So, how do you know when it is time to leave your firm? In my lawyer career counselor role, I get asked that question often, but I rarely answer. I usually can't. It is a personal question everyone must answer for himself or herself.
In the past few years, not as many lawyers have asked it, as fewer lawyers left jobs voluntarily. The real job openings -- and there were not many -- were flooded by a steady stream of resumes of over-qualified applicants, which included law firm partners, veteran government officials, well-qualified laid-off associates and unemployed recent law school grads.
Recently, the lateral lawyer market started moving again. It may be seasonal; autumn often brings on self reflection, and some lawyers are checking out the job boards, looking for greener grass. The stir may be caused in part by the arrival of another new class of first-year associates or the looming annual evaluation season.
The itchy -- you know, those lawyers who switch firms as often as Manny Ramirez switches baseball teams -- need a good scratch. The pragmatic are getting ready for a change in the new year while waiting out the possibility of year-end bonuses. The troubled see the writing on the wall and the ambitious hear opportunity knocking. Although the competition remains strong, more lawyers seem to be considering career moves, trying to figure out if they should stay or go.
So, how do you know when it is time to go? First, consider staying. Staying is underrated and is almost always an option. Before you leave your job, think about whether you gave it your best shot. Do not leave too soon or for all of the wrong reasons only to have your problems follow you.
At the least, take a vacation and see if a few days away and a break from constant e-mailing is just what you need. Think about what is motivating your move. Is your job really that bad, or are you tired? Are you feeling unappreciated or uninspired? Can you stay but do different things with different people? Have you tried to make it better? Are you overreacting to a bad interaction or running from a mistake?
Staying is not for the faint of heart or weak of spirit though, so if you decide to stay, make sure you are prepared to give it a real go.
Sometimes, it is hard to know when it is time to go. My brother David makes it easy for partygoers at his house by playing Patsy Cline albums when he wants us to leave. It took us a few family celebrations to catch on, but we all know when we hear Patsy crooning, it is last call and time to start saying goodbyes. I've often thought it would be great if life came with a soundtrack and we had songs to help us know when it is time to go or okay to stay.
DON'T WAIT UNTIL YOU NEED TO MAKE AN EMERGENCY LANDING
Sometimes, staying is not an option. If that is the case, get out while you can and before it is too late.
Take Jet Blue flight-attendant-turned-folk-legend Steven Slater, for example. Slater waited too long to get out and ended up making a dramatic, emergency landing. In August, he decided he was not going to take it anymore. Apparently, the straw that broke this flight attendant's back was an abusive passenger who would not stay seated when the flight landed. Slater flipped out. He cursed out the cabin, brandished a beer and escaped down the emergency slide.
Slater's actions struck a nerve with stressed-out workers everywhere. But the fact remains that even though he is a hero to many, he is now unemployed with reckless endangerment, criminal mischief and criminal trespass charges pending.
Don't wait until you need to pull the hatch and slide down the emergency chute, and don't do anything illegal. In fact, there are surefire signs you will recognize when it is time to go. Be on the lookout for them and don't overstay your welcome.
For instance, you know it is time to go if, like Slater, you start drinking on the job or abusing drugs, including legal ones like nicotine, caffeine, ibuprofen, cough syrup and antacids. And, like Slater, it is usually a sign that you should not stay if you are melting down and finding yourself broadcasting a tirade of expletives.
Other signs it's time to start polishing off the resume are crying, sleeping or getting nauseous at work or when thinking about work. What is the best part of your day? If it is discovering leftover pizza or cookies in a conference room, talking sports with the late-night security guard or fantasizing about co-worker misfortune and disfigurement, start considering your options.
You know it is time to move on when you can't get out of bed in the mornings or have trouble falling asleep at night. Work-related nightmares are absolute telltale signs you need to find a new job. If your actions are rash or you keep breaking out in a rash, you just may need to scratch that itch too.
Think about what is next if you just don't fit in, hate what you are doing or who you do it for and with, especially if your ethics, your integrity or your psyche are at risk. You spend far too much time at work to be miserable there, and no job is worth making yourself sick over.
I found a great deal of information on the Internet about "knowing when it was time to go," but most of the sites dealt with divorce or pet euthanasia. My favorite Internet find about going, which actually has nothing to do with leaving jobs, is called runpee.com. This is actually a telephone app to help you know when you can run ... to the bathroom ... at the movies without missing an important scene. It lets you know approximately how much time you have and offers a synopsis of what you will miss. (Not the "know when to go" I was looking for, but it could be helpful for some of you, and I do try to share what I learn.)
STAY UNTIL YOU GO
If you do decide to leave your job, make sure to stay until you go. You owe it to your firm, your clients and yourself to be a model employee while you are employed. Do not check out, physically or mentally. Do not start turning down assignments, missing deadlines or handing in work which is not your best product. Do not go missing in action. Remember your professional responsibilities.
Also, do not broadcast or even telegraph your intentions. It could easily take you six months or even a year or more to find the right job, or you may change your mind and decide to stay.
While goal setting is important, drop dead dates usually do not work. In fact, it can be a real setback if you miss your made-up deadline for changing jobs. Nothing kills a job search more than getting caught up in one of the stages of grief, like depression or anger, especially if you are disappointed with your progress.
Focus negative energy on moving on. Use your time to think about what you want to do next. Obviously, do not use the firm's time or the firm's dime to look for a job. Candidly assess what motivates you and what you really want and need, whether it is money, power, trial experience, independence, a shorter commute or more time at home.
Staying while you go means keeping your emotions in check and resisting urges, unlike flight attendant Slater, to tell people off on the way out -- even if they have it coming. It only feels good for a few minutes. It's a small world, after all, and you may end up working with the same people somewhere else or you may need a reference. Keep your mouth shut outside of the office too, and do not bad-mouth your current employer. Remember, that employer's name always will be a line on your resume, and its reputation always will be a part of your reputation. Protect that reputation.
While you are staying, don't stay at rest. In your free time, think broadly about your possibilities, be flexible about opportunities and talk to people who seem happy at work. Stretch yourself. Give yourself research assignments and other homework. Keep yourself organized, whether with a job journal or Excel chart to track where you send your resumes and where you interview.
Gather information through websites, publications and informational interviews. Consider consulting with law school career services or a career counselor. Explore new ventures, including alternative legal careers and alternatives to legal careers. Do not give up on the practice of law, though, unless you are sure you have all of the practice out of you.
Sometimes it is hard to know when to stay and when to go. Remember to stay until you go and watch out for the warning signs of when you just can't stay anymore. Oh, and if you hear any Patsy Cline songs playing in your head, or worse, start singing them out loud at work, you'll know it just might be time to go.
Molly Peckman is director of associate development at Dechert and a frequent writer and lecturer on law firm life and professional development. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article first appeared in Young Lawyer.