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The Path To Leaving Big Law

Securing a Big Law position is considered the pinnacle of success for many lawyers. After all, these coveted positions boast undeniable benefits, from comfortable salaries to impressive stature. 

Unfortunately, the reality of Big Law doesn’t always match up to its lofty expectations. Some lawyers find the environment too intense. After all, Big Law is notoriously known for its unyielding workloads, poor work-life balance, and chronic burnout.

If you’re considering leaving Big Law behind, you’re not alone. Below, we’ll explain why many lawyers leave Big Law, how to determine if doing so is right for you, and what alternatives await you on the other side.

The Reality of Working in Big Law

With Big Law’s high-profile clients and ample resources, these large law firms can provide young lawyers with prestigious career opportunities. During your time at one of these law firms, you may get the chance to work on cases that shape legal precedents, work on corporate transactions that garnish national headlines, and work with the most sophisticated clients and immensely talented colleagues. Not to mention, you’ll likely earn a lucrative salary and enjoy top-notch resources and support.

Unfortunately, these benefits are not without their drawbacks. Big Law can be incredibly demanding—the long hours, tight deadlines, and extreme work culture can take a toll on you, both professionally and personally. 

The good news? Big Law isn’t your only option to advance your career. Many lawyers find fulfilling career opportunities outside of the Big Law grind—like working as in-house counsel, as just one example. 

6 Signs It May Be Time to Leave Big Law

Making a career change is a big decision. If you’re on the fence about leaving Big Law, you may be wondering how to tell when it’s the right time to make the move.

Here are some signs that you may be ready to consider some other options: 

  1. Constant burnout and stress – Chronic stress is rampant among Big Law lawyers. When left unchecked, it can take a serious toll on your body, mind, relationships, and well-being. If you feel your physical or mental health may be at risk, evaluating your career path is a highly important factor.

  2. Diminished passion for work – Passion is needed to sustain any successful career. While many lawyers initially enter the field excited about doing cutting-edge legal work, representing the biggest names in the corporate world, and being part of a highly professional organization, lawyer burnout may cause them to lose sight of these ideals.

  3. Career stagnation – Big Law is known for its cut-throat “up or out” culture. If you’re not constantly climbing the ladder, you may experience career stagnation and struggle to envision a fulfilling future at your law firm.

  4. Feeling undervalued – Big Law lawyers may feel undervalued if they rarely receive praise or acknowledgment of a well-done job.

  5. Longing for a different lifestyle – Maybe you desire more flexibility or a different work setting. In this case, you may have an easier time finding what you’re looking for outside of Big Law. 
  1. Exploring other interests or passions – There are many ways to put a law degree to good use, including various ways to practice law full time as well as pursuing non-law roles where your law degree and work experience will be a valuable background for the role. For example, maybe you want to bring your legal expertise to a small startup or transition to a business-side role. By leaving Big Law, you can get the chance to explore these types of opportunities.

Making the Transition: In-House vs. Big Firms

Before you hand in your resignation letter, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the steps involved in finding a new position. This way, you can make the transition out of Big Law as gracefully as possible.

In-house roles are a popular alternative for lawyers who become disillusioned with Big Law. As an in-house lawyer, you represent one client rather than regularly juggling working on matters for multiple clients at a large law firm. Not only will you get to develop an in-depth understanding of your employer’s business, but you’ll also get the chance to broaden your legal skill set. 

In-house counsel roles can vary quite notably from one company to the next. Similarly, the in-house counsel role will differ at each company in regard to the paths for career advancement. Big Law lawyers traditionally move from associate to either counsel or to partner, but your career progression at a company will depend greatly on the type of company you join, whether that’s an innovative startup or an established Fortune 500, for example.

Comparing Work Environments: In-House Counsel vs. Big Law

Beyond these differences, Big Law and in-house counsel positions diverge in several other ways. 

Here’s a quick overview of a few differences:

  • Workload, pace, and work-life balance – In-house roles often provide a more predictable workload and better work-life balance than Big Law positions. The pace of the work will vary greatly from one company to the next.

  • Professional development – Companies are far less likely to offer formal legal training. They also lack the dedicated legal resources found in Big Law firms. Thus, in-house positions typically require you to come in with a well-developed legal skillset. It also helps to be a quick learner, excellent communicator, and business-savvy thinker.

  • Financial considerations – When it comes to compensation, Big Law boasts undeniable advantages. Big Law lawyers at the associate level receive their compensation in lockstep, making it easy to predict their annual earnings years in advance. In-house counsel positions usually don’t provide the same predictability.

    In-house attorneys also tend to have lower base salaries than their Big Law counterparts. Their year-over-year increases are also more modest, on average. However, in-house benefits packages are often more robust. For example, you may receive equity in your new company, which can enhance your stake in its success. 

How to Make the Transition Out of Big Law

If an in-house counsel role potentially interests you, you can prepare for the transition by following these steps:

  • Attend networking events, seminars, and conferences in your desired industry.
  • Ask other in-house lawyers for their advice on making the transition out of Big Law.
  • Research companies that align with your interests and values.
  • Refresh your resume and cover letter, highlighting your transferable skills and experiences.
  • Emphasize your adaptability, communication skills, and business acumen during interviews. 

In addition to taking these steps, you also want to prepare yourself mentally for the changes involved in transitioning out of a big firm. You'll have to adapt to a new environment, adjust to a new pace of work, and align yourself with a new company culture and corporate governance. 

Shifting to in-house counsel may have some initial hurdles, but the potential benefits are often substantial and worthwhile. If you select the right position, you can obtain more job satisfaction and develop a deeper connection to your company. You may also get the chance to work a more reasonable schedule, broaden your skill set, and enjoy a healthier work-life balance. 

Exploring Other Alternatives to Big Law

While in-house counsel boasts many benefits, it’s not the only alternative to Big Law. Some other options you can explore include:

  • Transitioning to a smaller firm – Over 60% of lawyers who leave Big Law continue their careers at smaller law firms.1 These law firms often provide more flexibility, autonomy, and closer client relationships.  However, they may not be able to match Big Law’s impressive base salaries.
  • Pursue a career outside of the legal field – Around 20% of lawyers who leave Big Law leave the legal industry entirely.2 Luckily, lawyers possess many valuable skills that can easily transfer to other industries. If you want to leave law altogether, you can look into launching an alternate career that aligns with your background and expertise.
  • Entrepreneurial or consultancy ventures – Starting a business can provide more freedom and flexibility than Big Law. As your own boss, you can orient your business around your passions and interests. Better yet, you can use your legal skills to navigate relevant regulatory requirements, giving you an instant leg up against your competitors.

Advance Your Legal Career With E. P. Dine

If you want to leave Big Law, there’s an abundance of alternatives that may be better suited to your needs and goals. By making the transition, you can overcome your Big Law burnout and open yourself up to more aligned opportunities.

Now that you understand the opportunities outside of Big Law, you may be eager to start the process. If so, E.P. Dine can help. As legal recruiters with over 40 years of experience, we’ve helped countless lawyers in your position land their dream jobs, whether that’s an in-house counsel role, a position at a mid-size firm, a branch office of a larger firm, or at a small law firm. By partnering with us, you’ll enjoy dedicated support and valuable feedback throughout the recruitment process.

Ready to take the next step in your legal career? Reach out to E.P. Dine today.

Sources

1Heart.org. Job strain combined with high efforts and low reward doubled men’s heart disease risk.

https://newsroom.heart.org/news/job-strain-combined-with-high-efforts-and-low-reward-doubled-mens-heart-disease-risk

2Reuters. Don’t blame baby: Survey finds most women quit big firms over culture, not family.

https://www.reuters.com/legal/legalindustry/dont-blame-baby-survey-finds-most-women-quit-big-firms-over-culture-not-family-2022-07-21/#:~:text=Women%20lawyers%20in%20their%2030s,were%20not%20working%20at%20all.

At E.P. Dine, we are committed to delivering content that is not only relevant and insightful but also rooted in professional integrity and expertise. To achieve this, every article published on the E.P. Dine blog undergoes a meticulous review process by qualified professionals with deep knowledge and experience in the legal field and legal recruitment.

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