The other day, I was talking with my dad and we got to talking about my new job. I told him how I was doing – I liked it, I was way less stressed and anxious, and overall, the new job seemed like a better fit for me and my personality. Yes, it was another pay cut (after already taking a pay cut when I left biglaw), but I was enjoying myself, gaining back hours in my day that would otherwise be stuck at an office, and most importantly, I was, for the first time in my life, getting home from work at a reasonable hour.
After I tried to explain to him what I did at my new job, my dad asked me an interesting question about what led me to my new gig: “Did you get fired?“
The question initially struck me as an odd one. But, when I think about it, it’s not a crazy question for my dad to ask. From the outside looking in, it does look like I must have gotten fired. What else could explain why I was doing what I’m doing?
My Reverse Career Trajectory
As a bit of background for those of you just tuning in, I spent the first four years of my legal career following a fairly traditional legal path for someone who did well in law school – good grades and law review at a top law school, three years doing litigation at one of the largest law firms in the country, then moved on to a fairly prestigious state government job.
When I left biglaw, I told myself that the main reason I’d been unhappy as a lawyer was because of the biglaw environment. The long hours, the 24/7 availability that clients expected, all of the stress and anxiety that came along with being a lawyer – none of this was good for me. But after a few months in state government, I started to realize that maybe it wasn’t the biglaw environment that was the source of my unhappiness. It was the traditional practice of law that I didn’t really enjoy.
After just one year in state government, I decided to make a radical career change, completely leaving the traditional practice of law and taking a non-practicing attorney position with a branch of my state bar association. I’m still a licensed attorney, but I no longer actually practice law anymore. So far, I’m happier for it.
Most people with my credentials wouldn’t make a career change like the one I did. What probably makes my career trajectory so odd isn’t just that I jumped out of my traditional legal career – it’s the fact that I took massive pay cuts in order to do so. Today, I’m making close to $100,000 less than what I would make if I were still sticking it out in biglaw. Even leaving my government job earlier this year ended up with me taking a $20,000 pay cut.
All of these pay cuts – this seemingly backward career slide that I’ve been doing over the past two years – provides the backdrop for my dad’s view of what’s going on in my world. It really does look like I got fired and was just desperate for any job in order to pay the bills. But that’s not what happened.
Flexibility – The Opposite Of Desperation
One of the great benefits of choosing not to live like a big shot lawyer was that it put me in a position where I didn’t need rely on a huge paycheck in order to live well. With all of the extra money that I didn’t need, I was able to pay off my student loans in just 2.5 years.
Most importantly, not living like a big shot lawyer got me used to living on less. Since I wasn’t reliant on that huge paycheck, I had the flexibility to change directions if I wanted to. I could take risks. My colleagues that chose to embrace the big shot lawyer lifestyle didn’t give themselves those choices.
Most people don’t realize it, but we limit our options simply by the lifestyle we choose. If you have a ton of fixed costs (think student loan payments, a big rent or mortgage payment, car loans, and any other kind of debt that you have to pay every month, no matter what), you necessarily limit yourself to the type of jobs you can have. If the entire world of jobs includes anything from working at a golf course for minimum wage to the super high paying, six-figure job, someone with a high fixed cost lifestyle can only work in that higher end of the job spectrum. Instead of gaining freedom with the large paycheck, the person tied to the big paycheck has placed themselves in a different position – desperation to maintain their paycheck.
I Wasn’t Fired – I Gave Myself Choices
My dad is someone who has never thought of a job as anything beyond just making money. To him, a job is something you put up. The bigger the paycheck, the more you put up with – but that’s just the nature of a job. So, the only explanation for why I would make the career moves I was making was because I’d been fired. Otherwise, I’d just stick it out and keep earning that money.
For me, a job is still about money – I’m not financially independent or anything like that yet, so I need a job in order to live. But, I don’t need as much as most people. Unlike a lot of people, I actually have the privilege and luxury of being able to access a wide spectrum of jobs that others simply cannot afford to take. Money is important, sure. But I can account for time and happiness too. That’s the beauty of having choices.
To those of you reading this (especially newer grads entering the workforce), my advice is to always maintain flexibility in your life. Careers fluctuate, incomes change – it’s never going to a smooth ride like most people seem to think. And you never know what the next few years might hold. If you’d asked me back in law school what I’d be doing now, I’m sure I wouldn’t have thought I’d be in a non-traditional attorney role like the one I’m in now.
I wasn’t fired, although I understand why someone might think that. Instead, I changed jobs because I could. Not a lot of people give themselves that choice.