Let chaos be your wingman. Let disaster be your niche.
Cool, no? I thought so when I wrote these lines and tried to live up to them. I was doing that through the last years in law school – negotiating investment agreements for startup companies, landing consultancy work that would make any small law firm jealous, getting invited by casino promoters to help them to pitch deals, late night skype calls with tax heaven experts, going without sleep for days to meet crazy deadlines, partying almost throughout the week, rolling in cash from freelance writing and consultancy, managing multiple blogs, getting quoted in newspapers – and the list could go on. I had carefully built a team that I loved working with. We rented a beautiful apartment as soon as we graduated – for the entire team. We were living it up.
Well, the summer of 2011 came to an end. The projects we had planned were not progressing as fast as we wanted to and it seemed I should join a law firm after all – make some money, and get worldly wise. So I shifted to Bombay and joined a top law firm which had recruited me from campus exactly one year back.
XYZ Partners and life of a first-year associate
I don’t have much to complain about the firm – let’s call it XYZ Partners– it’s a professionally run firm that takes care of its associates. Compared to other big law firms, at least based on what I heard from my friends who worked in those firms, the culture was much more democratic and open. The partners were fantastic people. Nonetheless, in a month or two I realised that I don’t really enjoy the job.
My expectation from life is very different. I have taught myself to live a thrilling life, on the edge, full of experiments, fighting the odds. The law firm job required me to button down, get down to work that became a chore and involved repetitive and tedious methods. I typed tables and annexures. I would check things ten time over for typos, strategize how to communicate before I go and talk to a senior about work, measure my words and body language, tone down my natural confidence (I was advised to do so) and so on. On a typical day, I will sit in front of the computer for 12 hours reading and writing documents. I could be reading purchase orders raised by a target company and type out annexures summarizing their content. Sometimes I will write a due diligence report or fill up some forms. Sometimes I will coordinate with banks to file forms with RBI. I will do some research here and there. Occasionally there will be a memo to write. On busy days, I would come home exhausted at 3 or 4 in the morning. And I will head to office as soon as I woke up.
This is the life of a first-year associate at any typical law firm. Responsibility increases and ennui decreases as you pass on the bitch work to others and as you climb the rank of seniority, but rarely did I come across junior associates who said they loved their law firm job. Of course, as people become senior, they would have already invested too much of their life into a law firm career, not to like the law firm game.
On the bright side, the law firm paid considerable money at the end of every month. I furiously paid down my educational loan which I was stupid enough not to pay back while I was in college although I had the option to do so. I also made some really good friends in the firm, and I am really thankful for that.
One day I sat down and wrote down the pros and cons – and this is how it was:
Anyway, it was not easy to make up my mind. I knew it could not be long – I was reaching the limits of my ability to withstand the law firm life. It was tempting to leave and start taking things on my own hand, working on things that I would really like to work on. A lot of my friends, batchmates and seniors had already left their jobs. Sometimes I wondered, what was really happening? Why do so many people leave despite seemingly nice careers?
The crux of the law firm career
There is always a bigger picture outside of what is happening in your life, and it is good to understand that. The law firms had changed since the nineties – from thriving start-ups which changed how people thought about law practice and earning potentials of a professional firm, they became part of the establishment. The growth stagnated. Once even the junior-most associate was part of the growth story, and careers of capable lawyers were launched into stellar orbits. Law firms were doubling and quadrupling their profits year on year, and reaching new heights. They were recruiting massively as well – in my second year in law school, I saw half of the batch being scooped up by one single firm, and being offered more than 10 lakhs as salary.
The same firm recruited 10 from my college this year, and the starting salary has not really changed in 5 years. It may have gone up by a total of 10%, which is less than 2% increase per year. We had close to 10% inflation on a year on year basis. GDP has been high for the most part. Why didn’t associate salary grow?
And this is not a case of just the starting salary. An associate with 4-5 years of experience in my firm would get less than 1.5 lakhs a month. It’s no doubt that the starting salary is still attractive, but the way the salary increases over the years is something that does not appeal to a lot of people, especially when there are so many other great options, and going out in the market and finding clients on your own has become so easy. Every other week you shall hear someone with a few years of law firm experience has left their job and started on their own. They are doing the same thing more or less, with more autonomy, charging less money and enjoying life more. As a result, the best career progression is not necessarily becoming a partner in a law firm anymore (which means a 50 lakhs to a crore a year income including bonus) – it is getting a good name in the market and starting on your own.
Big law firms are also getting hit in another way – clients have been very price conscious since the last recession that hit in 2008. The due diligence that once used to get a law firm 20 lakhs, now gets about half the money. Firms had to move to a capped cost structure instead of an hourly billing. The biggest clients have all used their leverage to drive down their legal bills – out of necessity during the recession, and out of realisation that they can do so ever since. The new firms are ever ready to undercut, and a client has a large pool of good law firms to choose from, which enables them to drive prices down like never before – hitting at the way law firms made profits so far.
Law firms are not the driving forces or the land of opportunity like they used to be when I joined law school –things have changed now. It takes increasingly more time to become a partner (since firms are growing slowly, there is no scope for exponential increase in number of partners), salary doesn’t increase in accordance with the expectations of most people, work-life balance is non-existential and hierarchy has set in. Law firms are not the great places to work that they once used to be.
What does a lawyer do then?
While the appeal of a law firm career has been diminishing, the need of a lawyer with expertise has been increasing. More law school students have been taking up litigation than ever. However, while a lot of students take up law firm jobs right after school, and increasing number of students are leaving those jobs to do something else. Many of them are going into academia, others are leaving the practice of law altogether, although definitely benefitting from their legal education wherever they are, and some people are spilling into informal careers, without any identified well-trodden path, making their own way.
Why are lawyers special
Lawyers are not special because they can become stalwarts like Ram Jethmalani. Lawyers are not special because 300 odd law students get law firm jobs every year that pays really well. Lawyers are special because they understand the game – they know what is going on. Lawyers are special because they represent other people’s interest, and can find solutions.
There are a lot of problems in our country – if you are a lawyer, you can find a problem to solve, a cause to rally behind. That makes a lawyer very special – since there are very few who are trained to do so or have the capability to pursue such an end.
What the hell am I doing?
Let chaos be your wingman, let disaster be your niche. Not everyone would want to live that life, but I do. I want to be at the edge, experimenting to find new solutions. It can be dangerous for my career, but I chose it. What’s the fun otherwise?
Quitting what you don’t enjoy, is after all not supposed to be difficult. It is even easier when you know better challenges are waiting for you. That’s how I quit my law firm job.
This is not just my story – today almost every lawyer faces this dilemma. In case, you are a law firm bound law student or a starry eyed aspirant dreaming of going to a top law school, remember this story of how I found out what I did not want to do before I started looking for what I wanted to do. Given the direction in which the stream is flowing, you may find yourself in a situation where I found myself a few months back. Then stop and think for a moment: what kind of life do you want? And then just walk that path!
NOTE: We do not know who is the author of this article, it was sent to the iPleaders’ email id anonymously. We can not verify or vouch for the factual statements made in the article. We hope this article will trigger a debate.