Confessions of a Recovering Tax Lawyer – 12 Things I Hate About Big Law
I am proud to welcome my first guest blogger to Lolabees. I asked Amber to write a post I have been dying to have here for the past year. Her courage and insight to leave a high-powered career and follow her dreams caught my attention. And not only did she leave a career she had invested so much in, but she and her husband dropped everything to go on their 2nd Around The World Trip. That is something I wish I had the courage to do! And they’ve got big future plans that don’t involve anymore time in the law office. I asked Amber to share the 10 things she hated about law, but she couldn’t stop at 10!
Confessions of a Recovering Tax Lawyer – Twelve Things I Hate About Big Law
I was once trapped inside the body of a tax lawyer. For 10 years. That’s right, after three grueling years of law school and the bar exam, I found myself practicing as a tax attorney at the largest law firm in the world. I got to fight the IRS for a living during 8 of those years. That sounds great, right? Who doesn’t hate the IRS (besides IRS agents, of course)? Perhaps that should be the next ABC legal drama, “The Tax Practice.” Believe it or not, it’s not as glamorous as it might seem. Shocking, I know. In fact, there are a lot of sucky things about being a lawyer at any big law firm. They involve the day-to-day activities that somehow have not made it onto Law & Order, Boston Legal, or Ally McBeal.
1. Billable Hours: Billable hours were the bane of my existence. You think your boss micromanages you? Imagine having to keep track of every 6 minutes of your time. That’s what billable hours are about. I had to write down what I was doing for every 6 minutes and then determine whether I could bill it to a client. It was tedious and put such pressure on my time, even when not working. I had to reach a minimum of 2000 billable hours and received a bonus for up to 2400 hours. I generally “worked” over 3000 hours a year. Break that down. Not a lot of time for Saturday marathons of the Real Housewives or Keeping up with the Kardashians. No matter how efficient I was at my job, there was always more work to do and more hours to bill. Just see below how to tally the bill. I know clients think I bill them when I sneeze, but I’ll show you below, that I’ve actually spared them from a lot of billable hours they didn’t realize. Not only will you see the other 11 things I hate about big law, but you’ll see that clients were getting their money’s worth out of me.
2. Lawyer Jokes: How many lawyers does it take to . . . . Yep, I have not only struggled to deal with being the butt of many a lawyer joke, but when you specialize in tax, that just opens you up to tax and IRS jokes as well. I faced it from multiple angles. I won’t even bill for those… unless, of course, the client is making the joke.
3. Paper Pushing: Think of the most glamorous TV or movie lawyer you know. Patty Hewes from Damages, Tom Cruise in The Firm, or a Few Good Men. They are playing down and dirty, in and out of court, arguing with judges, bending the rule of law to aid their clients. I did none of these things. I was in an actual courtroom for about 30 minutes in my ten-year career. The rest of time I shuffled papers. I was a highly paid paper shuffler. It was not even as glamorous as My Cousin Vinny. Billable? You bet, even when not in court.
4. Golden Handcuffs: So, you’re probably wondering what I am complaining about if I was highly paid? The salary and bonuses were great and got bigger each year, but the trade-off is being shackled in the golden handcuffs. You adjust your lifestyle to match your income, recognizing the salary will only increase. What good is all this money if I did not have time to spend it? Plus, with six figures of student loans, how could I quit this glamorous lifestyle? Billable? At least some of those billable hours trickled down to me.
5. Skits, dammit!: During our professional development and training meetings, of which there were several each year, I often had the opportunity to do role-playing and skits. Imagine a bunch of highly professional tax lawyers sitting around a room on a weekend doing skits. Don’t see that on TV. Billable? Unfortunately NOT billable. But think about how that enhanced the services I was able to provide. See, clients got that part for free, although I know many clients might pay to see some of their high-priced lawyers do some of this stuff.
6. The “I’m Really Important” complex: People, we’re not curing cancer here. It often struck me how stressed my colleagues were – everything was a deadline, a time crunch, super important, do this “ASAP”, clients were in need. Everyone was getting all riled up all the time. Many of them meant well and had the honest feeling that what they were doing was incredibly important, as a member of the bar, upholding the rules and regulations of the government – the law of the land. But it was difficult to get them to put things into perspective; to stop and eat lunch; to see their wife or kids. Our job was to aid our corporate clients in paying lower taxes. Like I said… we were not curing cancer. I did not become a lawyer with hopes of changing the world – good thing, because I did not even come close to changing the world, other than keeping tax dollars from the fisc. What these lawyers needed, was a little perspective. Billable? Those hours would be more justified if we DID cure cancer.
7. Environmental Catastrophe: I often wondered how many trees I killed as a lawyer. I may, along with my peers, have been single-handedly responsible for killing a rain forest. When I started in the legal industry, everything was on paper. Everything we turned over to an opponent, the government, or a court, was on paper. I learned that the boxes we used held 4000 sheets of paper exactly. We would produce maybe 25 boxes a week during a 5-month project. Add that up. Even now that everything is “digital” the printer outside my office was constantly turning and burning. If you want to become a lawyer to “change the world” think about the environment you are killing. Billable? Sadly, the bill includes printing costs…charging to kill the environment.
8. Document Review: You can’t just turn over all those pages to the government without looking at them first, right? Although document review is now generally electronic, it is still tedious, repetitive, and boring. There is no way to sugar coat it. For me, the apex of my document review career came in 2007, when I had to needlessly re-review 11,000 pages of documents in about 24 hours based on the whim of a partner. All that mouse clicking caused tendonitis in my right wrist, which still flares up today. Still thinking about going to law school? Billable? Time spent reviewing documents, most definitely. Time spent at the doctor, icing down my wrist and going to acupuncture – fit into my non-billable “free” time. The client wins one here.
9. Complaining Clients: Big firm lawyers are expensive, I understand that. I would try to find ways to watch the bill – have a cheaper lawyer complete a task instead of me, ask my assistant to do some internet research because she is free, etc. I felt an ethical obligation to not try to maximize the bill to squeeze every last dollar out of my client, ignoring that my clients were Fortune 500, many with deep pockets. So, having to hear complaints from clients about how expensive we were, or being the butt of jokes and jibs about how we must be overcharging, gets old. If the clients could do the work themselves, then just do it and stop complaining. By the way, my practice group was worth it. We generally won. Billable? Hell yeah and we were worth every penny. What would you pay to win?
10. April 15: I defended clients against the IRS, years after their tax returns were filed. Yet, any time I told someone I was a tax lawyer, they would make some reference to April 15 being a busy time of year because of the IRS’s tax filing deadline. I don’t file tax returns. That is an accountant. I was busy all year round. Billable? I billed all year round, not just in April.
11. Pointless Court Demands: When I did file documents with a court, I was always amazed at how specific the requirements were for documents – a certain kind of font, specific margins, a green or yellow cover page, use paper clips instead of staples. Where does it end? None of it changes the quality of the writing or the substance of the issues. If we turned a document in with a white cover page by mistake, we could be bounced out of the court with grave consequences. There are way bigger things to worry about! Billable? Clients complaining about the bill, take a look at these ridiculous requirements that made us bill for researching which color paper to use.
12. Blackberry: I remember when I first learned what a Blackberry was – it seemed so high-tech and gadgety. When the firm first issued one to me, I was ecstatic. I felt free. Little did I know that it would tether me to my job, virtually 24/7. It was all abuzz during a Cubs game, during my haircut, while in the shower. It took time to instill some discipline to not have it near me all day, but it was addictive nonetheless. I often wanted to throw it off a tall building, or into a river. I may have an iPhone now, but I will NEVER own another Blackberry as long as I live. RIP RIM. Billable? Checking email on my Blackberry, billable. Throwing it into a river, non-billable.
Think about each of these things if you, or someone you love, ever considers going to law school. I had a coveted, high paying job, which was hard to get. If only I knew then, what I know now . . .
After 10 years as an attorney, Amber left her job at the largest law firm in the world and decided to start living her life. She is now a recovering tax lawyer, traveling the world with her husband in tow. This is her second RTW trip. Her first RTW ended with a return to the tax world. This trip hopes to explore Europe, Latin America, and ultimately end in a happy existence somewhere in Asia, where her passion really lies, outside the law. Follow along at www.withhusbandintow.com and www.escapethepredcitablelife.com.