Once you have decided leaving BigLaw is right for you, there are still many practical and logistical questions you need to answer carefully before you can walk out the door. It can be daunting to figure out how much notice to give, anticipate what’s going to happen after you do, and notify clients you are leaving.
But don’t give up. Those concerns are what any responsible, conscientious lawyer would seriously consider and deliberate before giving notice.
We are recent BigLaw defectors who grappled with these questions, and we asked other BigLaw alums about their experiences with leaving BigLaw for solo or small-firm practice, and life after the leap.
Why to Leave
The decision to leave is rarely made on impulse. Short of a full-on breakdown where you run screaming from the office, you will have to grapple with some questions when deciding whether leaving BigLaw to start your own practice is the right move for you.
The most important question to ask when deciding to leave BigLaw is why. Why leave a six-figure salary, health insurance, partnership prospects, a steady stream of business, and a 401(k) to venture into the unknown? If you don’t have good answers for those questions, then perhaps these questions might help:
- Are you at a point where you aren’t feeling professionally fulfilled?
- Have you lost track of what it is you are working so hard towards?
- Have you lost interest in moving up the ranks?
Your answers should help you determine (and might make it glaringly obvious) whether or not you need to leave.
Financial and Practical Considerations
The fear of the unknown and the loss of a healthy salary and benefits sway many to stay in BigLaw. As Cynthia, a lawyer who left a top New York firm, explains:
The biggest concern [on] leaving was (a) the fear that I had been trained to do one thing my entire legal career and I was doing a 180-degree transition to a different practice area, (b) the inevitable pay cut . . . , and (c) the fact that I was taking a major chance giving up on a potential partnership opportunity at a BigLaw firm.
It takes a pretty high level of dissatisfaction and unhappiness for us to consider leaving our comfort zones—especially when it involves a prestigious firm name, high pay, good benefits, and a clear career trajectory—to trek down an unfamiliar path.
Finding Balance and Being Happy Again
Lawyers are risk-averse and trained to define success and happiness myopically. There are reasons why law is the only job with an industry devoted to helping people quit, why “associate attorney” is frequently listed as one of most unhappy professions, and why the annual attrition rate for associates in BigLaw consistently hovers around 20%. When you find yourself dreading getting out of bed every morning and drinking copious amounts to rid yourself of Sunday-night anxiety, it may be time to seriously consider your alternatives.
Among those we interviewed, the most common theme motivating departure was sustainability. Whether they were talking about the lack of work-life balance, feeling like a cog in a wheel, or yearning for something more professionally fulfilling, most people who chose to leave said life in BigLaw was simply not sustainable or compatible with the life they hoped to lead. Cynthia felt that her decision to leave BigLaw was motivated by a need for more control over her life. She said her desire to leave was based on two factors:
- Obtain more predictable work schedule. “The demands of BigLaw were too great for someone who wants a life and a family.”
- An opportunity to branch out into different practice and “try something new.”
Others we spoke to were not deterred by the long hours, unpredictable schedule, and intense demands of BigLaw, but were discouraged by the lack of personal and professional fulfillment that comes with exclusively representing large corporations in multi-million-dollar business transactions.
“The biggest [reason] was a search for meaning. If I was going to work the long hours required by BigLaw, I wanted to put in the hours for something that really moved me,” Daniel, an attorney who left BigLaw to start his own legal consulting practice, tells us. “I liked the experience of BigLaw on an intellectual level, but I just didn’t have the passion I was looking for and wanted to direct my energy towards something more personally fulfilling.”
Gaining More Autonomy and Control
For others, including the authors of this article, a combination of both factors made the departure inevitable and the decision to start our own firm a foregone conclusion. Personally, we found the environment and culture of BigLaw to be extremely rigid and, at times, uninspiring and unfulfilling. We found ourselves envying an entrepreneur’s ability to build something from the ground up—from what computers to use to what sort of culture and environment we wanted to develop for ourselves, our employees, and our clients.
The desire for more autonomy, fulfillment, and control were at the core of why we, and many others, left BigLaw to build our own practices.
When and How to Leave
The best way for you to leave BigLaw will depend on the circumstances surrounding your relationship with the firm, your level of seniority, and the type of practice you are starting when you leave.
Obligations to Your Future Employer, Savings, and Benefits
Lawyers leaving BigLaw to start their own firm in the same practice area as their current firm should prepare to be escorted out the same day they give notice.
Other factors to consider when leaving are:
- Maximizing the time you have left with a steady stream of income to determine your game plan post-departure.
- Deciding whether it is worth staying on long enough for your 401(k) to fully vest.
- To get your bonus or use your remaining paid vacation time.
Take the time to strategically plan your departure
Leaving on Good Terms
Almost all of the attorneys we interviewed made it very clear leaving on good terms was an important factor (and asked us not to use their full names, just in case).
Depending on what your new practice will be, a tense departure may be inevitable, but the fear that this could all be a huge mistake leads many to try to burn as few bridges as possible. How much notice you give (more is better than less) and when you give notice (ideally not in the middle of a big case or a busy season) is critical.
Giving Notice: When and How Much?
While two-to-three week’s notice is the industry norm, attorneys going solo generally have more flexibility with their start date and may stand to benefit from leaving on good terms. Recognizing this, many offered longer notice periods of several months.
Daniel explained the importance of leaving on good terms:
I gave four months notice to my firm when I left. Staying on good terms with the firm was important to me and has proved very powerful in the long run, as my old firm has been a huge source of new business for me, and has taken a vested interest in supporting my new consulting practice.
While a generous notice period is ideal, the flexibility of your new “start date” also depends on the plans in place for the new practice and whether you want to take any time off before hanging a shingle. Most of the attorneys we interviewed tried to carve out time for a vacation following their departure from BigLaw, indicating that the allure of a smartphone-free trip after several years of “working vacations” was too strong to pass up. Others were eager to get their new practices up and running as soon as possible.
One attorney, for instance, had several potential business opportunities in the near future they wanted to pursue out of their new practice immediately or risk losing the business. In our case, we had found the perfect office space and had to sign a lease that would become effective in just a few weeks.
Even when you have flexibility, what makes leaving BigLaw even more difficult is the inability to predict your firm’s reaction to your departure. If you are escorted out of the building the day you give notice, you don’t want to be left scrambling to get an office up and running in a matter of days. On the other hand, if you are asked to serve a longer notice period, you don’t want to spend your precious start-up capital on several months of rent for unused office space.
As one partner said to us when we gave notice: “The only thing anyone will remember about you after you are gone is how you left.”
Post-Departure: Regrets, Surprises, and Life after BigLaw
Across the board, lawyers felt good about their choice to leave on good terms and provide as much notice as possible. Daniel said:
I have no regrets about the way I left. My ability to maintain good relationships has allowed me to build a practice that is quite attractive to other firms.
For our part, we are happy we did everything above board and did not leave our former colleagues in the lurch or prevent our clients from receiving seamless service throughout our departure period. The clients who liked working with us reached out regardless of when or how we left. And the additional time spent “gainfully employed” let us work on setting up our new practice on evenings and weekends, while still receiving a salary, without going behind anyone’s back.
For those who did not leave on the best of terms, such as Alicia, an attorney who left her firm to strike out as a solo practitioner in the same field as her BigLaw employer, the lack of a relationship with her prior firm has not been hugely problematic:
While I was definitely concerned about being blackballed, in the end I’ve been able to remain outside their radar and build my own practice. While being a one-woman shop can certainly be stressful and overwhelming at times, the pride I take in my work and the ability to be my own boss and still make a healthy living makes the challenges worth it to me.
It pays to stay on good terms with your prior firm, but you can’t always predict or control their reaction to your departure. In the end, remember you are leaving for a reason, and it is possible to succeed with or without their blessing or support.
Making the Tough Call to go Solo is on You
There is no one right or wrong way to leave BigLaw and no formula for a perfect departure. The one constant among all the former BigLaw lawyers we spoke with, however, is no one had any regrets.
Originally published 2016-02-01. Republished 2020-01-23.