Just over a year ago I quit my job as a corporate attorney in Manhattan. Four years of business school, three years of law school, two years of practice and retired at 26. From my class of roughly 100 associates, I was among the first to leave the firm and may be the only associate, ever, to leave in pursuit of another bachelor's degree.
Heady days in the fall of 2007. Between my summer internship the previous year and the first day of work, starting salaries for attorneys at the biggest New York firms increased more than $15,000 (U.S.). Who says law school time is non-billable time? Told. You. So.
My household effects arrived from Toronto more than a week late to my small studio in Tribeca but I was unfazed, at least initially. "No problem, it comes with being a Big Shot Attorney. But do try to speed things along because I'm a Big Shot Attorney."
Ever leave a meeting at 2 p.m. and read about it on the New York Times website before dinner? (To be fair, this is more likely to happen when a major investment bank has recently declared bankruptcy.) Ever worked pro bono for hedge funds? Savour that for a moment. Then savour the case of champagne that arrives in your office when the project is finished. "Thanks for all your effort."
Need to get documents to a client on short notice? "No problem. We'll send the corporate helicopter." Just for documents.
It took a year.
Not for the credit crunch to arrive, but for some perspective. That spring I found and lost a beautiful woman, then spent the summer thinking about what she had showed me about time, which turned out to be my side of the bargain with the firm. I get serious work and a generous salary; it gets my time, whenever it wants, as much as it wants.
Contrary to so much chest-thumping hyperbole about 80- or 90-hour weeks, this can be a good deal. Everyone stays late, some later than others, but few work forever and the office is still a ghost town on the weekends. (I worked from home in law school, too.) The real challenge for corporate lawyers is the lack of predictability.
Think of a graph showing your hours worked each day for a year. The regression line is not especially high, but the standard deviation is outrageous. That's life as a corporate lawyer.
For some people (perhaps many, judging by the number of corporate lawyers in the world), this sort of arrangement is fine. Standard. Life would be boring if you always knew what was coming.
It took a year to realize this is not me. Reacting to changing circumstances is one thing; being told how to react, and when to react, is another. My graph was a cardiogram, all heart attacks and comas.
Or at least this is what it felt like. When your work is unfulfilling and unbounded, there are no amount of great colleagues, terribly important assignments and certainly even Martin Amis Money that can keep your chest from feeling like it's being torn apart. Your free time becomes amorphous just when you need it most and it becomes impossible to find something that feels like your life.
Even - especially - at 26.
My desperate Hail Mary, brooded over during a week's respite at our family cottage on the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, was to e-mail Regent's Park College at the University of Oxford: "Please take me as a history and politics undergraduate. My life is being measured out with coffee spoons and the drawer is nearly empty."
The plan was to make my full-time job what I was otherwise trying, and failing, to do with my free time: read and write. My application was submitted at the beginning of October, on the last possible date, and on Dec. 31, 2008, after an entrance exam and interview ("doctor's appointment" in the office calendar), I received an acceptance letter.
Happy New Year.
When I eventually announced my departure, after working eight more months to save as much as possible for tuition, so many people asked: "How did you do it?" Even people I'd never really talked to, both junior and senior, called or came by the office: "How did you decide? When did you decide? You're my hero."
Not quite. I made the right decision for my circumstances. Some of the people who came to chat have since left the firm, others have stayed, in both cases, I'm sure, because that's what works for their circumstances. The firm looks a lot different in the morning if you arrive after dropping off your children at private school. It looks a lot different if you have a student loan or a mortgage and especially if you love corporate law.
A two-year BA at Oxford looks just as different to just as many people. Some see it as a step backward, others as a sabbatical, in both cases the idea being some sort of reset to life. I just see it as part of my life. The next part could be a relationship, another degree, a job, travel, whatever. If you can work on Wall Street, you can get by. Relax.
For all the things I'm glad to leave behind, I wouldn't give back any of my two years at the firm. My colleagues were great and the assignments were terribly important. I lived in New York. I could have found my passion.
Now, invaluably, I have a much better idea of what it is I am looking for.
Chris Graham is a Canadian living in Oxford, England.
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