Thoughts on life after BigLaw
After working in BigLaw for 10 years, Mr. A|E retired from the industry to pursue his passions from our home base in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. These days, he spends most of his time hiking, skiing, fly fishing, photographing the local wildlife, writing and being a supportive spouse to Mrs. A|E. Here, he provides answers to some of the more common questions we have received from blog readers, colleagues, friends, family and strangers. Curious about something else? Drop us a line at email@example.com.
How did you decide to leave BigLaw?
While I very much enjoyed my decade in BigLaw (minus the usual frustrations of course), my plan had long been to eventually move on. Mrs. A|E and I found Mr. Money Mustache’s blog early in our associate days and immediately set our sights on FIRE. At the BigLaw salary level—and especially with two BigLaw incomes—it just made too much sense. There are so many other things that I want to do in life that have nothing to do with the law, so I’ve known for quite a while that I wanted to leave at some point. The harder question for me was when, not if, which largely boils down to a financial calculation.
How will you support yourself?
The core insight of FIRE is that your investment portfolio can support you indefinitely once you accumulate between 25 and 30 times your annual living expenses. So, for example, if you spend $100k annually, then you become financially independent somewhere between $2.5 and $3 million. Obviously, there’s more nuance once you get deeper into the FIRE movement—things like making sure you are invested appropriately, and properly accounting for taxes and healthcare expenses since those may change post-retirement—but the core insight is pretty simple. It’s not any different than regular retirement planning, but just tweaked for a longer time horizon.
Upon reaching that roughly 30x milestone (Mrs. A|E and I are on the conservative side), I will support myself the same way that any retired financially independent individual supports themselves—through their investment portfolio and/or passive income streams. While I’d prefer not to get too specific in a public forum like this, we’re close enough to the 30x milestone that we can see financial independence on the horizon. Until we officially cross the finish line, I’m relying on Mrs. A|E for financial support.
In FIRE parlance, our family is what some call ‘Coast FI.’ This means that the more aggressive accumulation phase is behind us, and we can now ‘coast’ to financial independence just by making enough to cover our living expenses while our investments take us over the top. Mrs. A|E is still working in BigLaw in a counsel role and earning more than we spend, so her income will get us past the 30x mark soon enough.
Why not get to financial independence first, and then leave?
We certainly wouldn’t quarrel with someone who chose that route. Everyone has different goals and comfort levels, but Mrs. A|E and I didn’t feel it was necessary for me to keep going in BigLaw. From the beginning, we’ve lived on a fraction of a single BigLaw income, so the main purpose of the second BigLaw income was just to get to financial independence faster.
Racing to financial independence became less relevant for us in recent years because Mrs. A|E’s job satisfaction has been steadily rising to the point where she does not want to leave BigLaw anytime soon, and—if things continue working well—may even stay in BigLaw past the point of financial independence. Moreover, at the time that I left, Mrs. A|E was generating about 2/3 of the family income, and the disparity was only growing. Realizing that we would still get to financial independence soon enough without my income, and that my income was only about 1/3 of the family income anyway, made the transition financially viable.
Still, it’s a little risky, don’t you think?
We’re fairly risk averse generally, but this doesn’t feel risky. For one, Mrs. A|E has excellent job security, so that mitigates risk. Our minimum-responsibility lifestyle also makes the decision feel a lot less risky than it might feel for someone else facing different circumstances. We don’t have kids. We don’t have a mortgage. In terms of serious financial responsibilities that could keep you up at night, we don’t really have any. This is very much by design. I can understand how someone else thinking about college expenses and mortgage payments might want to keep that second income as a kind of insurance policy, but that’s not our situation.
If something unforeseen were to happen, we also have a lot of flexibility to cut expenses. We’ve spent years cultivating a lifestyle where a multi-course meal at a top-rated restaurant and a homemade sandwich on a sunset hike bring us equal joy (the latter often more so), so we’re not particularly concerned about adjusting our spending should we ever have to do that. And if sh*t really hit the fan, I could always just go get a job, but now we’ve entered the realm of very unlikely scenarios.
What do you do now?
This is by far the most difficult question I’ve had to answer since leaving BigLaw. It’s hard to know what to say, partly because I’m still working through the answer myself, and partly because the truth can make people uncomfortable. I could say ‘fly fishing’ and ‘skiing’ (and I did accidentally provide this answer to one bewildered careerist we met at a resort in Montana), but of course what this question is really getting at is ‘what do you do for work?’ While it’s such an obvious and predictable question, I still feel like it catches me off guard whenever someone asks.
Am I a 36-year-old retiree? No, that sounds ridiculous. Or does it? Am I a budding entrepreneur who will publish my children’s books, expand the reach of the A|E blog and start some attorney wellness-related business, all while monetizing our nature and wildlife photography? Maybe, but that doesn’t sound exactly right either, at least not immediately and not all at once.
Am I simply a recreational enthusiast who enjoys supporting my wife’s career and giving free wellness advice to struggling BigLaw attorneys who so desperately need it? That doesn’t sound half bad, but is it enough?
People expect an answer that explains how you’re going to make money. There’s a toxic side-hustle culture that is pervasive right now in America. It’s common for me to receive unsolicited advice on how to monetize one of our hobbies (like this blog or our photography), or suggestions on different possible legal jobs where I can continue to use my law degree for the good of society. Of course, I don’t begrudge anyone offering advice. Some of the ideas are pretty good. And it’s all very well intentioned.
But there is this social pressure to have a compelling narrative about what it is that I’m currently doing and—specifically—how to earn money doing it. Problem is, I don’t particularly care to have some compelling narrative about what I’m currently doing, nor is there a pressing need for me to monetize this yet-to-be-discovered narrative.
I definitely need to own this better.
Seriously, though, what do you do with your time?
I can tell you what I’ve done so far. I left BigLaw at the end of September, so it has been about five months now. Fall is one of the best wildlife seasons here in Jackson, so I spent most October mornings looking for bull moose and grizzly bears to photograph. Wildlife photography has long been Mrs. A|E’s and my favorite way to decompress from the stresses of BigLaw, so it was natural for me to gravitate towards wildlife photography immediately upon leaving the job. There is something so therapeutic about watching a wild animal just do what it naturally does, without concern for any checklists, deadlines or other corporate nonsense.
We spent the month of November visiting desert climates in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. During the month of December, we took our annual pilgrimage to Hawaii. Mrs. A|E was working remotely during these travel months, so we would get outside and go hiking when she finished work. During her work day, I spent my time learning new healthy recipes, working on our photos, writing, and travel planning for a big adventure this summer (which we will write more about later). Since returning to Jackson in January, I’ve spent many mornings snowboarding, lap swimming and writing. When Mrs. A|E gets off work we always do an activity together like Nordic skiing, soaking in a hot spring or wildlife photography.
Are you afraid of getting bored?
Nah. That’s not really my personality. I haven’t experienced any boredom since leaving BigLaw, which is more than I can say about my working years. It’s hard to get bored in a four-season resort town like Jackson. If I was still living in Boston my answer might be different.
I had heard from others who have moved on from BigLaw that their days are so full after leaving that they don’t understand how they managed their lives while working BigLaw hours. I get that now. And I certainly have a new appreciation for stay-at-home spouses as well. Even simple things like keeping up with oil changes, home maintenance, healthy cooking, laundry, healthcare and other life staples fill a good portion of my time. And we don’t even have kids.
Before I left BigLaw, a lot of these 'home-economics’ responsibilities were simply disregarded to varying degrees, or outsourced. But I enjoy being self-reliant, so in-sourcing and attending to all of these formerly forgotten activities has brought improved life satisfaction, health and wellness. Anything I think I can reasonably learn to do myself, I’ll try to learn to do, and life presents so many opportunities to learn something new. (I’m about to go see if I can disassemble, repair and reassemble a piece of exercise equipment.)
Do you find purpose and fulfillment without a job?
I do, but I also understand that early retirement is not for everyone. I never really had my identity wrapped up in BigLaw, or even in being a lawyer. While I was in BigLaw, I always made sure there was ample time to pursue the non-legal activities that were important to me—things like adventure travel, creative writing, wildlife photography and outdoor recreation. As a result, and perhaps owing to my personality as well, I’ve managed to keep a healthy separation between my lawyer self and my non-lawyer self. Not to get too philosophical, but this means that the death of my lawyer self isn’t the death of me.
In our capitalist society, purpose and fulfillment is a tricky subject.
Typically, when people talk about ‘purpose,’ the underlying assumption is that purpose is a byproduct of economic activity. If I start an art business to monetize our photography and/or an attorney-wellness business to monetize the ideas in this blog, then I don’t think anyone is concerned about my perceived lack of purpose and direction. But if I take photos for fun (and as a form of therapy) and write wellness articles simply because I enjoy doing it (and because some people find them helpful), then that can cause folks to worry about my psychological well-being. I think money anxiety is often getting projected onto concerns about ‘purpose.’
But isn’t finding purpose still important?
Finding purpose is undeniably important, but it can also be a powerful mental trap. I believe that the social imperative that each of us identify and pursue our Magnificent Life Purpose can lead us to look for it in all the wrong places. I happily find purpose right where I am—with family, friends, community or even alone, and engaged in the activities that spark joy for me. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
That said, I also totally get how participation in the workforce does provide purpose for many people, and there’s nothing wrong with that either. Mrs. A|E falls into this category. And I did for many years too. You get the rewards of collaborating with your colleagues and the satisfaction of solving challenging problems. You learn and grow. You get paid! There’s meaning in all of this.
In my opinion, purpose and fulfillment mostly depend on being in control of your decisions and at peace with where you are in life.
And I am very much at peace with my decision to move on from BigLaw, which would not have been possible without the rock-solid support of Mrs. A|E throughout this transition. Honestly, God bless her.
Would you ever go back to the workforce?
Yea, sure, it’s possible. It would be silly to rule anything out, especially so soon after leaving. While I’m critical of the ‘Dream Job’ construct (another powerful mental trap), I can imagine opportunities that would be very appealing. Life is about personal growth, and if a job presents the best opportunity for that, then I’ll jump on it.
I gotta say, though, that Mrs. A|E has obtained so much fulfillment and flexibility in her career right now that I’d be extremely hesitant to blow that up. A critical component of her job satisfaction (and mine when I was still working) is that we are able to do fun and rewarding activities together every day. Mrs. A|E works EST hours from the Mountain West, which means she can log off for the afternoon while there’s still plenty of daylight. That allows us to then go on a hike, drop the canoe in an alpine lake, search for grizzly bears or take a few laps on the classic ski track. With remote work, she also has the flexibility to work from Sedona, Joshua Tree, Hawaii, Big Sky and everywhere else we love to visit.
So even assuming I found an enticing opportunity, would I get off at 3PM local time? Would I get to spend a month in Tahoe in the summer and a month in Banff in the winter? I think that’d be a tough sell, so now is probably not the time, but I’ll keep an open mind.
What does Mrs. A|E think of the transition? Does she sometimes feel bitter or resentful with you not working?
Mrs. A|E has been amazingly supportive. We both worried about this a little bit before I left. I probably worried more, as Mrs. A|E was encouraging me to pull the trigger. There were some pre-departure concerns that if I was doing too many ‘fun’ things during the day that this could be irritating. But it hasn’t been an issue.
First, we’ve learned through this process that Mrs. A|E and I are just different. I love being able to ski twice a day, whereas she’s content to ski once a day (and has the flexibility to make that happen). Recently, I’ll do 2 or 3 hours of downhill in the morning, and then we’ll join up for a few classic laps in the afternoon. For Mrs. A|E, and probably for most people, skiing once a day is enough. She has truly extraordinary flexibility at work, so it’s not like I get to do fun things and she doesn’t.
The truth is, we’re both getting to do exactly what we want. Her ideal situation is to simultaneously maintain an exceptional quality of life and a high-powered job. Whereas my ideal situation is a full and complete pivot out of Corporate America. Neither of us wants to trade places.
What’s more, Mrs. A|E’s job satisfaction has actually skyrocketed since I left. Frankly, we didn’t foresee this, but it’s made the transition so easy. Turns out, managing only one busy and stressful BigLaw job is about 1,000 times easier than managing two busy and stressful BigLaw jobs. Who knew! For example, there’s no more negotiation around when we can leave in the afternoon. Whereas before she might work an extra hour to wait for me to finish up, now she is the master of her own schedule. Mrs. A|E’s job has long been the more flexible of the two, so when I left it was like she was unleashed.
Some of the home responsibilities that I’ve taken over have helped too. Even really simple stuff like making breakfast or starting a load of laundry. These aren’t complicated or time-consuming tasks, but they do free her up mentally to just focus on her work, which makes her day-to-day less stressful. She definitely sees and feels the benefit of the new arrangement.
Is Mrs. A|E going to leave too?
Maybe one day. Who knows! But right now she’s got a great gig and feeling great about it too, so there’s no reason to upset the apple cart.
Originally, the plan was to leave together upon reaching our FIRE number, but we started to rethink that a couple of years ago. At some point, Mrs. A|E began to realize that she didn’t actually want to retire. We also came to realize that losing two BigLaw incomes at once might not be the best strategy either. Even if the math supported retirement, going from two to zero BigLaw incomes all at once could be a financial shock. We are both somewhat risk averse by nature, so it might have proven difficult to pull the trigger on two exits simultaneously, at least not until we had significantly over-accumulated relative to our financial needs.
My departure has a trial-balloon quality to it too. Before you actually leave, it’s not always possible to predict things like ‘what will you do with your newfound free time?’ and ‘will you enjoy not working?’ For Mrs. A|E in particular, not having clear answers to these questions in advance would be a mental roadblock to leaving the workforce. So part of my job in early retirement is to give it a test run, and to lay the groundwork for various projects and activities that Mrs. A|E can later ‘retire into,’ if she decides to. It is often easier to retire into something that has already launched than to retire into uncertainty.
Do you miss anything about work?
No, not really. While I have a very positive opinion of BigLaw, I can’t say that I miss it. I’m much more excited about the future than I am nostalgic about the past.
You have a positive opinion of BigLaw?!?
Very much so. While I’m happy to be out, BigLaw wasn’t this awful monkey that I had to get off my back. Mrs. A|E and I have a very unique perspective on BigLaw. I found one of the rarest forms of success in the industry, having enjoyed an excellent quality of life both during my associate years and beyond. Mrs. A|E continues to live it. I’m very proud of our BigLaw trajectories and lifestyle, and we’ve written a lot about that.
I owe a lot to BigLaw. The ability to save and invest my way out of the workforce at 36 I owe to BigLaw. The amount of flexibility and control I had over my life and career during my working years is also thanks to BigLaw. I met my wife in BigLaw! (Really in law school, but we were both already headed to the same firm when we met.) BigLaw has made my life both easier and richer, so my thanks goes to BigLaw, and specifically to the partners and mentors who supported my career.
There’s plenty of problems with the industry. Too many to keep track of. Everyone is familiar with these problems, and I share most of the same concerns. But BigLaw presents an incredible opportunity too, and not in the way that most people think.
Are you really retired?
I would say yes, but if someone wants to argue semantics, then maybe not? What does it mean to be retired? Does it mean that I must sleep in every morning and sit under a palm tree every afternoon? Does it mean that I am not allowed to earn any more money until the day I die? I’ll probably sit under a palm tree now and again, but that’s not going to be my primary activity. I’ll also probably earn some money one day through writing, photography or something else entirely—maybe even one day soon—but that’s not my primary concern either. Am I retired? You tell me.