It was a Thursday afternoon when I stepped into my boss’ office. She worked on the top floor of our building in a sunny, glass enclosed space. “Can I speak with you?” I said. Something in my tone or expression must have betrayed me because she immediately propped her head in her hands with a distressed look. “You’re leaving, aren’t you?”. It was both a statement and a question. I nodded. “Where?” she queried. “Nowhere,” I responded. “Nowhere?” She seemed incredulous. “Nope,” I responded.
It was 2011 and I had just quit my job as legal counsel to one of Canada’s largest investment funds. It was a plum job to be sure, helping to execute a nearly constant stream of domestic and international investments worth billions of dollars. But despite the great work and phenomenal colleagues, I was miserable. The long hours of drafting, reviewing and negotiating transactional documents in my office had taken their toll. Above all, the sense of purpose that had once energized my day to day practice had been extinguished.
The decision to leave my job had been weighing on my mind for months. I would vacillate between rationalizing my present situation as the envy of countless people and on the other hand, a deep appreciation that my legal career was a mismatch for my passion, skills and abilities. Moreover, the weight of having invested almost ten years of my life into a successful legal career was a constant reminder of what I had to lose.
So what on earth caused me to quit my job that day? Moreover, what would cause anyone to quit their secure, well-paid job without having a semblance of a plan in place? I think it was three things.
First, I finally mustered the courage to take a big risk. Let’s be honest: I was scared to leave my legal career. What else would I do? What if law was all I could do? How would I support myself? What if it was all a huge mistake and law was actually the best use of my skills? These thoughts swirled through my mind and sounded a cautionary note to any prospect of change. But eventually I collected myself and remembered the things that made me successful in law: integrity, hard work and passion. If I could hang onto those values, I convinced myself I could make it doing something else too.
Second, I realized that I had nothing to lose. True, I had invested my entire professional life in my legal career and established a reputation amongst friends, colleagues and clients. I had also gone a fair way in progressing through the legal ranks and knew that if I left law I would likely be starting again on the lowest rung of the ladder. But this was my life. And investing the remaining years of my life into what for me was an unsatisfying career seemed like simply throwing away good money after bad. As they say, the past is the past (or as economists like to say: sunk costs are sunk). You only get one chance to live and you can’t live your life as a captive to your history. As the kids say, YOLO.
Finally, I was energized and excited by a new possibility. My brother had gone through medical school at the same time I matriculated at law school. To be honest, I was frequently more intrigued by the science and stories he shared from his days in medicine than I was in my legal cases. Moreover, the chance to have personal relationships with people you could actually help seemed novel and attractive. Now that I was considering a wholesale change, was there a chance, even if remote, that someone would take a chance on a dissatisfied lawyer? I was going to find out.
Now, seven years later and with the benefit of hindsight, it is hard to remember the challenge and uncertainty of those times. What now is my happy reality was still then a distant and uncertain future. But I still remember the lessons I learned in those difficult days. Be willing to take big risks (so long as they are good risks!). Don’t let your past dictate your future. Make your values your career. I’m glad I did.