Musical Chairs, Small Law Firms

Size Matters: Breaking Up Need Not Be Hard To Do

Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Size Matters, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.

We all know that sometimes relationships end. Take Renee Zellweger and Bradley Cooper. As my friend (who is a divorce attorney) always says, if things are not working out, end it and do not buy real estate together.

This is true not only with bad relationships, but with bad jobs. I have received emails and had conversations with several small-firm attorneys who are unhappy. One woman emailed me that she worked at a small firm where she had to work in a poorly heated office with roaches and screamers (I guess she worked on a pirate ship). One man told me that he was repeatedly forced to cancel his vacations for faux emergencies. I have heard many different tales of experiences that range from unpleasant to abusive.

The idea of quitting a job (even a bad one) in this economy seems heretical to many. But, it shouldn’t. A recent study suggests that working at a bad job may be more harmful than being unemployed….

This study, featured in Jezebel and published online in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, analyzed the mental health of 7,000 workers in Australia. The results were as follows:

Not unexpectedly, those who were unemployed had poorer mental health, overall, than those in work, the results showed.

There is some evidence to show that employment is associated with better physical and mental health, and the mental health of those out of work tends to improve when they find a job, say the authors.

But after taking account of a range of factors with the potential to influence the results, such as educational attainment and marital status, the mental health of those who were jobless was comparable to, or often better than, that of people in work, but in poor quality jobs.

Notably, the study defined “poor quality” jobs as those “jobs which afford little control, are very demanding, and provide little support and reward.” In other words, poor quality jobs include bad attorney jobs.

While it may be necessary to quit your job, it is imperative that you do it in a way that does not damage your future employment options. Indeed, as with ending a relationship, there is a right way and a wrong way to quit your job.

Vivia Chen, of The Careerist, and Kat Griffin, of Corporette, offer some advice on how to quit properly.

While most of the tips are common sense — give an appropriate amount of notice, quit after you get your bonus — two points bear repeating.

(1) Leave on good terms

The old adage is true: do not burn any bridges. This is true for a variety of reasons. As I was told by a friend who is a career counselor, it is important to maintain relationships with your former colleagues and bosses because you will likely need a reference at some point in the future. And, as I’ve learned from the attorneys I’ve spoken to who went out on their own, relationships with previous employers can be sources of business. Also, the legal community is surprisingly small. This is especially true among small law firms.

To that end, Chen suggests that you finish up all your projects before leaving and work hard until the end. While it is not necessary to work at the same pace as before, you do not want to shirk your responsibilities.

(2) “Quit with a smile”

It is important to be extremely professional when you inform your employer that you are leaving. This means you need to have an appropriate reason for why you are leaving that is not merely “you suck.” Several attorneys who successfully transitioned from bad to good environments told me that before making the announcement, you should have a few non-insulting, substantive reasons why you are quitting. And, as one pointed out, the “I quit” conversation is not an appropriate time to bring up all that is wrong with your previous employer. It is advisable to have those discussions prior to making the determination to quit because perhaps the situation can be improved. At the point where you have decided to leave, there is nothing the employer can do to improve the situation.

Also, it is important to be appropriate when you are telling people outside of your firm why you left. Several career counselors have informed me that nothing is worse than talking badly about a previous employer to a new or potential employer. This is true because attorneys at the new employer may have close relationships with attorneys at your previous employer.

In other words, if you have made the decision that it is time to leave an unhealthy work environment, do your best to imitate a break-up song by Celine Dion or Air Supply, not Alanis Morissette.

And, finally, a bit of good news to those determined to break up with their bad jobs: I have heard from several headhunters that the market is getting a little bit better for lateral hires, including positions with smaller firms. Similarly, NALP has reported that there has been a “soft bounce” in the market for recent graduates.

So don’t be afraid to leave your job if it’s not the right one for you. Just be sure to go about quitting in the right way.

Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small law firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.

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