Why I left corporate law

Wela Quan

Recently, as I sorted through some documents I came across an old photo from my days on the McGill Law Journal. The photo seemed like it was from another lifetime. When I looked at the photo, I did a double take. Somehow my mind wasn’t prepared to see Alexandra Dodger in the middle of the photo, as if the sight of her somehow brought her back again.

Though Dodger and I were not personally close, we had worked together at the Journal. In the photo, Dodger was holding a Cuban cigar to her lips, she wore a mischievous grin under short blonde hair, and a green Mao hat. Dodger was one of those people who stood out not only because of her gregarious nature but because she was dedicated to fighting for human rights. When she wasn’t protesting injustice in the Middle East, she was advocating for local student issues. Dodger lived with purpose. And this is how I will always remember her.

At the end of last summer, I finally got up the courage to make a change. I quit my job as a corporate lawyer.

Every lawyer who quits Big Law has their own reasons. Many of those reasons are widely known, such as burnout, toxic work culture, or even cases of discrimination. While I was lucky enough not to have experienced a lot of the typical corporate firm horror stories, I still felt deeply unsettled in my job.

Every day I went to work feeling like a fake; I did not care about the work, functioned on autopilot, and daydreamed about doing other things. After months and months of talking about it, I finally found enough guts to actually do it. When I gave notice to the firm I broke down in front of my managing partner. It was as if a weight had been lifted from my soul.

Leaving my job as a corporate lawyer was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. Not only did I invest more than six years of my adult life in it, the law was my entire identity. Who was I going to be if not a lawyer?

There are many corporate lawyers out there who enjoy what they do. Those who love mergers and acquisitions will often talk about the thrill of closing a deal for their clients after extended negotiations. Tax lawyers love to dig into complex pieces of legislation because figuring out a tax regime is like solving a puzzle. Bankruptcy lawyers love that their jobs often have both litigation and corporate governance, and the list goes on.

I was simply not one of those lawyers. I practised general securities law and did a bit of banking and M&A work, but truthfully I did not care about any of it. I was just another aimless worker who was passing time at the office, unengaged and apathetic. I was the anti-Dodger.

Since quitting my practice, people have asked me whether I would tell law students to stay away from working at a big firm. I can’t say I would. I was incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to work with some amazing lawyers at two great Canadian law firms. Not only did I learn many day-to-day lawyering skills, I was exposed to a certain level of training and professionalism that I wouldn’t have received elsewhere. As with all things, there are costs and benefits associated with being a big firm lawyer — the trick is figuring out the right equation.

For me, I always knew my purpose in life was not to be a corporate lawyer. I was just biding my time until I could do something else. At a certain point, it became too depressing to be waiting for my life to start. I was wasting my own time.

This past October marked the second anniversary of Dodger’s passing. The Cuban cigar she was smoking in the photo still sits on my nightstand; she had given it to me as a souvenir from her trip to Cuba. Seeing the cigar on my nightstand reminds me of her and how passionately she had lived her life. It reminds me that I shouldn’t be wasting time on something that doesn’t matter to me.

Nowadays when I wake up in the morning I’m accountable to making the most out of my day. I’m accountable to live with purpose because I no longer have the excuse of waiting for my life to start. I’d like to think Dodger would be proud.

Alexandra Dodger was killed by a drunk driver on Oct. 17, 2011 in Ottawa. Her loss had a profound effect on me and those in my class at the McGill University Faculty of Law. I dedicate this article to her memory.

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