‘I knew it just wasn’t me’ — The lawyers who are leaving the profession
The pressure of long hours and gruelling workloads has encouraged many lawyers to radically change their lives, seeking out new and eclectic career paths
At 2am on a morning in April 1998 Dede Gold rang her dad in Waterford from her desk at a corporate law firm in London.
Gold, who had worked at the firm for two years, was coming off a six-week stretch of long days and her third late night in a row when she said into the phone: “Dad, I can’t do this anymore.”
While she loved the buzz of working in London and alongside talented colleagues, she often felt like a “cog in the wheel” which led to a sense of being unfulfilled and exhausted.
After a pep talk in which her dad told her that he didn’t raise his daughter to be sitting in an office when she “should be out dancing”, Gold went home, came back the next day, and handed in her notice.
“I was tired of cold pizza at my desk,” she told the Business Post, reflecting on the night that changed the course of her career forever.
“It was a classic case of not knowing oneself early on . . . Cognitively I convinced myself it was a brilliant job, but intuitively I knew it just wasn’t me.”
Gold left the firm, worked in PR for a while before getting married, taking time off, and discovering her love of painting.
When her marriage eventually ended in 2005, she honed her painting skills in artist studios and developed a talent for portraits of what would become her favourite subject: dogs.
She now has painted dogs belonging to a long list of well-known clients, including the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton and Julie Andrews. She has also done three solo exhibitions of her work and been featured in art shows in London and New York.
Her path from the high-stress world of corporate law to a creative job is not the most well-worn one, but it is a route that a number of ex-lawyers interviewed by the Business Post have taken.
They all cite a high-pressure work culture as a reason for making the change, but many also note how they chose to study law as teenagers and felt like different people by the time their careers began.
While the so-called Great Resignation – people quitting or changing their jobs in large numbers – has been connected to a post-pandemic feeling of endless opportunity, many ex-lawyers said the specific demands of corporate law jobs helped spur their exodus. And as Gold proves the phenomenon predates the pandemic.
Lawyers looking for change
The term “ex-lawyer” is one which may soon become more common if job market indications come to pass.
According to a recent survey of 3,000 young lawyers by the International Bar Association, a global membership body, around 20 per cent were considering leaving the profession entirely in the next five years while a third said they wanted to switch to a different area of the legal sector.
Respondents cited a lack of a work/life balance, barriers to career progression, and the problems of toxic workplace cultures as their main reasons for wanting a change.
For those currently working in the profession, it’s unsurprising that a client-focused service industry is demanding.
Michelle Ní Longáin, a partner in ByrneWallace and president of the Law Society of Ireland, spoke about the issue last year on Law on Trial, the Business Post’s legal affairs podcast.
She said there were many features inherent in the solicitor profession which made it a challenge to provide a good work life balance.
“[Some] clients usually want advice on the Friday afternoon of a bank holiday and it’s usually urgent,” Ní Longáin said.
“That’s a challenge, but that’s what the clients are demanding . . . so that’s not necessarily firms imposing that, that’s clients saying very clearly, that’s when we want you.”
Her comments reflect an increasingly hectic work culture, the stresses of which have been compounded in recent decades by an increasingly globalised world, and one where clients may be on different continents and working in different time zones.
For some former lawyers, these demands influenced the quality of their output and made them feel unmotivated.
Audrey Keogan worked as a corporate lawyer in two large Dublin firms before changing direction completely in 2021. She now works with the Irish National Opera, a charity which aims to make opera more accessible.
Keogan says the unpredictable nature of the corporate work made it difficult to maintain the stamina needed.
“I could do the work, [but] it was the volume of work that I just found a bit much,” she told the Business Post. “When you’re feeling tired and burnt out, it’s very difficult to motivate yourself and for somebody like me who didn’t find it fulfilling, I just couldn’t find the motivation.”
Keogan says her decision to leave came after months of consideration and reading about other ex-lawyers who had also made the leap. Despite feeling confident in her decision, she says she was extremely nervous to hand in her notice because of how it would be perceived by her colleagues.
“What was interesting was that the more senior the person, the more they were like, ‘that’s a great decision’. I think they’ve seen people who want to leave but don’t, and I think it spoke volumes to hear that coming from people who have dedicated their whole lives to this sector,” she says.
“I was so nervous doing it, but I was actually completely relieved when I did it. I had the sense of calm that was like, ‘Oh, this is 100 per cent the right thing to do’,” she added.
Keogan also says her departure had a “ripple effect” and she has been contacted by many people in the industry looking for details on how she made her decision.
“It is funny how you probably don’t know the impact you’re having,” she says.
“As soon as you start saying, ‘Oh, I did this thing. I actually changed careers’, people are very interested. Covid has made people rethink things.”
More flexibility and wellness benefits
In the wake of the pandemic, law firms, along with many corporate companies, have implemented a number of measures to accommodate an improved work/life balance for employees.
Central to these measures is a hybrid working model where employees have more flexibility on the number of days they spend in the office, but some companies have also provided “wellness” benefits such as mindfulness and stress management workshops.
Some former corporate lawyers have turned a passion for mindfulness and yoga into full-time careers, and often frequent corporate firms to help employees find ways to rest.
Barry Lee worked for a decade in various small corporate firms in Ireland before starting Mindfulness for Law, a company which provides a range of workshops and in-office courses to law firms.
He described his journey away from law as “subtle”, saying it wasn’t a straight road to burnout, but rather a slow process. He compared it to a pot of water on a hob where “the pot is too full and the heat is turned up too high for too long”.
“It’s all bubbling away and then there is a moment where everything just bubbles over,” he says. “It can creep up on you.”
Lee says he was introduced to mindfulness, started training and eventually teaching part time before he took a sabbatical for a year followed by a “leap of faith” in making the professional switch.
He says the financial risks that come with leaving a well-paid corporate law job were daunting.
“I didn’t know if it would work out,” Lee says.
“I’m really glad I did take the risk, and it seemed like a bigger risk actually, in hindsight. I think there’s all kinds of things that are possible, and maybe a fear of failure is ingrained in a lot of people. It was in me.”
While he is a big advocate for believing in yourself and your abilities in the face of fear, Lee says he also thinks people considering leaving the legal profession should not be rash.
He says a career coach or therapist can help people with doubts about their career to tease out what kind of changes or tweaks can be made ahead of quitting. In his new role, Lee regularly visits corporate law firms to conduct mindfulness workshops and regularly interacts with practising lawyers.
While many law firms now encourage employees to look after themselves physically and mentally, Lee says he takes issue with those who use it as a tool to get people to work harder.
He says there needed to be a recognition that people need rest in order to perform well and be happy.
“If you’re taking a person’s lunch break away so that they can do mindfulness, or if they’re forced to do it, I don’t agree with that,” he says. “For me, I was drawn to it, and it helped me, but it’s not the only show in town.”
In need of a reset
The importance of taking time to consider all available options before making a career change is also expressed by Brendan Kelly, a professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and a consultant psychiatrist.
Kelly says he often has stressed out lawyers as patients who are dealing with “cognitive constriction”, or having “tunnel vision” and being unable to see the available options. He says those people often need a reset which can be achieved by taking a significant break and spending time with people who are not lawyers.
“There is a tribalism in most professions, including law, which is unhelpful,” Kelly says.
“We think our way into traps and we believe we’re in those traps, but usually we’re not as trapped as we feel,” he added.
Kelly says corporate lawyers are particularly vulnerable to burnout for a number of reasons, including an industry built around “billable hours”, or time that you can invoice a client for. He says this is very problematic on a personal level because it produces “relaxation remorse”.
“It means that when you do relax, there is a part of your brain that says, ‘this is an hour I could have billed for’,” he says.
“People are then less likely to take relaxation time and when they do there is a chance they will have remorse for having done so. When we start to assign monetary value on time, that is a real problem in the world of corporate law.”
Kelly also says that corporate law firms often reward people for being busy, with late nights and early mornings described as a “badge of honour” among staff. He says people in those situations need to regulate their time and energy to avoid being taken advantage of.
“Lawyers are hugely intelligent and hugely focused on achievement, that’s often why they became lawyers, but the corporate structures ruthlessly exploit these traits almost unknowingly,” Kelly adds.
Just wanting out
While many lawyers who leave the profession have a clear idea of what they’re going to do next, others just know that they want out of corporate law.
This was the case for Sarah Shannon, who runs Wild & Free, a yoga retreat company in the Algarve in Portugal.
Prior to starting up the business during the pandemic, Shannon worked as a corporate lawyer for over six years before quitting in July 2018.
“When I left I had no idea what I was going to do,” Shannon says. “I just left.”
After a yoga teacher training course abroad and a walk along the Camino in Spain, she was offered the chance by a friend to teach yoga at a café in Rathmines in Dublin, where she set up her own yoga company and hustled to advertise the business.
“I made flyers and walked around putting them under doors,” she says.
“It was such a surreal thing to do because one moment I’m working as a corporate associate after years of successful studying and a good salary, and now I’m down to no salary and handing out flyers. When I think of that, Jesus . . . but I’m so glad I did it,” Shannon says.
While her journey towards yoga teaching happened quite suddenly, Shannon says it was connected to a “lightbulb moment” she had on holiday in India the Christmas before she handed in her notice.
She says she was sitting on the floor taking notes on yoga and meditation books she had been reading, when a woman expressed surprise at her studiousness and asked what she did for a living.
“I says, ‘I’m a corporate lawyer’, and the woman just looked at me,” Shannon says, noting that in that moment she knew “the gig was up”.
“I felt like a clown in a suit, it just didn’t match. Obviously I’ve had to say the words ‘corporate lawyer’ out loud a lot in my career, but in that setting, surrounded by things I felt interested in, saying it there felt weird.”
Despite the different paths they decided to take, all the ex-corporate lawyers interviewed for this piece credited their study of law and their experience working in the sector with giving them the confidence they needed to know when to leave.
For Gold, her law background also gave her the courage to handle challenging moments in life, including her dramatic career change and her divorce, which she says would have otherwise felt daunting.
She says having a legal background is something she cherishes but she is grateful that she left when she did.
“It was a gift, even though I left in the night from that desk in London,” she says. “I knew I could look after myself and even if you don’t stay on that path, law gives you great confidence to know you can handle things in life.”
The law by numbers
are considering leaving the profession entirely in the next five years, according to one survey*
want to switch to a different area of the legal sector, according to the same survey
say a lack of work-life balance is a concern for them
* Figures taken from a survey, published in January 2022 and conducted by the International Bar Association, a global membership body, which surveyed 3,000 lawyers under the age of 40