnnyway…. I recently learned that my friend who was pining  away for her dream job at the Southern Poverty Law Center MADE MOTHERFUCKING PARTNER.  She put herself up for it and made it, because she’s an excellent lawyer annnnnd…. because that’s what you’re supposed to do.


I have lots of other people in my life that are doing the same thing.  One friend, when I told him I was leaving for a government job, looked crestfallen.  When I asked him whether he thinks he’ll stick around to make partner or go do something else, he said, “I think that ship has sailed.”  Meaning… he’s too far down the path of making partner to go do something else now.  Plus he has kids to support, and bla bla bla bla bla.

Do I buy this BS?

Well… I’ve taken a pretty big gamble and labeled it BS.  I think the well-trodden, overachieving type-A fancy pants path aint all it’s cracked up to be.  And I think we all fall for it because of the promise of money and prestige, and because it’s easy.  Easy, not because the everyday is easy — it’s not.  You work long hours for demanding people who are not always very nice on things that are often tedious beyond belief.  No.  Easy because it conforms to our idea of what a career looks like — it’s linear, with one step building directly and literally on the last,  with ever-increasing salary and levels of responsibility, over a course of years, culminating in being at the top of an organization, and then retiring in your 60s or 70s.

And then you die.  And on your death bed you look back at a career where you put yourself second to bosses and clients, and grew old doing it, and have a fat bank account but nothing much else to show for it.

In the depths of my discontent about my big law job, I read this article, about how law firms try to hire insecure overachievers.  It was so spot on, and so sad — why are we all trying to please clients and bosses like they’re our demanding, expectant parents?  They’re NOT our parents, and we don’t have to live up to their expectations about what the right and respectable career path and life looks like.

We can stop doing what they’re doing, and try something totally different.  Even though my new job is still in the law, it is in a very, very different world.  I knew literally zero people in the office I just joined, that’s how little the worlds overlap.  I was terrified of telling people where I was going, fearing they would look down on me for leaving behind everything they had worked so hard to hold on to.

But can I tell you something?  MY NEW JOB IS THE SHIT!  I. am.  lovvvving it.  I get up every morning energized to go to work.  I’m learning new things.  I’m meeting new people who are in a whole different universe from the one I was in.  They are very smart.  They are very savvy.  The whole place is mission-driven, and the mission is to make the city a better place to live.  There are HUGE upsides — the people I’m meeting will be doing cool shit for their whole careers, and I can go along with them if I want.  On Sunday nights, I don’t get that disappointed, fretful feeling of dread and woe that the weekend is over and I have to face another week of drudgery.  When the day is over, I go home and leave my work at work.

And my paycheck is comically low.  Am I satisfied with that?

ERRRR, no.

Hahahaha, you thought I was going to say “Yes!  It’s so worth it to be happy!”  And if we get riiiiight down to it, I’d say yes — given the choice between being miserable and making big bucks and being happy and making small-ish bucks, I’d still choose being happier.  But real talk, making less money is kind of a bummer.  I have kids.  I want to provide for them.  I want options for them.  I want a safety net for unexpected crap.  And then I have things I want to do — like travel all over the world while I’m still young.  Yeah, people do all that without a lot of money but……. having money makes it so much easier!  Plus, I want the freedom to stop working for someone else when I’m ready, so I need more of a nest egg than we have now.  So… is this crummy salary a huge f*n problem?!?!

Mmmmaybe.  But I’m betting it’s not.  I’m taking a leap of faith that this is a temporary period of lower earnings, and that in a few years my next career step will be better paying and STILL not horribly life-draining.  Or, alternatively, that with my greater happiness and flexibility will come more productivity in other areas of life, which may turn out to make us money too some time down the line.  Yes, it’s all very speculative.  But I just know I’m not going to be limited to this cute little salary for life — I just know it.  It’s not quite clear how I’ll be skyrocketed into the earnings stratosphere, but I just have an intangible feeling it’s coming.  That takes some cojones — guessing that something (I don’t know what) good lies in store for me in the future (I don’t know when).

So there you have it — I jumped off the hamster wheel and it’s totally GREAT.

Stay tuned for Part II in this series, in which I share another big life reveal — the changes just keep coming over here in the Greener Pastures house.

1 comment on “That takes some serious cojones (Part I)

  1. steveark

    I worked with, and still side hustle with, a lot of government lawyers. I’ve seen plenty of them go from law firms to government then back to law firms as regulatory experts and then sometimes back to government to head an agency. That’s not a bad path to take back to higher pay some day that avoids the big firm pressure cooker for the most part. Many of these friends seem to enjoy their careers.

    Liked by 1 person

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