Life after law
In early 2020, I resigned from my role as a family lawyer and decided to leave my career in law behind for good. I made this decision because of the impacts that the job was having on my mental health and wellbeing. I have decided to write about it and reflect on where I am now because I’ve had a few law students and early career lawyers reach out to me who are either feeling like I did or who want to know how I’m finding life after law.
My reasons for leaving law
To recap on my earlier blog about why I left law, I essentially reached a point where my job was negatively impacting on my mental health and I had a decision to make — to keep pushing through how I was feeling in the hope that I survived the next few ‘hard’ years as a junior lawyer or to leave now and cut my losses. After speaking to a senior lawyer who I looked up to and hearing them say that while you may be given a higher salary and a title as you progress in your legal career, that normally comes with additional responsibilities and pressure, and at that point you’ve likely accustomed your lifestyle to that salary and it’s much harder to leave because you can’t easily replace that salary. I realised at that moment that I felt trapped now, having invested so much time, hard work and money into my career to even become a junior lawyer, that I didn’t want to wait around to potentially feel the same way (or worse) in another 5–10 years. I’d already reached a point where I was feeling suicidal and I couldn’t be sure that I’d even survive the next few years in law, yet beyond that.
For me, the blurring of boundaries between work and personal life by needing to have work emails on your phone, be available on days off, late nights, weekends, etc. and the weight of the work in family law being people’s lives and families, was too much for me, particularly when you aren’t even being paid for those sacrifices.
My initial thoughts were that it was just me. I was the problem. There were so many other junior lawyers that I knew who weren’t complaining and I’d heard stories from senior lawyers about how much worse they had it. So, if you’re in a similar position it’s likely that is where your mind will go — that you’re just ‘not cut out for law’ and that you’re the problem. Let me tell you, you’re not the problem. The problem is that the culture in law is often very toxic, and while it is better now than it was for many senior lawyers, there is still in my opinion, a very long way to go.
The big and scary decision to leave
I didn’t take the decision to leave lightly. As no one should. I had worked hard to get the job I had and I loved being a lawyer. At that point, especially having built a personal brand and invested in social media and my podcast/blog, being a lawyer was part of my identity. My legal career also helped me through a really difficult time in my life in 2019 and gave me a purpose to keep going. What made it worse is that I knew there would be so many people waiting for my job, so once I made the decision to leave, it wasn’t going to be easy to change my mind. I wasn’t 100% sure it was the right decision at the time, but I knew I was really unhappy and I believed that there was something better out there for me.
If you’re feeling burnt out or overwhelmed in your legal career, my advice would be to take some time off, even if it’s just a couple of days and even though it probably seems impossible to contemplate taking leave, and use this time to really evaluate how you are feeling, what you want for your life and ensure that the firm you are working for aligns with that, and more broadly if the expectations attached to a legal career aligns with what you need to be happy. If you, like I was, are struggling with your mental health, then please reach out for help. Accepting you need help is a sign of strength and is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
Once I resigned, I took some time to recover. Once I was feeling ready, I started Googling alternate careers for law degrees. I found that there were many opportunities — consulting or analyst work in the big 4, legal recruitment, insurance, I even contemplated doing an education degree and working as an academic. However, after evaluating my goal of buying my own place, having financial freedom and a job that allowed me to have a work/life balance, I decided a career in government was the best option. It’s my view that most commercial/private careers will always involve some level of personal sacrifice and that’s just not something I was willing or able to give at that stage.
I would do daily searches and set up job alerts on Smart Jobs for Queensland Government jobs and on APS Jobs for Federal Government jobs. I didn’t have any search parameters to begin with, I just looked at everything that was out there and looked for anything I thought I would enjoy and that I was capable of doing.
The government process
I realised that my cover letter and resume style for private practice was unlikely to work for government roles. I knew that government roles had strict criteria and different HR processes for applications. So, I paid a company to draft a cover letter for a government role and to make my fun and colourful resume boring (basically). I used this cover letter template and would then tweak it as appropriate for each of the jobs I applied for, ensuring I addressed the selection criteria listed in the role descriptions.
It took me 6 months of applications and interviews to get my first offer. There were many moments of doubt and hard days during this time where I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get the job I wanted, and whether I’d have to go back to law with my tail between my legs. I was fortunate enough to have been offered some casual work by a law firm owner I’d connected with and this work gave me a reason to get out of the house a couple of days a week and helped with me not eating into my house deposit savings. So, if you’ve reached the point of leaving law, my advice is to get a casual job doing anything outside of law to keep you going, but give you the flexibility you need to apply for roles and attend interviews, and the brain space to have a rest!
I had about 6 interviews for government roles in the end. I was merit listed for two (and recently offered a job from a merit list for a role I applied for over 12 months ago, which I politely declined!). One reached a reference check, which is usually a very positive sign, and I got my hopes up that my day was finally here, but unfortunately I wasn’t offered that role in the end. I did finally get an offer with the Qld Office of State Revenue at Qld Treasury. It was an entry level job and quite honestly well below my skill level, but it was more money than I’d been paid in law and it was the foot in the door that I needed. A week into this job, I got a call with another offer at the Australian Energy Regulator working as a Compliance Officer in the gas team. I knew nothing about gas, or energy, and quite honestly it didn’t sound like my dream job. However, again, the salary was about $20k more than my job as a lawyer and I could smell buying my first place — so I was very excited for the opportunity.
If you’re going to go down the path of a shift to government just know that it takes patience and time, so factor this into your financial (and emotional) plan.
I now love my job
If you had of told me last year that I’d be working in gas and absolutely love my job, I would have been sceptical to say the least. I went into the role at the AER with an open mind, keen to learn and happy to be there. I’ve learned as much as I can, taken every opportunity with both hands and embraced the change. It’s been the best decision I’ve ever made. I never feel like my law degree was wasted, I’m constantly involved with the law, and I’m not even in the compliance and enforcement branch of the AER, but most importantly some of my strongest skills enable me to do my job well. I am challenged in my job, given opportunities to learn and grow, I am supported, I am welcomed to share ideas and collaborate, everyone is passionate about their work and so knowledgeable and inspiring. I honestly feel so proud to be a part of the AER and the work that we do.
About 5 months into my role, I was receiving feedback from my supervisor and Director that my work was at a higher level and I was encouraged to apply for a promotion. I applied for this and was successful, being offered a role in another team as well as a promotion in my current team. I decided to stay in my current team and was promoted before my probation ended — because I was finally in an environment where my hard work was acknowledged and I was supported to grow.
I have flexible working conditions, I accrue overtime and can take this as flex time to attend appointments or take a day of rest, I can switch off my work computer and work does not follow me into my personal life. I cannot speak more highly of working at the AER and I am so, so grateful that I made the decision to leave law to find something better because I’ve certainly done that.
What I want you to know
There are two main things I want anyone who is feeling like I felt about working in law:
1. You are NOT the problem.
2. There is something better out there for you.
I know some people who love their careers in law and power to them. If you can find a firm that allows you to flourish, then that’s amazing! But there is nothing wrong with me because my experience in law was that it wasn’t right for me and didn’t align with where I was at in life and what I wanted for my future. And there is nothing wrong with you if you feel the same way.
Don’t be afraid to believe in yourself and to believe that you deserve more from life than you may be getting in law. As they say, when a flower doesn’t bloom we don’t blame the flower, we blame the environment. Don’t be afraid to find an environment where you can truly bloom.
As always, I’m happy to chat or answer any questions you may have if you’re feeling how I was, so please reach out.