Question: I am a second-year litigation associate at a top New York City firm. I graduated in the top 3 percent of my class from a second-tier law school and I clerked for a federal district judge right after law school. I have been at the firm for six months and I am miserable.
Although I knew I would have to work many hours, it has been much more onerous than I expected. I am married and I have two small children that I want to spend more time with. Apart from the hours, I enjoy my job and the people that I work with.
I know from reading your previous columns that, particularly as a litigator, it is too soon for me to move in-house. Is there anything else I can do without shooting my career in the foot?
Answer: Thank you for giving us so much background information. This certainly helps in trying to answer your question. I particularly was interested in knowing that you enjoy your job and the people at your firm. I'm sure that makes it a bit more difficult looking for a new job.
You are absolutely correct when you say that it is too soon to move in-house. With only six months of law firm experience under your belt, I doubt that there are any in-house positions that would make sense for you at this time. Besides, as I have said many times before, I believe that you would be much better off staying within the law firm side of practice for at least a few more years before even considering the in-house route.
I am so sorry to hear that you are miserable. It is simply terrible to dread getting up in the morning because you hate your job. It is also sad to think that you are not able to spend as much time as you would like with your two small children. There is no question that they grow up fast and when you are spending most of their waking hours at the office, you miss a lot of those special moments.
Let's try to walk through a few of your issues. You say that the workload is more onerous than you had expected. Were your expectations realistic? Did you summer at this firm? If so, are the hours expended now different from the impression that you had during your 2L summer?
Here's the good news - although it may not seem like good news to you. Many junior associates are terrified right now that their jobs are in jeopardy simply because they are not all that busy. The fact that you are working such long hours is a good indication of your firm's health. Just imagine how you would feel if you were working a 10-5 day.
You may also want to consider whether it is just a bit too soon in your career to judge whether or not this firm is right or wrong for you. Not that I want to minimize your feelings, but let's step back for a moment. Did you ever go to summer camp? Do you remember how you felt those first few days? You were so homesick that you hated every moment that you had to spend at this camp. However, your parents asked you to stick it out and, by the end of the summer, you didn't want to come home.
This is a whole new experience for you. Law school and a federal judicial clerkship are very different experiences from practicing at a major New York firm. Is there any chance that you're simply going through an adjustment period?
If you feel certain that your priorities won't ever change, here's what you can do without shooting your career in the foot: First, talk to someone at the firm. After all, you like your work and your colleagues. It would be a shame to leave all of that so soon into your career. Besides, this is "the devil you know." You can't be assured that the grass will be greener, or even as green, at another firm.
So, who is the right person to sit down with and have a heart-to-heart? Perhaps it is the Director of Recruiting or the assigning partner or a partner or senior associate with whom you have formed a relationship. You need to let him or her know that you enjoy your work and truly like the people with whom you work. However, you did not expect that the hours would be so long and you feel that you need some balance in your life. You should ask if there is any way, without jeopardizing your position at the firm, to achieve this balance.
You need to be very careful when you approach a partner on the subject of being overworked because, I can promise you, you are not the only person at the firm who is putting in long hours. You do not want to appear to be someone who is not willing to carry your own share of the load. You need to make it very clear that you are not asking for part-time work or for any special favors, but simply a chance to spend a little more time outside the practice.
I suppose you will learn a lot about yourself and about your firm once you get this out in the open. Either they will respond in a positive way or your assignments will slow down and the assignments that you are given may not be as interesting as they once were. But, if you are that unhappy I really do think that you have to do something about it sooner rather than later.
By the way, what are the other first- and second-year associates saying? Are they as unhappy as you? If everyone feels the same way, there might be something you can do as a group - perhaps some kind of associates committee.
Unfortunately, this is not the best time in your career to be looking for a new job. With so little experience, it will be tough to find a top-notch opening. Prospective employers see red flags when an associate wants to leave a prestigious firm after so short of a stint.
The best advice that I can give to you is not the advice that will make you happy. I think you need to try to tough this out for at least six to 12 more months. By that time, the economy may have turned around and there may be more lateral job opportunities. You have beautiful credentials and a lovely resume thus far ... you certainly will be a most viable candidate in a year or two.
Can you handle this? Only you can answer this question. I think the best thing you can do for yourself, your family and your career is to try to hang on at this firm. Give it a fair amount of time to make sure that you are really and truly miserable. You might find after a little more time that you are able to balance your work and personal lives. And, if you find down the road that you simply cannot handle it any more, you at least will know that you gave it your all. Please let us know what you decide to do.