From Big Law to (Very) Small Law: One Lawyer’s Journey from Practicing in Armani Suits in a High Rise Tower to His Sweatpants in His Bedroom (or, from Billing Machine to Whole-Hearted Solopreneuer)
Guest post by David Hyams, SDG Law
June 1, 2014. That’s when I decided. I was walking the 1.2 miles home at 3:00 in the morning from the train station (my connector bus ran its final route 7 hours earlier) and I said to myself, “I’m done with this.”
I had been working in large law firms as an associate for six years, so such late nights were not uncommon. But something in my heart snapped that night. Fifteen months later I left big law and launched my own firm.
As with most things in life, what compelled me to leave big law and hang out my own shingle was not just one thing or one late night, but a culmination of events and circumstances that God use to lead me out of something arguably quite good into something better.
My wife and I have two children, a nine-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son. The three of them wanted me home more. It’s not that I was always gone until 3 am. I’d usually leave in the 6:00 morning hour and return in the 6:00 evening hour. A solid day away from the home, but by no means ludicrous. I rarely traveled for work and I was almost always home for dinner. And I didn’t work weekends much—a Saturday or two a month, sometimes more. (When you’re in the throes of litigation, you do what has to be done. The court and the rules of civil procedure choose the deadlines, you don’t. So there were stints where numerous weekends would string together.) Thus, even though my schedule was tolerable, I wanted more time with my family than dinners in the evening and (most of most) weekends.
We home educate, and I wanted to be more involved with the education and discipleship of my children. Extracting myself physically from the family unit and hub of domestic activity for 12+ hours per day was not only preventing me from understanding what my blessed wife and her pupils were experiencing, but kept me on the periphery of what so much of our family life consisted of. I felt like a guest at the dinner table each night.
I was up for trying my hand at something new. After seven years working in large corporate firms, I had a good sense of what life was going to look like going forward. Sure, there would be the elevation to partner, new cases, and other challenges, but, for the most part, life was going to look pretty much the same. Moreover, repeatedly throughout scripture, the risk-takers are the blessed ones: Noah built the ark, Abraham left his homeland, Moses confronted Pharaoh, David challenged the giant, the disciples “left all” to follow Jesus, the servant invested the talents and saw a return, blind Bartimaeus wouldn’t shut up, the paralytic’s friends dug through the roof, the bleeding woman reached for the hem, Peter stepped out of the boat, Mary poured the nard, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, Paul kept preaching. Risk-takers, all of them. They eschewed comfort, security, and fear of the unknown and embraced the greater reward of God and his kingdom. I wanted that.
Unlike many who sour on big law, I enjoyed my firm. The people I worked with were wonderful. I was blessed to work on very exciting cases, and I received excellent training (and pay). Nevertheless, just as Egypt was initially the place of salvation for Israel, for it was there that they became a nation, it eventually became its oppressor. To become the nation God envisioned, they had to leave. So, too, did I.
I did, however, grow weary of the billable hours. I was tired of evaluating a day’s work by the number of hours billed (or not). Constantly measuring my life in 6-minute increments was soul-sucking and was warping my understanding of what it meant to be a lawyer. Rather than an advocate for truth and justice, to be a lawyer was to be a billing machine. This cynicism, a poisonous fruit of my training to “think like a lawyer,” was robbing me of my joy. For cynicism “question[s] the active goodness of God on our behalf . . . . [and] creates a numbness toward life.”[i] For my heart’s sake, I had to get out.
Bringing the Strands Together
Modern society pulls us in many different directions: our work life is separate from our family life, which is separate from our worship life, which has nothing to do with our play life, and of course the education of our children has nothing to do with any of it. Each of these activities tends to take place in its own, distinct geographical location, with little overlap in locale or people constituting the respective communities. This results in a dis-integrated, compartmentalized, fragmented existence and an emaciated family life. Packer describes the crisis well:
[I]n the Western world at least, and increasingly elsewhere, the family is in deep trouble. Relentless pressures arising from the centralizations of urban life are eroding domestic relationships, so that their intrinsic primacy in human life is no longer being appreciated or lived out. Instead these pressures cut off husbands and wives from each other, cut off children from their parents and grandparents, and cut off the nuclear family from uncles, aunts, and next-door neighbors. And from being everyday life’s focal center, a sustained source of warmth and joy (“there’s no place like home”) the home turns into a dormitory and snacking point from which family members scatter for most of most days.[ii]
My home was no exception.
Prior to homeschooling, we’d shuttle our daughter across town to attend a school where we knew no one and had no vested interest beyond the hours our daughter occupied the building. Needless to say, we didn’t know the teacher, either, or what our daughter was experiencing or being told while she was apart from us. Meanwhile, I daily extracted myself from our home to go downtown and sit in front of a computer only to return at the end of the day to eat, shower, and sleep. We attended church in yet another part of town, and the people we knew there neither worked, lived, nor schooled where we did. Homeschooling was, in part, an effort to bring two of our “life strands” together and live a more integrated life. Going solo was an attempt to incorporate a third strand; thus, I not only decided to start my own practice, but to do so out of my home.[iii] Working from home has enable me to not only be more present and available to my family, but has allowed me to be more involved with homeschooling and my children get to see their father applying his craft.
Learning from the Gray Hairs
“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16.) As I listened to older men reflect upon their lives and answer the question of what they would have done differently, I observed a consistent refrain: “I would have worked less.” These men were very “successful” in the worldly sense, but it came at a price. They spent their 30’s and 40’s, the years where their children were young and in the home, building their little kingdoms. But once those little kingdoms were built, they realized that not only did it not satisfy their souls, but those they thought cared and mattered, didn’t, and the only ones who actually cared and mattered, had been neglected along the way. I didn’t want that to happen to me.
I felt like someone was pushing me from behind, down a path of life I was at best ambivalent about, if not outright opposed to. Sure, the pay, title, and prestige of all that big law had to offer was before me, but so were the hours, the stresses, the bureaucracy, and constant exposure to the sirens’ seductive singing. I had begun to live someone else’s story, and the longer I lived it, the more it became mine and the harder it was to pull away. I had to get out.
Another motivation for my exit was to provide a more flexible vehicle for me to pursue the hearts of other lawyers. Having attended seminary prior to law school, I’ve always thought of my practice of law as a divine calling. I often refer to myself as a “minister of the law.” My time in the trenches of big law exposed me to the profound need for someone who understands the particular demands of the profession to minster to the hearts of those subject to its grueling pressures. Hanging out my own shingle would (hopefully) afford me more freedom to minister to those attorneys God brought into my life while simultaneously serving as a prophetic declaration that there is a better way. I want to help my brothers and sisters of the bar to become whole-hearted lawyers.
Taking the Leap
Once the decision was made, questions inevitably arose: How will I provide for my family? Where will I get clients? Do I have what it takes? Can I make it on my own without the support of staff and supervision of partners? Will I commit malpractice and get disbarred, thereby dooming my career? Will I ruin my family? How will I ever pay my bills, especially my student loans? What will my colleagues think of me? Won’t I disappoint the partners?
The questions generated fear and uncertainty. But God provided me (and my valiant and stalwart wife) the courage and peace to not allow those questions to become debilitating. Thus, with exactly one client (on a relatively dormant matter) and no idea where my next paycheck would come from, I stepped out of the big law boat on September 1, 2015.
Where We Are Now
Over the course of the last nine months, we have seen God’s steady hand of provision meet our every need. We have not missed a bill and the clients are trickling in. And while I’ve yet to match my big law salary, my family life is better, I’m finding more joy in my craft, and my faith, courage, and business acumen have all grown.
It has not been without its challenges, of course. I have more to consider now than just doing the legal work. It’s also more difficult to “leave work at work” when my commute is only six steps. And there is the occasional, wistful longing for the “melons of Egypt.”
Nonetheless, the overall transition has been life-giving and incredibly liberating. I am living a more integrated, whole-hearted life than ever before. And the practice of law has transitioned from merely a job, to an adventure whereby God continues to call us to higher and farther vistas.
David Hyams, Esq. leads SDG Law, LLC based in Denver, Colorado. His specialty is religious institutions, bankruptcy, and business disputes. He also leads the law vocation group at Denver Institute for Faith & Work. SDG stands for Soli Deo Gloria, one of the five “solas” of the Reformation.
[i] Paul Miller, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, 77, 79 (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress 2009).
[ii] J.I. Packer, Introduction to Richard Baxter, The Godly Home, 12 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books 2010) (ed. Randall Peterson).
[iii] This is not to say God requires one to work from home in order to flourish. See Ps. 104:23 (“Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening.”).