Quit Biglaw: Develop a Plan to Exit

Biglaw opens up plenty of exit options, alternative careers; and opportunities to lateral to another firm.

Key Terms

  • It is natural for lawyers to quit Biglaw–the expectation is that most people will leave within a few years.
  • Biglaw opens up plenty of exit options, alternative careers; and opportunities to lateral to another firm.
  • You should think about an exit strategy even if you don’t plan to quit in the immediate future.

Many people quit Biglaw for many different reasons. Some even call it a feature of the occupation rather than a bug. Here at Biglaw Investor, it wouldn’t be a surprise for someone to plan their exit even before they begin. Whether you’re about to quit Biglaw or looking to stay informed in case the decision arises, you want to be informed and start to plan ahead. For those considering entering Biglaw, understanding common exit reasons and strategies can be a great way to better understand your career choice.

Why do people quit Biglaw?

Biglaw is extremely competitive to get into. Most Biglaw attorneys came out of top schools (like the T14 law schools), with stellar grades, and competed with a tough crowd of law students for these Biglaw positions. Biglaw pays well and takes so much work to break into, so why do so many people quit?

For many, the reality of working in a biglaw firm with biglaw associates becomes overwhelming or unbearable over time. Trying to get to the role of senior associate, midlevel or junior associate, or partner from your new biglaw job can seem like there’s a long road ahead.

One Biglaw partner told me when I was a fresh 1L that roughly 90% of first years are gone by their fifth year! Let’s explore the three main reasons for why people leave Biglaw. Chances are that some blend of all three reasons will be present for anyone who quits Biglaw, regardless of their practice area. Leaving biglaw can be challenging, but it might also be the right move for your mental health. Too many long hours is hard for lots of people in the legal profession.

1. It’s too much work. Many complaints about Biglaw will boil down to this. Billable requirements, vacation days, work-life balance, stress and burnout, salary-per-hour-worked, etc. all can be eliminated if Biglaw did not regularly require workweeks in excess of 60 hours/week. Of course, this is why they pay you the big bucks. However, this kind of career is not the kind that most people can or want to spend 30 years doing. Workload also gets in the way of competing interests such as family or hobbies. If you’re struggling with too many billable hours and can’t see keeping up with this for the rest of your legal career, you might be thinking about leaving biglaw. If you’re feeling the urge to dropout because of the work product, you aren’t the first person to feel that way.

2. You took advantage of Biglaw’s financial opportunities. Many people are not interested in Biglaw for the actual substantive work. Because massive law school student loans are so prevalent, spending a few years in Biglaw to quickly pay off student loans can be the financially responsible decision. Even if loans are not an issue or your student loans have already been obliterated, the earning power provided by Biglaw is not going to be easily found elsewhere. If a high income is part of your short-term savings plan, every year spent in Biglaw becomes a unique opportunity to advance your savings or retirement at an incredible rate. In any event, if you had financial goals and Biglaw helped you accomplish it, it might be a good time to move on. Even though biglaw might have boosted your net worth, you may be thinking about starting your own firm or leaving the legal industry.

3. You want to do something else with your legal education. Maybe you thought Biglaw would present stimulating work. Perhaps you never really wanted to do Biglaw when you graduated, but the option was there, and you took it. In any event, Biglaw is known to keep the doors open and to provide excellent exit opportunities. For the younger law school graduates that went K-JD, Biglaw can be a great place to park your career decisions in the short run. However, once you have a better idea of where you might want to take your career, it could be a sign to leave Biglaw behind.

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You have plenty of exit options leaving a Biglaw firm

Biglaw keeps doors open. There are a myriad of alternative career options for Biglaw attorneys, and traversing sectors or industries is usually not an issue. Whether you start to see the end of the Biglaw road or not, exploring exit options should be something you do at all times.

Actively, you can try to research and learn more about other kinds of careers. Networking should be second nature by now, so if you want to receive first-hand experience from people in other careers, reach out to them! There will be many ex-Biglaw attorneys floating around the professional world for you to talk to. Passively, you are constantly exposed to other careers throughout your work.

You will have exposure to clients operating their businesses, the in-house counsel of those clients, opposing counsel who are not Biglaw attorneys, judges and clerks, and many other kinds of careers that cross your path regularly as a Biglaw attorney. Take advantage of these engagements and absorb information about exit options.

Here are some ideas to get you started, but your exit options are really only limited by your imagination:

  • Jumping to a mid-sized or small firm
  • Solo practitioner 
  • Real estate broker
  • Investment banking or private equity
  • Human resources and recruiting
  • Management at a corporation
  • In-house counsel
  • Writing and journalism
  • Teaching
  • Term or career clerking
  • Entrepreneur
  • Politics
  • Compliance
  • Alternative dispute resolution (e.g., mediator)
  • Trust administrator
  • Union representative
  • Career services director
  • Law librarian
  • More education
  • Early retiree

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Planning to escape Biglaw law firms

Because Biglaw is going to come with a lifestyle and salary that won’t be matched by most other careers, you’ll have to prepare in advance to have a smooth exit.

First, do you have your next job lined up? Sometimes, exiting Biglaw needs the urgency of a fire drill, but most exits should be done strategically with your next step in mind. It’s easiest to leave any employer when you have a job offer waiting for you on the other side.

You’ll want to have a handle on your finances. Do you have remaining debt that still requires large sums of regular payments? Have a plan to make the necessary payments while you switch jobs or reduce your income. Has your lifestyle inflated, and you feel the constraints of golden handcuffs? What if you’re moving from a dual-income household to single? The inertia of high spending as a Biglaw attorney can be very difficult to fight, but chances are that your lifestyle will need some sort of adjustment if you quit Biglaw.

How is your mental and physical health? Quitting Biglaw is one thing but switching jobs can be an arduous project on its own that is taxing on the mind and body. If you recognize that you aren’t in a good spot overall, perhaps a therapist or medical leave can benefit you while you’re still in Biglaw. Even if you do switch careers right now, mental and physical well-being should always be a forefront concern.

Some people’s identities are wrapped up too closely to their work. Not only is there the internal locus of identity, where your self-worth and sense of achievement only come from your career, but you may be concerned with how people view you in light of your exit.

Should you care about what others think? Maybe, but probably not. So many people leave Biglaw anyway, that if someone is judging you for wanting to quit, chances are that it is not an informed opinion. Even Biglaw understands that many people leave, and associates are considered “successful” alumni of the firm if they are placed elsewhere in a way that benefits the firm (e.g., in-house counsel at a major client).

Is quitting Biglaw the wrong decision?

It’s one thing to think about quitting, it’s another thing to actually pull the trigger and pack up your office belongings. First, if you have cold feet about quitting, make sure you actually want to quit. Biglaw comes with its ebbs and flows like any other career, and you might just find yourself in a brief period of greater-than-average misery. Some issues might be under your control. Are your motivations to leave temporary and for how long will they continue? Consider if switching firms could resolve the underlying issues. Talk to a recruiter if you think that lateraling could be the solution.

On the other hand, you don’t need to fear quitting Biglaw quite so much. It is not a permanent decision that can never be reversed. Getting into Biglaw is never guaranteed, but plenty of lawyers will leave Biglaw and return after a few years.

Sure, you won’t progress class years during your time away from Biglaw (and maybe even go down a few if you return), but if you have a compelling reason such as taking care of your parents or wanting to be more present for your infant children, career progress is not the worst price to pay.

If you decide that leaving right now is the best decision but want to keep the door to returning open, then don’t burn any bridges on your way out. Maintain your existing network and explore your options while knowing that a Biglaw revival remains possible.

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Joseph Kim is a 3L at Notre Dame Law School. Joseph grew up in California where he developed an interest in working with music, powerlifting, and bowling. He’s been a member of the FIRE community since before law school and plans to pursue FatFIRE following graduation.

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