One year ago today, I packed my (disgustingly stained) work mug and my box of (expired, disturbingly spongy, but still quite tasty) work Weetbix into my (very comfortable but very unprofessional) work backpack, logged off from my (overheating and underperforming) work computer, and finished my last ever work day as a (sub-standard) lawyer.
Sadly, there was no tearful farewells from my colleagues as I left the building, for they still had hours to bill arguing over comma placement in documents with other hard-working lawyers. There was no self-satisfied smile on my face for a job well done as I walked home, for I have never done a job well in my life. And I did not fall into a blissful sleep that night, dreaming of kittens playing with piglets playing with puppies playing with me, for I lay awake trying to convince myself I had not wasted the past 12 years of my life trying to be good at a job that was never right for me.
Yes, yes, I know I am being a little self-indulgent in describing my last day as a lawyer. I just quit a job. Everyone does it once or twice in their career. Or in my case, once or twice a year. And I was unfairly lucky during my legal career, too. I was identified very early on as a mediocre lawyer; not bad enough to fire, but not skilled enough to be singled out to work on the truly complicated stuff that required staying back past the start time of Home and Away. So while there were plenty of stressful parts about being a lawyer, I never had to worry about failing to meet the expectations of my colleagues and the partners of the firm, or that I would miss out on finding out what was happening in the life of the residents of Summer Bay.
Unfortunately, not everyone who works in a law firm is lucky enough to have a shield of mediocrity. Unlike me, every lawyer I worked with was smart and talented and hardworking and committed, and paid a heavy price for being so. For reasons that still do not make sense to me, the price of being a brilliant lawyer is the pressure, both self-inflicted and law firm imposed, to be even smarter, more talented, more hardworking, and more committed.
And to make the working lives of these star performers even more stressful, there are annual legal award ceremonies for young lawyers that have categories like ‘Junior Lawyer of the Year’ or ‘Future Leaders’ or ‘Lowest Average Sleeping Hours Per Day’. Law firms nominate their best young lawyers for these sorts of awards so that they (they meaning ‘the law firm’) can get the recognition and attention they (the law firm) deserve. Whom a firm nominates for one of these awards is one of the few ways that a junior lawyer can find out how they compare to their peers, because if there is one thing law firms do well, it is to use passive aggressive technique like award nominations to give positive and negative feedback to their young legal staff.
In early 2014, I nominated a brilliant junior lawyer in our team for inclusion in a list of the ‘Fifty Rising Stars’ of law firms. I did this with the best of intentions, I promise. The list recognised ‘…50 early-career lawyers who are already making a name for themselves in the Australian legal market.’ The award description concluded with the ominous prediction that ‘…each generation of lawyers leaves its mark on the profession, and no doubt many of these faces will be leading law firms through the changes and challenges facing the profession over the coming years.’
Well, my work colleague’s face (and the rest of him) made that list. Six years later, when we said goodbye to each other on my last day at the firm, I thought back to his ‘Rising Star’ status in 2014 and knew that it would not be long before he would be leaving his mark on the profession, just like the award description predicted. He succeeded where I failed because working in a law firm was right for him; he was able to somehow achieve a balance between the pressure of being a star performer and knowing that it is not like lawyers are making life and death decisions.
Thinking back to my last day, a thought hit me: what had happened to the other 49 people on that list? Had they found success, too? How had they dealt with the pressures of being a star performer in an incredibly intense profession?
Well, thanks to the search feature of LinkedIn, and more than my usual level of OCD-edness, I answered this question and the results were… well… Let me show you, in infographic form because a picture is worth a thousand words and there are already almost a thousand words in this article.
I don’t know what I was hoping to discover when I looked at the career trajectories of these 50 Rising Stars. The knowledge that I was not alone in leaving the law? Probably. Vindication for my own career decision because smarter people than me have found success through quitting? Almost certainly. The feeling of relief that comes with knowing that the 50 best young lawyers in 2014 took 50 different career paths over the past six years, so it is OK that I picked my own path that involved 9am to 5pm work days with no work calls after 4.30pm and absolutely no work on the weekends? Absolutely.
So while I was and will always be a hopeless lawyer, that does not mean I am without hope. I hope that the next 12 years of my working life will be much better than the past 12 because I have finally decided to pick a career that is right for me. I also hope that I can stop looking for validation through LinkedIn stalking and that this will absolutely be the last time I do it (sorry to all the 2014 Rising Stars!) And I don’t just hope, but know, that by making career decisions that are right for me, I can through the night, free to dream about those kittens and those piglets and those puppies and me all creating mischief together.