Getting Fired From My Law Firm Job
The very bad thing that happened to me just a year after I left Biglaw
It was especially tough because I thought it was a much better job for me than my Biglaw job, which I’d just quit the year before. “You’ll be successful one day,” the partner said, right after he fired me. “Just not here.”
During the summer of 2015, I was fired from my law firm job.
I’d never been fired before.I had no idea what to expect. I mean, was it normal to receive compliments during these kinds of conversations? You’ll be successful one day. I mean, it sounds pretty good, right? Almost as if he went out of his way to be kind to me. Not once did he use the word fired. Which stood in stark contrast to how he usually treated me.
I mean, I understand why he wasn’t particularly kind to me. We probably both realized shortly after I was hired that I wasn’t the right fit. On paper, I was a hotshot Biglaw associate with a federal clerkship under his belt. I probably looked like I was really good at litigation. The firm was looking for someone to take ownership of discovery for all of the class action cases the firm had filed.
I still remember interviewing for the role, which was the first time the partner and I spoke. “I’m not sure you even want this job,” he’d said. “It’s a lot of work and it’s not for the faint of heart.” Which in retrospect was an odd way of recruiting. Usually you tell people about why they *would* want the job right? You don’t try to convince them that it’s not a great job?
Except … it worked. On me, at least. Because the best way to convince me to do something is to tell me that you think I can’t do it. The mere suggestion that I might not be able to do a certain something has that effect on me.Always has. So yeah, of course I took the job. I probably should have done more diligence before accepting but honestly, it was one of the only California firms I found that would hire me before being admitted to the bar.
I mean that’s also exactly why I wasn’t a good fit for the firm. I wasn’t licensed, so every little thing I did had to be under the supervision of the partner. Which was the complete opposite of what he was looking for—someone to manage discovery and work up cases independently. Someone to own the process.
I mean, I was already admitted in New York (which was no small feat for me) which meant that theoretically I could handle some matters on my own. But the rules about admission are so complicated, and I didn’t want to violate any of my ethical obligations. So I decided to play it safe until I was admitted to the California bar.
Interesting how “playing it safe” led me to lose my job.
I’m sure the partner saw it differently. He figured that I was the type of person who needed to be micromanaged, who needed guidance every step of the way. So I do understand why he thought I needed to go. I just wasn’t what he needed, so I needed to be replaced.
Another thing that kind of sucks about not being admitted is that you’re kind of out of luck if you’re looking for a job in California. So the timing of my firing was tough. Though, I suppose, whenever you get let go unexpectedly, the timing is probably not great.But for me, it was especially bad because while I did pass the California bar exam, I wasn’t “officially” admitted yet.
Because I hadn’t passed the moral character check.
The moral character requirement has always struck me as kind of an odd part of the process. A group of strangers gathers together for the sole purpose of talking about you—as a person—and based on information you submit and references provided by people you choose, decides whether you’re a decent human being. I mean, I get the reasoning—you don’t want bad people running around suing people or whatever.
But take this as a thought experiment. Think of the worst person you know from your law school class. Like the most terrible person who shouldn’t be admitted to the bar. Do you think it would be difficult for them to get a stamp of approval from the state bar? Probably not, right? I mean, if you were *really* a bad person, finding people who would vouch for you and convince strangers that you’re a good person probably isn’t that hard right?
Anyways. I was still waiting to be admitted. And because no one would hire a lawyer who hadn’t been admitted yet, I was in kind of a tough spot. I mean, I guess it was possible to find some firm, probably Biglaw, that would hire me. But I had decided years ago to never again work for a Biglaw firm. So I felt kind of stuck.
What I should have done was take a long vacation. A much needed break. But being who I am, I thought, well, I need to hurry up and get to my next thing. For some reason I’d always felt rushed to get to the next stage of my career. Without any good options, one that had always been in the back of my mind suddenly popped up.
Why not go solo and handle New York matters while I wait?
It wasn’t a new idea. I’d always thought about running my own business. Entrepreneurship was in the family blood. My father had opened his own medical practice in Queens, NY in the 1980s.My sister owned her own business, too. Many of my relatives in New York were small business owners. Maybe I glorified it in my mind, but at the moment—it felt like it was the right move to make.
When I was in law school, I had a similar gut feeling. Within two weeks of being a summer associate, I knew Biglaw was the wrong place for me. But it took years of being miserable at my job to finally pull the plug and leave to do something else.I didn’t want to make the same mistake. I’d come to recognize the value of doing things off the beaten path. Maybe I needed to pull the trigger quickly, and not overthink it. No more paralysis by analysis. I’d follow my intuition for once.
So less than 24 hours after learning that I’d been fired, I made the decision.
I would open my own law practice.
Thanks for reading! This essay was kind of hard to write, partly because I had so many unrelated thoughts and side stories (thanks ADHD) but also because it’s the first time I’m writing in detail about such a painful memory. Stay tuned for Part 2 where I’ll share what it was like to be a solo and how that freed me up to pursue side projects that helped me develop key foundational skills. Which were incredibly important years later when the pandemic hit. Subscribe if you’d like to follow along!
If you’re new around here, you’ll find that I love footnotes. They just feel so much easier to write since there’s no pressure to make sure my thoughts are relevant to the point I’m trying to get across in the main text.
Part of the reason I’m detailing my experience getting fired is because I know many of you might be overthinking the decision to leave a job that makes you unhappy. So you end up staying. I wanted to share my own story about what happened after I left Biglaw and how all of my worst fears (like getting fired) were realized. And yet that was probably the best thing that could have happened to me.
I always thought I’d be fired from my Biglaw job because I felt so unimpressive during my time there. But I’m proud to say that during my few years at the firm, I received positive reviews. I mean, I gave up a lot in my personal life just to keep my head above water. But those reviews gave me a little bit of confidence that has stuck with me throughout my career. Especially when things got rough.
Later, I realized that I was actually quite good at the strategic part of litigation. The firm was a plaintiffs’ class action firm and they were always looking for novel legal theories to pursue. Which I didn’t realize I was good at until I spoke to one of the other partners at the firm. I synthesized a rule from unfavorable binding caselaw that would help us overcome a potential motion to dismiss. But the partner—great as he was at working up a case—just could not follow my train of thought. His understanding of the cases were so superficial that unless I quoted directly from the case, he could not fathom how I “invented” some rule.
This experience helped me understand how to sell to lawyers when I became a legal tech salesman. I realized lawyers are often independent thinkers who are critical of whatever they hear. So instead of sharing all the “positives” of the product I’m pitching, I provide a highly nuanced view, and emphasize the drawbacks. Many lawyers can’t help themselves and find a way to “disagree” with the drawbacks, so they convince themselves that there are no weaknesses. Is this manipulative? Maybe. But it’s served me well over the years.
Believe me I looked at A LOT of firms that were hiring for lateral associates. The vast, vast majority of them said “California license/bar required.” Even the ones that paid like $15/hour that I found on Craigslist. Yes, this former federal clerk & ex-Biglaw associate looked for jobs on Craigslist.
About a year later, I received an unsolicited message from someone who was interviewing for the same exact associate role I had. It was tempting to just say some terrible things, just to get them back for firing me. But in the end, I decided to give a balanced view of my experience, and provided all of the pros and cons. That someone ended up accepting the offer. And ended up doing quite well at the firm, where he’s now a partner.
I guess if I was being honest, the firing wasn’t a *complete* surprise. I knew I wasn’t doing well, and towards the end of my tenure, I had a sense that it was coming. I made mistakes, and second-guessed myself all the time, which meant things also slipped through the cracks. I dreaded work every day and sometimes I wonder if there was a part of me that was hoping that I would get fired.
This is why I have such a beef with the way we license attorneys in the U.S. All sorts of terrible people are admitted to the bar, which is why you hear all these crazy stories of attorney misbehavior.
Looking back I’m not sure why I didn’t consider going in-house. I think back then I had all of these preconceptions of what it was like to be an in-house lawyer. Like, part of me might have thought I didn’t have enough experience. And maybe another part thought I wouldn’t enjoy the work.
My parents, who are generally very risk averse, were surprisingly supportive of my decision. They might not have been earlier on in my career. But they saw how unhappy I was with my first few years as a lawyer, especially working at a Biglaw job.
I was two weeks into my summer associate job when I realized I was miserable. But I wasn’t sure exactly why. One day, I closed the door to my office, and made a list with two columns. One column was for “things I enjoy/am good at” and the other was “things I hate/am bad at".” Everything about being an associate at a firm fell under the second column. So I immediately knew I needed to get out. Two weeks in! But you know, life happens. I knew I needed the paycheck to pay off my loans, save up some money, and build up my resume—whatever that meant. So it took five years from that point for me to leave Biglaw for good.