For months, people asked me, “what will this do to your career?”
I was tired of answering the question. I knew there was another path for me. But I was scared of removing the proverbial golden handcuffs. In 2009, I was a seventh year associate on partnership track at the largest law firm in the world. After a severe bout of tendonitis, all thanks to what is known as “document review” in the legal biz, I was sure I needed a change.
At the time, though, I felt lost. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I wasn’t sure that I could walk away from the title that was almost within my reach. My husband, Eric, and I considered putting all of our belongings in a few suitcases and moving to Spain or Italy to live life more slowly, to savor food and wine, to enjoy each other and our life together. At the time, though, we weren’t ready for so permanent a change. And so the decision to travel the world for a year evolved. Our friends termed it the “Master Plan.” Little did we know then what our Master Plan would ultimately become.
Making the decision was the easy part. Telling my boss about the Master Plan? Not so fun. Still, I found the courage and waltzed into his office one morning and asked him if I could take a leave of absence. He was pretty stunned and requested that I stay until the end of a big project. Let me translate that. The big project could have delayed me for 18 to 24 months. I considered this option, knowing that 24 months could turn into four years, knowing that there would always be some reason to stay.
It was time to jump, to take a risk. After months of discussion and negotiation I was told I could take a leave of absence, with qualifications. I quit my job with an understanding that I was leaving on good terms and would need to reapply if I wanted to return in a year. My job was not waiting for me when I returned. Although some partners continue to sell my leave to naive young law students as a “sabbatical,” they’ve got it all wrong. I had to quit, remember?
After 14 months of traveling through Australia, New Zealand, Asia, South America, and Europe, I emailed my boss and expressed my interest in returning to the firm, my interest in willingly putting the golden handcuffs back on. I was good at my job. I thought this would be easy. I was wrong. I was forced to run the gamut, interviewing with over 20 different attorneys, many of whom I knew intimately.
Although they ultimately made me an offer, I was “punished” for taking time off. They decreased my associate class year and salary. But on the bright side, I was back on partner track, and, most importantly, was employed after 14 months out of the game. The “sabbatical” seemed to have little effect on my “long term” career. They would still allow me to practice law for another 20 or 30 years. Lucky me! In just one month, I was sailing back into my “normal” life. Or so I thought.
“[W]e always know which is the best road to follow, but we follow only the road that we have become accustomed to.” – Paulo Coelho
In the end, my biggest problem was readjusting to the monotony of my day-to-day – taking the Metro, sitting at the same desk every day, eating at the same boring restaurants in my “faux urban” neighborhood, and dealing with friends who just did not understand my fascination with seeing the world, with pursuing a different life, the right life for me. I had only been to 40 countries. There was so much more to see and experience!
Another Escape? Already?
Eric and I realized quickly that we were unhappy – call it Life ADD. We started to save our money and live more simply. My hope was to make partner and stay for another 5 years. But I lasted just a little over two. I was thirty days from making partner and still walked away. Why? Because I was working crazy hours, counting days until I found the courage to quit or collapsed from the exhaustion and stress. What’s worse, I was bored. And so I did quit.
Today, Eric and I are off on the road again, having just started our second round-the-world (RTW) adventure. This time it is a permanent one. Our first trip whet our appetite for adventure – a more simple life, with new and unique experiences every day. It also made it blatantly clear that we are free spirits, destined to settle somewhere outside of the United States and outside of the predictable life. Most importantly, it helped me to discover that I don’t belong in an office.
When I left the firm for the second time, my boss, management, and HR told me that I could return whenever I pleased. I am not sure quite how sincere that was, but it is nice to know that it was offered. Will I ever go back to the rat race? I doubt it. We have a nest egg and wanderlust, and we will keep traveling until we find someplace where Life ADD is a farfetched proposition. We are not on the “Master Plan 2.” This time, it’s a “Life Plan.” I am certain of one thing. I never want to sit in a sterile office under fluorescent lights for 60 or 70 hours a week again!
After 10 years as an attorney, Amber Hoffman 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, exploring Europe, Latin America, and ultimately settling into a happy existence somewhere in Asia, where her passion really lies, outside the law. You can read more about her travels on With Husband in Tow or follow her on Twitter as @ashworldtravel.