I had a great catch up with one of my former bosses this week. He’s undoubtedly the best supervising partner I’ve ever had (where I worked that didn’t mean much), though he didn’t really supervise me much as I was often pulled away by other partners for long-term deals and projects. However, I always appreciated his sharp wit and I was extremely grateful for his help and support when I told him I had decided to make a switch (and he wasn’t even my supervisor then). Interestingly, both of us have left our old firm and are starting something new. I’m heading into the uncharted waters of writing while he has abandoned his million-dollar income for a fresh life as a barrister.
[For those who aren't familiar, we used to work in a commercial law firm where we represented and advised corporate clients. We could attend court on our clients' behalf but that's not our specialty -- for contentious points of law or full blown trials and hearings we usually brief barristers (the guys that wear cloaks and wigs) to get their expert opinion or to get them to represent the client on our behalf. In some ways, barristers are like freelance writers who have to manage their own business and clients. Good ones earn big bucks. Bad ones struggle to make ends meet. In Australia, you only need to take the bar exam to become a barrister -- in America you need to pass it just to practice as an ordinary lawyer.]
For both of us, the decision to leave was not all that hard. Obviously it was easier for me because I had only been a lawyer for about four years and I had lost all passion for the work I was doing. Well, it’s questionable whether I ever had the ‘passion’ to begin with. Enthusiasm, maybe, but I wouldn’t go much further than that. On top of that there was the constant stress, anxiety and long hours that had morphed my once youthful appearance into something more commensurate to my real age, or perhaps even beyond. I just wanted to get out, and the earlier I did it the better.
For him, it must have been a titanic struggle. He had been a partner for almost a decade, meaning he was probably taking home around $1.5m a year. Most barristers apparently make a loss in their first year or two while they build their profile and business. With a family and several young children to support, the financial comfort could have been reason enough to tough it out. But he admitted that he had had enough of the place and that he simply wasn’t enjoying it any more. Partners were dropping like flies in the prolonged aftermath of the 2008 GFC and there must have been ridiculous pressure to keep his practice afloat.
I’d be lying if I said I never wondered what it would be like had I not quit the law and just stuck with it. On good days I would think about the positives of working there, such as the pay, friends and the perks that come with working in a big firm with loads of money to throw around. If I had stayed, I would have been earning well in excess of a 6-figure salary by now, and considering how tough it’s been financially the last year or so (thank goodness the wife still earns something), that money surely would have been nice to have.
I have a few friends who started around the same time as me that are earning big bucks now, and a few aren’t all that far away from partnership (in that I mean 3 or 4 years…if they’re lucky). I had another friend who left the law to become a journalist tell me the other day that a former colleague of ours (whom a new recruit once thought was my gay lover — we arrived late together to an after-work function) is now a partner at a rival law firm. He had just been made senior associate when I was around and must have taken the fast track to partnership. I couldn’t picture the campy person that I knew, with his arms flailing all over the place every time he spoke, being a partner of a big law firm. And yet he was.
My ex-supervisor had told me before, and he told me again when we caught up, that I’d most probably make partner if I stayed. For a moment my ego inflated and I fantasised the prestige and income that came with it. But just as quickly I tore it down. There wasn’t any part of me that wanted that life any more, and certainly no part of me was willing to endure the torture to get there.
He then said something that made a lot of sense, and applied to both of us. He said that he could have, if he really wanted to, toughed it out — but then he would have always regretted not giving his new career a try. He had always wanted to be a barrister but, like many others before him, got caught up in the partnership ladder and never got to live his dream. If things don’t work out as a barrister, then fine, he would seek something else, but at least he knew in his heart that he gave it a try.
I feel the same. You won’t believe how many people think I’m crazy for switching to writing — most just give a friendly warning about how hard it is but you can tell from their eyes that they think you’re crazier than a bald-headed Britney. But if my ex-supervisor — someone that had already done the hard yards and was earning millions could walk away and start over — and can bear the condescension and doubting voices of his family, friends and peers, then surely it can’t be that hard for someone like me. I’m fortunate to be in a position where I have the ability and opportunity to make a change. If I don’t take advantage of it and put in 100% then I am a fool.
The fear and doubt is still there but at least I am moving forward with no regrets.