"You need git up, git out and git something
How will you make it if you never even try?
You need to git up, git out and git something
Cause you and I got to do for you and I
That's why" Outkast, Git up Git out
I started my job as a lawyer on October 8th, 2012. My last day as a lawyer was October 8th, 2014. I survived 2 years, 0 months, 0 days.
This is my story on why I decided to go to law school, my journey into Big Law, why being a lawyer is the worst, why people don’t quit sooner, and how I escaped into freedom. Hope you enjoy this mini-novella.
Why I went to Law School
3 simple reasons: Money. Money. Money.
My undergraduate degree at Georgia Tech was in Civil Engineering. I always knew, anecdotally, that engineering is a generally safe and well-paying job in the United States. The stats – graduating from Georgia Tech, the median salary for civil engineers is $60,000. The top-end civil engineers make $113,000 per year (with 10+ years of experience). That’s pretty solid.
Unfortunately, during my 3rd year at Georgia Tech, I found out the lawyers were being offered $160,000 starting salary right after law school at top law firms (it was $130,000 for top firms in Atlanta and $160,000 for top firms in NYC). Essentially, I was being told I could become a successful civil engineer and make $113k or I could just graduate law school and make $130k with a $20k bonus.
With that one nugget of information, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer (in fairness, I was torn between being a lawyer or a doctor and oscillated between the two for a couple months because doctors also make a lot of money). Was this a dumb reason to select a career path? Absolutely. Did I talk to any lawyers in my making my decision? Absolutely not.
So I set off on my new life plan. That summer I studied for the LSAT (the law school entrance exam) and did alright. I applied to ~8 schools and ended up choosing the University of Georgia (UGA) because they offered me a full academic scholarship. It wasn’t the highest ranked school I was admitted into, but tuition at the other schools would be $45,000 per year. I chose “free” law school.
Side bar: I was graduating from Georgia Tech in May 2009, which was one of the worst times to be hitting the job market as a new college graduate as almost no one was hiring. This was particularly acute for construction companies that were some of the hardest hit by the 2008 Great Recession. This was likely a big contributing factor to my thinking that 3 more years of school would be a good idea.
Getting a Big Law Firm Job
From the first day of law school, my only goal was to get a job at one of the big law firms in Atlanta.
This is where things get interesting. The downside to having chosen to UGA, is that it wasn’t in the prestigious “T14” law schools. The T14 is a collection of the top 14 law school in the country (there are about 150 ranked schools). Going to a T14 school essentially increases your likelihood of getting a big firm job because those firms primarily hire from T14 schools. UGA was ranked number 30. To get a big firm job out of UGA, you essentially needed to be in the top 10-15% of the graduating class (it’s a bit more complicated and ridiculous but I’ll get into that in a second).
The problem with finishing in the top 10% of this next tier of law schools (generally those ranked 15-50), is that 80% of students thinks they will be in the top 10%. This creates 1 spot for every 8 people that believe they will achieve that result. Add on to that, the fact that these are all people who are accustomed to succeeding. They have all done well in their undergraduate studies and done well on their LSAT. This creates a huge imbalance of perception to reality.
Now, let’s continue down the rabbit hole of getting a big firm job and just how fucking ridiculous the system really is. In your first year at law school, known as 1L, everyone takes the same first year courses and you usually get grades for your first year at the very end of your first year (caveat: this is how most law schools are structured but there are differences). Essentially, your first semester is worth 33% of your final 1L grades and your second semester is worth 66%.
Your 1L year matters more than most people understand. After 1L most people take unpaid internships or any legal job they can get for the summer. Most of these jobs aren’t based on your grades because you apply in January/February and you don’t have any real grades yet. However, you start interviewing for 2L summer job (the jobs you take after your 2nd year) in August and September (before you start your 2L year).
Essentially, if you are trying to get a big firm job then the only data point is your first year of grades. I received an offer in September of my 2L year (10 months before I would start) for my 2L summer job. The 2L summer job is one of the greatest jobs of all time. You get paid $3,000 per week, the hours are easy, not much is expected out of you, and every week you are seduced with sporting events and open bars. It is amazing and has nothing in common with being a lawyer.
After the summer is over, the law firm then decides if they want to make you an offer. So in August, before I even started my final year of school I landed a 6-figure job in Atlanta plus a signing bonus plus all my Bar training and exam expenses paid for in full.
The major issue is that if you don’t get an offer after your 1L year for a 2L summer internship its almost impossible to get a big firm job. 95% of first year law firm associates spent the 2L summer at that law firm. So if you screw up your first year, its almost impossible to get a big firm job.
Let’s recap how to ensure you get a 6-figure job right out of law school:
So 1 year of hard work and 2 years of making sure you don’t fuck up. Then you achieve the holy grail – a big law firm associate job.
The Life of a Big Firm Associate (Why being a lawyer is the worst)
From the outside, being a big law firm associate seems awesome. From the first day, you get our own office (inclusive of book case, L-desk, 25th floor views), amazing benefits, a secretary, and you are surrounded by extremely smart people.
But then reality sets in. And reality is dark. Let’s jump in to all the terrible things about being a law firm associate (plus why being a partner isn’t much better):
Why People Stay
Despite my grievances above, I want to examine why so many people remain at law firms. Here is my best distilled version:
Why and how I left
I made it 160 days into my legal career before semi-publicly claiming I wanted to quit being a lawyer. 160 days.
Scouring through old e-mails I found my first, “I hate being a lawyer and need to quit this job e-mail.” It was sent to one of my best friends and funniest people I know, Aidan Shaughnessy, on April 17th, 2013. I told her I wanted to buy a place in Montenegro and start a hostel.
When she asked why I don’t just go for it. I replied succinctly and with poor grammar – “I need to work here for at least 2 years Eth! Gotta build that resume.”
I fulfilled that promise and not a day more. So how did I get out? Giant leap of faith.
After my first major trial ended in Denver in July of 2014, I was going to take 2 weeks off of work and go to Europe in August. This was my first real vacation since I joined the law firm.
However, my vacation was more of a career transition trip. My goal was to check out some top-MBA schools in Europe and study for the GMAT that I was taking in September. My trip took me to Budapest (for fun), to Poland (to visit family), and then off to Paris (visits HEC and Insead) and then to London to check out London Business School.
Prior to arriving in London, I e-mailed an old Georgia Tech friend, Alexis Luck, who lived in London to see if she wanted to grab beers. She agreed to meet on Saturday August 30th for beers at her local pub in Notting Hill. She also told me that her husband, Dave, would be joining (or as he puts it now “I was not excited to be wasting my Saturday with some random loser from Georgia Tech”).
Once we sat down at the pub, we started discussing why I was in Europe, why I was leaving the law, and my plans to get an MBA. Dave told me about his start-up, Capital on Tap. He also said that he was always looking for smart people and that he thought MBAs were dumb. We continued to drink for many more hours and then parted ways as I had to drunkenly take a train back to Paris that night.
A few days later, on September 3rd, I followed up with Alexis asking if I could have Dave’s e-mail. I sent him a short e-mail the next day:
I wanted to follow up with you about our conversation this past weekend.
As you know I am quite disenchanted with my current job. I am very interested in being part of a rapidly growing organization and helping to continue the expansion.
If you think there is a position for me at your company, I would be very interested to discuss further. I am very flexible as to my role, position, and my salary at Capital on Tap. I attached my CV if you were interested in taking a look. Look forward to hearing from you.
That was it. Reeks a bit of desperation, but whatever. I would have joined as administrative assistant or a CFO, I didn’t give any fucks. I just wanted to get the hell out of law.
It took us about a week to get a call setup but then things moved quickly from there. I accepted the position (no title – just “help me with important projects”) on Tuesday September 16th, sold my condo on Sunday October 5th, had my last day at my law firm on Wednesday October 8th, took a redeye to London on Thursday October 9th and had my first day at work on Monday the 13th.
I doubt I will ever have a more life-changing month ever again, but it was fun.
So what would I tell lawyers who want to leave the big law life:
A few nice words about my time as a lawyer
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what I got out of my two years working at my law firm.
First, the lawyers I worked with were exceptionally smart. I focused on construction litigation so most of the lawyers in my group had both engineering and law degrees. The intellectual horsepower at a good law firm is something that is hard to replicate almost anywhere else.
Second, I learned what hard work was. People spend a lot of time talking about work-life balance these days. I think spending a year doing 80 hours+ a week every week is humbling and will teach you a lot about yourself. Combining smart people with strong work ethics is a recipe for success, I don’t care what about work/balance “expert” says.
Third, one of the partners, Chad Theriot, essentially took me under his arm after about 6 months. Not only is he extremely smart and exceptionally kind but was the best teacher and motivator I could have ever asked for as a young lawyer. He was the only reason I made it 2 years and when we were travelling for work and working together, it was fun. Like not even kind of fun, but actual fun. He also shielded me away from having 6 bosses since he had enough work to keep my busy.
Fourth, and this doesn’t fit perfectly in this category, but a thank you to my parents. To have supportive parents along each step of my life journey is such a blessing that I took for granted for many years. In college, I would call up my parents and tell them I wanted to go to law school, a month after telling them I wanted to be a doctor, and they would just tell me “ok sounds good.” When I called them and told them I’m quitting my legal job, a job that I had gone to school an extra 3 years for, and then add on top of that that I was taking a huge risk at a tiny start-up – they said it sounded a bit risky but it could be a lot of fun.
Part of me wishes they would have told me “hey you are making a bad decision” or “maybe give it a month to make sure you want to do this” or even “have you talked to anyone who has joined a startup in London”. You know, the basic questions. But alas, I’ll settle for the most supportive parents imaginable.
Also, I should mention I was a mediocre lawyer
In case this ever reaches the eyes of my fellow lawyers, I want to make clear that I was a mediocre lawyer.
I was only good at 1 thing – working a lot. I embraced 9/9/6 – 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week. I was a workhouse.
Having said that, as someone who has a natural distaste for all authority and rules, I was difficult to manage and just did my own thing a lot. If I thought I had a better way than a partner/senior associate, I usually did it my way. I’m a terrible employee.