When You Ask Why I'm Taking a Break from Law
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
I am writing this from Central Otago, arguably one of the most beautiful parts of the country. I have very few other responsibilities right now, except taking the dog out for a walk later. After practising as a lawyer for about five and a half years until early 2022, this change of pace has been incredibly welcome. People ask why I left law, but right now this feels very self-explanatory.
In order to do this topic justice, I spoke to and collected feedback from a number of people. Some of these people are practising lawyers, ranging from recently admitted to eight years PQE. Some people have left the legal profession, and have no intention of returning. Others completed their law degree but never practised. While some of the feedback was from people who are enjoying their current role, the majority of the insights I got were a concerning mirror of my own experiences.
During my time as a lawyer I had four different jobs, in four different cities, in both public and private sectors. While the reasons for leaving each role differ, they centre largely around not being able to see a clear progression in the role, and not feeling like my mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing was prioritised. I was always quietly confident in my own abilities, so I took risks and uplifted my life on multiple occasions in search of something better. It was heartening to receive feedback from people who had taken similar risks early on in their legal careers, and have now found a workplace that feels supportive where they enjoy the work they do on a daily basis. I spoke with Georgina Patel, Lead Researcher for the Law in Distress Project, who explained that one aspect of their research focused on job satisfaction. They measured job satisfaction by looking at what level of autonomy, relatedness and competence each person felt at work. Georgina said that one limitation of their research was that it was limited to lawyers who were practising. However, many of the lawyers who experienced dissatisfaction at a point in their careers were able to shift to a new area of law, or a new firm, to find greater job satisfaction within the legal profession rather than quitting law altogether.
I sought feedback on the challenges new lawyers face, and how the profession compared to what people had imagined it would be. A junior solicitor in Wellington said they are working in an area of law that they love, and they had wanted to be a lawyer since they were 15. Unfortunately, they were already looking for a new job due to lack of pay transparency, and not feeling valued by their current employer. They had expected that as employers, lawyers would “act with more reasonableness, fairness and with a greater appreciation of equity”. This solicitor said that if all workplaces have the same culture and lack of transparency as their current firm, then they do not see staying in the profession as a sustainable option. Another lawyer at a medium-sized regional firm said that practising law is completely different to what they had learned at university, and they found the “boys’ club” mentality difficult to navigate. They said while the culture of the firm is great, there is still a “sink or swim” approach. An in-house lawyer told me they found it hard to understand the career paths that were available to them once they graduated, and thought their only option was to get a summer clerk role at a big law firm. They said it felt like if they didn’t follow this path, then their “career would be ruined”. Aotearoa Legal Workers’ Union (ALWU) Co-President, Isabella Lenihan-Ikan, said that generally lawyers are risk averse, which is built in from the start of law school. She said that junior lawyers feel like they are not supported, so they leave their job or the profession. This is exactly where ALWU aims to provide support and advocacy, particularly for new lawyers.
A number of people I spoke to said that studying law was suggested to them, often as something more ‘practical’ to study alongside an Arts degree. Grace Quigley said that she went into practising law “thinking that this is what I had to do with my degree”. Similarly, Briony McKenzie said that there was “a perception that leaving law is a waste of a degree”. Jennifer Young said she felt pressure from family to choose a more stable career path, which is how she found herself studying law. She described the environment at law school as “highly competitive, quite masculine, structured, and a field that really encourages competition… and perfectionism”. She later realised her “decisions had been guided by how I thought my life should be”. There was an interesting balance in the feedback that I received between people who went into the legal profession with a clear vision and passion for law, and those who just found themselves there. I was definitely in the latter group. Looking back now, I wonder how I made it through five years of study without stopping to consider what my goals were, and whether these involved working as a lawyer. Because I knew that big law firms were not for me after doing a summer clerkship, I felt like I had to really go searching for alternative paths. I got my first job as a result of a pure chance meeting, after cold call-style dropping CVs to criminal barristers in Invercargill.
In each of my roles, I encountered different mental health struggles. Despite support from colleagues, these were extremely isolating experiences. In some of my jobs when I asked for help or support, I felt like my employers just saw a large sign saying ‘she can’t handle this work’. Kaitlyn White, committee member of the National New Lawyers Group (NNLG), acknowledged there was work to be done to help new lawyers, “whether it be isolation, burnout, access to mentoring and professional development, and wellbeing and mental health support”. She said that the NNLG wants to “see supportive workplaces that recognise the value of their new lawyers” and highlighted that “it is essential [new lawyers] are not leaving the profession due to preventable reasons such as burnout or a lack of support”.
Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, many others have also struggled to access proper mental health support. A junior lawyer in Wellington said that while they feel like their employers care about their health and well-being, they were not sure if there was an EAP policy or where they would find it. A lawyer in a medium-sized regional firm said that in their two years of practice they have already experienced burnout, and probably will again. Someone who has left the law said it was difficult to access mental health support when they needed it, and they reached a place of feeling burnt out within two years of practising. A solicitor at a small general practice firm told me that their employers have no mental health policy that they know of, and whenever they have struggled, they have paid for counselling themselves. One person told me that “as a young and inexperienced lawyer, it was difficult learning how to deal with [client trauma] professionally and personally, with very little training or support”.
A lawyer with over 7 years PQE said that lawyers are expected to “just get on with it”. They said that throughout their career, they had been “thrown in the deep end and pretty much left to sink or swim, more times than I can count.” They had worked at five different law firms, and had never been involved in a discussion about burnout. A lawyer who had worked at a large law firm said they had moments of crying in the bathroom because of stress and pressure. They said that burnout was never discussed, and they did not believe there were any systems in place to help tackle this. An intermediate lawyer working in a medium-sized firm said that “soft skills could be developed better, as opposed to one size fits all consultants that come in for an hour to talk about work -life balance”. Isabella, ALWU Co-President, said that there needs to be more recognition of the emotional labour involved in certain areas of law, and there should be proper training and support around this. She noted that current mental health supports such as EAP are really just the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.
Speaking to those who have left the law has been the most insightful part of writing this because they were able to put words to feelings that I had been struggling to identify. Grace Quigley said she never saw a clear career path in law, and that she was trying to fit into a mould of who people expected her to be. Grace told me that through her career transition, she felt a lot of shame and self-doubt, which she attributed to the definition of success that she was given from her legal education. She said “I had placed an expectation on myself that [law] was something I had to stick with to be seen by others as ‘successful’”. After moving to Melbourne, Grace is “now working in corporate PR and love[s] it”. Another lawyer who is still working in a small general practice firm said that they had previously been made redundant, and as a result, had a year out of practising law. They said this was “the most free I have ever felt”. They returned to law because they knew they could earn a good income, not because it’s something they are passionate about.
As a life and business coach and founder of Untapped, Briony McKenzie has guided thousands of people through personal development journeys, and she has actually returned to numerous law firms in her capacity as coach and trainer. Briony said “I believe there are extremely talented and creative souls within law firms”, and with some personal growth training they would either have the courage to find their own path outside of law, or “become excellent leaders who can navigate the challenges of the profession without burning out.” She said if she had these tools and insights earlier in her legal career, they “would have made a distinct difference to my experience”.
When people ask me what my job is currently, I explain that I am taking a break from law. Initially I felt so much pressure to tell people that I was just stepping away for a few months and then I would be back. I told people this so often that I ended up believing it. Once I stopped, took a step back, and started to recharge, I realised just how many other options are out there. I had felt pigeonholed into law, without taking stock of the transferable skills I have obtained throughout my career. I can’t say with certainty whether the feeling of being trapped in law was self-imposed, or if it was a result of the hierarchical structure and masculine energy of the legal profession. Reality is always somewhere in the middle. After some time out, I am now able to look back with some fondness on the experiences and opportunities that law provided, while also accepting that I may never be back.