Ready to Quit

  • November 10, 2022

Dear Advy,

I am a fairly senior associate at my firm and I’m at the point where all I think about is quitting. Not just quitting my firm but also quitting practicing all together. The long and the short of it is I just cannot keep up. I have heard so much wellness advice and seen countless videos on the benefits of getting a good night’s sleep and exercising but my reality just does not allow any time for extras. I’m currently unmarried and do not have kids so there is an overall sense that I should be the one that takes on additional work, given I don’t have the same level of obligations at home.  I am torn right now because I have invested so much time, energy and money into my education for this career – which has always been my dream but right now, it just seems like I am dealing with a never-ending nightmare. Any advice would be appreciated.

Ready to Quit

Dear Ready to Quit,

I am curious as to what it is you say you cannot keep up with. Is it the workload itself? Is it the lifestyle you see your peers living? It’s worth taking a little time to tease apart what exactly it is you feel difficulty keeping up with and approaching each area you identify. 

You have likely heard the Chinese proverb: The best time to have planted a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is today. It has been used so much lately that it’s easy to miss what it is telling you. You do not have the life you want to live right now. You regret past decisions that got you to where you are. Could it be that had you made different choices once that you wouldn’t be facing this problem? Perhaps, but so what? Unless your name is Marty McFly you can’t go back in time to change what happened. You can’t plant the tree 20 years ago. You can only change what you are doing right now. 

As another ancient sage Frank Sinatra put it:

Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way.

That sounds like I am going to admonish you for expressing regret. No, I am not. Your regret is extremely useful to you; not as a fantasy of what could have been, but as a key to what you want to be different about your current reality. Spend a bit of time with that regret. Get out a piece of paper and begin writing out exactly what it is that you regret. Do you wish you had chosen a vocation or even a job within the practice of law that had a less demanding workload? Is it this specific employer you regret working for? Do you wish you had a different practice area? Take that picture of you that appears in sentences beginning with “If only I had…” and ask yourself how your present life could be altered to be more like it. Don’t look for a wholesale change immediately. Look for small steps you can take right now that bring you closer to that imagined reality.

You’re quite right that all the wellness videos in the world won’t help you one bit if all they’re doing is helping to numb yourself to a life you don’t want to be living. Until you feel some degree of control over what you are doing at work and how much time you devote to it, it won’t matter. You can do everything from yoga to using essential oils to writing in a gratitude journal until you’re a walking Live Love Laugh throw pillow, but this will fix nothing. Many if not all of those things can be a very helpful part of a happy life. The problem is you’re not living your life. You are working to meet the expectations of others, but you are not living authentically. You will come to resent the fact that you are shouldering more than what you can bear. Spending time watching another wellness video without taking a hard look at what would give your life greater authenticity is a waste of time; time you say you don’t have.

I do want to push back on one assumption that it is impossible to not have time to take care of yourself. Getting enough sleep, eating healthily, getting exercise, and engaging in activities that are meaningful to you are not “extras”. They are life. You, in essence, indicate that “your reality” does not allow time for life.  You may wish to consider what is causing you to view life as an “extra”, and whether that truly is reality, or whether that is a story inherited from a work culture that has been created with limited consideration for the humans living in it (which, to be clear, you should absolutely not beat yourself up over – more on that later). Pause for a moment and think back ten years. What do you remember about what you were doing back then? You had the same amount of time available to you then as now, but my guess is that you have little or no memory of that research memo you wrote, taking notes in class, or that time you took out the garbage. Odds are, what comes to mind are people you knew and things you did that were meaningful to you. Ten years from now, are you more likely to regret not coming into the office on Saturday morning or not having gone for that hike on a perfect fall day? 

Spending more time at work is not the same thing as being productive. There are often diminishing returns to the time you spend at your desk. If you cast your mind back to times when you have done your best work as a lawyer, it was probably not due to spending evenings and weekends ceaselessly working. It was probably due to your being “on top of your game” which comes from – you guessed it – all those “extras” like getting enough sleep and eating well. 

Your boss and your clients might appreciate your amazing efforts for a while, but they don’t appreciate it as much as you might think. The momentary satisfaction you might feel on squeezing in another billable hour into your day is probably not giving the client you just billed warm fuzzy feelings. The partners are unlikely to reward you as richly as you believe you deserve for it. 

Now, I appreciate you don’t always have control over when you have to be at work. Firms and clients can be demanding and there can be legitimate crises that require you to be at the office when you would rather not be. One of the limitations of an advice column is that we are dealing with requests from individuals about what they can do to help make their lives better. This forum doesn’t allow for dealing with the kinds of systemic pressures that you may be up against. If my advice here is centred on what you could be doing differently, that doesn’t mean that this problem is simply your fault. It’s centred on what you could do differently because I am writing to you to answer that question.

The partners, the clients, the judges who hear your cases etc., will never end this nightmare you say life has become for you. Only you can replace your nightmares with the stuff of your daydreams. Take advantage of your local lawyer assistance program and work with a professional counsellor to develop a plan to start living the way you want to live. Start planting that tree now. 

Be well,

Reader Comment:

I found the response to the question unhelpful. Finding time is not just a matter of finding time. It's a matter of learning to set healthy boundaries (which may take some work and some introspection as to why you find it hard to set them) and also realizing that when others don't respect them, the only thing left to do is to remove yourself. There are many jobs out there where people are able to set boundaries, so perhaps this person needs to be encouraged to find a different job within the legal industry. Not every legal job has the same demands. A life coach might also help this person. Telling them they actually can find time to sleep etc. is not helpful. This person would be doing it if they thought they could or if they had the ability to set boundaries. Unfortunately, I think Advy missed an opportunity to identify the real issues and thus to provide meaningful help those in this same situation, of which there are many in our profession.