Does this career path make sense?

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Lemonman97

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Does this career path make sense?

Post by Lemonman97 » Mon May 11, 2020 8:59 pm

tl;dr: Is Public Accounting > T14 > BigLaw > In-House worth it in my situation?

Hi all,

I’ve lurked here for a long time and have read a ton of threads so while I know similar topics have come up frequently over the years, I decided I wanted to post my own story rather than try to project my situation onto these older posts. I’ve seen former/current CPAs post here before and am hoping they’ll chime in. I’d also love to hear from others who had options out of undergrad and still chose to go to law school. I’ll try to keep this brief.

I am a first year associate at a Big 4 accounting firm in a non-specialty/non-consulting/advisory area in a smaller market (i.e. big enough for a few professional sports teams but not NYC/Cali/Chicago). I’ll be licensed by the end of my first year. I currently have an LSAT/GPA combo that could potentially get me $-$$ at a lower T14 (according to MyLSN). As stated previously, I’ve been a lurker here and read a ton of threads on BigLaw and life as a lawyer. I would strongly prefer to work with words over numbers. Doc review/due diligence sounds way more appealing to me than the excel monkey stuff I’m currently doing as a first year staff. I’m also billing roughly 1800 hours for 60K. I’ve thought I wanted to be a lawyer for a while but just didn’t want to go KJD, hence why I’ve already taken the LSAT.

My concerns come in when evaluating a career long term. I know that neither Big 4 nor BigLaw are sustainable long term for the vast majority of people. I don’t think I’ll be among the <5% who make partner no matter what path I take. This has led me to ponder in-house options for both paths. Most CPAs who go in house in my market, assuming they put in the requisite time in public, are able to make 6 figures with fairly chill schedules after 5-7 years. This leads to my questions:

1. What is the long term outlook for NYC V50 corporate associates once they leave BigLaw? I’ve read on here that it’s basically 100K-150K with little to no upwards progression. Is this accurate? Is it actually, like I’ve heard, rare to be put on a GC track but still have reasonable hours?

2. How hard is it moving from BigLaw to a much smaller firm in a tertiary market? I assume it’s fairly easy if you’re a 3rd-5th year associate but does anyone here have experience doing this? Does the massive pay cut you presumably have to make still make firm hours and demands worth it? Can you still be on track for partner this way? Are there practice groups to avoid when starting out in NYC if you want to keep this open as an option (like Cap. Markets for example)?

3. If it’s the same long-term financial outcome either way as an in-house lawyer or CPA (100K-150K in-house job), I’m guessing the TLS wisdom is to absolutely not take out 6 figure debt even though I feel like I’d enjoy being a lawyer much more, no?

4. Are there any lawyer-like jobs for CPAs out there that anyone knows about? Something, for example, that focuses on tax research as opposed to excel monkey tax compliance?

Any and all comments are appreciated. If you feel like I’ve overlooked something or am thinking about this in the wrong way please let me know.

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Re: Does this career path make sense?

Post by LBJ's Hair » Tue May 12, 2020 12:02 am

if you want to be a lawyer, go to law school (if it's a T14 with decent aid). if you don't, don't go to law school.

you're making $60K a year, and it sounds like in 5-7 years you might break six figures? That's like fine, but you're not exactly leaving Goldman Sachs: your opportunity cost is like, something, but no different than any other (employed) non-K-JD. Frankly, a lot of people in your position go to grad school precisely because they're dissatisfied with the "$60K, and hopefully by the time I'm 30 I can make $100K" salary scale.

Your earnings upside will be much higher in BigLaw than in your current profession. If you get BigLaw, you'll spend several years on the Cravath scale, and once you go in-house, the $100-$150K you quoted is probably on the low end for experienced, ex-BigLaw in-house jobs in major markets.

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Re: Does this career path make sense?

Post by dabigchina » Tue May 12, 2020 1:04 am

I had a very similar career path to what you are looking at. Feel free to PM. TL;DR: I wouldn't.

The exit ops out of big4 are more plentiful.

Taking 3 years off from making money to spend money on tuition makes no financial sense.

As for billing 1800hrs per year - the hours in big4 are easier than biglaw, both in quantity and quality. I wouldn't assume you can handle biglaw just because you can handle big4.

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Re: Does this career path make sense?

Post by Sackboy » Tue May 12, 2020 1:41 am

dabigchina wrote:
Tue May 12, 2020 1:04 am
I had a very similar career path to what you are looking at. Feel free to PM. TL;DR: I wouldn't.

The exit ops out of big4 are more plentiful.

Taking 3 years off from making money to spend money on tuition makes no financial sense.

As for billing 1800hrs per year - the hours in big4 are easier than biglaw, both in quantity and quality. I wouldn't assume you can handle biglaw just because you can handle big4.
I agree that Big4 has better hours than biglaw, at least at the non-partnership level. That being said, the 30yr ROI of a biglaw->in-house lawyer is likely higher than the typical Big4 accountant. Some folks will make Controller, Chief Accounting Officer, VP of Audit, or VP of Tax, but the vast majority won't and will stagnate in much more modest salary ranges. While you're equally unlikely to land a Assistant/Associate/Deputy/GC position at a large private company, the floor is generally much higher. It's not very hard to land a ~$200k/yr. exit out of biglaw.

All the lawyer-like CPA jobs are going to require many years of experience. You'd need to land somewhere as a Director or higher on the tax front. Until you're high up enough, you're still doing the number trench work. The same goes for law, though, but it's word trench work.

If I were OP, I'd try to retake the LSAT. If you can get $$-$$$ or $$$-$$$$ at a T13, I'd pull the trigger. CPAs are pretty attractive for biglaw tax.

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Re: Does this career path make sense?

Post by dabigchina » Tue May 12, 2020 10:58 am

Sackboy wrote:
Tue May 12, 2020 1:41 am
dabigchina wrote:
Tue May 12, 2020 1:04 am
I had a very similar career path to what you are looking at. Feel free to PM. TL;DR: I wouldn't.

The exit ops out of big4 are more plentiful.

Taking 3 years off from making money to spend money on tuition makes no financial sense.

As for billing 1800hrs per year - the hours in big4 are easier than biglaw, both in quantity and quality. I wouldn't assume you can handle biglaw just because you can handle big4.
I agree that Big4 has better hours than biglaw, at least at the non-partnership level. That being said, the 30yr ROI of a biglaw->in-house lawyer is likely higher than the typical Big4 accountant. Some folks will make Controller, Chief Accounting Officer, VP of Audit, or VP of Tax, but the vast majority won't and will stagnate in much more modest salary ranges. While you're equally unlikely to land a Assistant/Associate/Deputy/GC position at a large private company, the floor is generally much higher. It's not very hard to land a ~$200k/yr. exit out of biglaw.

All the lawyer-like CPA jobs are going to require many years of experience. You'd need to land somewhere as a Director or higher on the tax front. Until you're high up enough, you're still doing the number trench work. The same goes for law, though, but it's word trench work.

If I were OP, I'd try to retake the LSAT. If you can get $$-$$$ or $$$-$$$$ at a T13, I'd pull the trigger. CPAs are pretty attractive for biglaw tax.
You would be surprised how much an experienced cpa can make. In house wages track pretty closely between the two.

You make more money in biglaw, but it's biglaw.

Like I said, I've actually done it, so it's not really "grass is greener" syndrome.

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Re: Does this career path make sense?

Post by Lemonman97 » Tue May 12, 2020 11:26 am

dabigchina wrote:
Tue May 12, 2020 1:04 am
I had a very similar career path to what you are looking at. Feel free to PM. TL;DR: I wouldn't.

The exit ops out of big4 are more plentiful.

Taking 3 years off from making money to spend money on tuition makes no financial sense.

As for billing 1800hrs per year - the hours in big4 are easier than biglaw, both in quantity and quality. I wouldn't assume you can handle biglaw just because you can handle big4.
I would love to hear more of your perspective (what exit options you had/could have had out of Big4 that you turned down for law school, where you ultimately ended up career wise, why you don’t think it’s worth it if there’s more to it than just giving up making $$$ during law school, etc...) but apparently I haven’t made enough posts to be able to use the PM feature yet.

Second, thanks everyone else for the stuff they’ve said as well. I’ve thought about retaking again to see if I could get $$$-$$$$ at a T14 but it would be my 3rd take. I still may do it though.

Third, I definitely would expect BigLaw to be more intense than Big4. I wouldn’t plan on BigLaw long term in the same way I’m not planning on Big4 long term unless I got some combo of great practice group, great people, reasonable billable requirements (<2500), and I stayed single. From what I’ve read here, this isn’t something that should be expected from BigLaw at all. Hence why I’m primarily focused on In-house legal jobs before deciding to make the career switch.

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Re: Does this career path make sense?

Post by Sackboy » Tue May 12, 2020 11:35 am

dabigchina wrote:
Tue May 12, 2020 10:58 am

You would be surprised how much an experienced cpa can make. In house wages track pretty closely between the two.

You make more money in biglaw, but it's biglaw.

Like I said, I've actually done it, so it's not really "grass is greener" syndrome.
I'm very personally familiar with the high end of accountant wage earnings. At F100 companies, some accounting directors can make $500k after bonus. Some VPs can clear $1M. You're about as likely to get there as you are the high end of legal wage earnings. The difference, however, is the floor of both occupations. In accounting, it's very possible that you get stuck at grades that pays $120-200k in-house for years without promotion. Many accountants certainly retire at those grades. The accounting floor moving from the Big4 is much lower than the legal floor moving from Biglaw.

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Re: Does this career path make sense?

Post by dabigchina » Tue May 12, 2020 1:28 pm

Sackboy wrote:
Tue May 12, 2020 11:35 am
dabigchina wrote:
Tue May 12, 2020 10:58 am

You would be surprised how much an experienced cpa can make. In house wages track pretty closely between the two.

You make more money in biglaw, but it's biglaw.

Like I said, I've actually done it, so it's not really "grass is greener" syndrome.
I'm very personally familiar with the high end of accountant wage earnings. At F100 companies, some accounting directors can make $500k after bonus. Some VPs can clear $1M. You're about as likely to get there as you are the high end of legal wage earnings. The difference, however, is the floor of both occupations. In accounting, it's very possible that you get stuck at grades that pays $120-200k in-house for years without promotion. Many accountants certainly retire at those grades. The accounting floor moving from the Big4 is much lower than the legal floor moving from Biglaw.
OK, but you can't compare biglaws to all accountants. You would need to compare all lawyers to all accountants. There are plenty of lawyers who don't even get close to 6 figures.

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Re: Does this career path make sense?

Post by QContinuum » Tue May 12, 2020 2:25 pm

dabigchina wrote:
Tue May 12, 2020 1:28 pm
OK, but you can't compare biglaws to all accountants. You would need to compare all lawyers to all accountants. There are plenty of lawyers who don't even get close to 6 figures.
Why not? We're looking specifically at OP attending a T13 and going to BigLaw. We're not looking at OP leaving their accounting job to attend any ol' law school.

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Re: Does this career path make sense?

Post by Sackboy » Tue May 12, 2020 3:25 pm

QContinuum wrote:
Tue May 12, 2020 2:25 pm
dabigchina wrote:
Tue May 12, 2020 1:28 pm
OK, but you can't compare biglaws to all accountants. You would need to compare all lawyers to all accountants. There are plenty of lawyers who don't even get close to 6 figures.
Why not? We're looking specifically at OP attending a T13 and going to BigLaw. We're not looking at OP leaving their accounting job to attend any ol' law school.
+1.

I am also comparing Biglaw to Big4 accountants, not all accountants. Outcomes for all accountants are significantly less rosier than $120k-$200k for a good portion of your career.

As it stands, biglaw and its exit options, even with 3yrs of law school and a reasonable amount of debt, is going to give OP a better 30yr. ROI, on average.

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Re: Does this career path make sense?

Post by dabigchina » Tue May 12, 2020 3:37 pm

OK. I see that my experience as a big4 manager and v10 associate are not relevant here.

And to be perfectly clear, there are plenty of in house legal jobs (especially outside of NYC/SF) that get you "stuck" at "only" 150-200k. In SF and NYC, there are plenty of accounting jobs that OP can get with 4-6 years of big4 experience that will get him over 200k. I've tried to recruit accountants before. big4 managers aren't falling from the sky over here and they demand a premium.

Think about it this way. Law school is 3 years. If OP sticks it out for 3 years in the big4, he will be a 4th year accountant, which will set him up for some pretty attractive exit ops. If he stays another 3 years in big4, he will be a senior manager, which will make him very in demand. Compare that with his trajectory in law. In 3 years, he will be a baby lawyer with 100k in the hole. He will then have to spend 2-4 more years in biglaw, which is nobody's idea of a good time, just so he can maybe make an extra 20-40k a year. Sure, he might make more money later in his career, but his net worth at retirement is going to be the same or lower because of the debt and the time he took off.

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Re: Does this career path make sense?

Post by LBJ's Hair » Tue May 12, 2020 7:00 pm

dabigchina wrote:
Tue May 12, 2020 3:37 pm
OK. I see that my experience as a big4 manager and v10 associate are not relevant here.

And to be perfectly clear, there are plenty of in house legal jobs (especially outside of NYC/SF) that get you "stuck" at "only" 150-200k. In SF and NYC, there are plenty of accounting jobs that OP can get with 4-6 years of big4 experience that will get him over 200k. I've tried to recruit accountants before. big4 managers aren't falling from the sky over here and they demand a premium.

Think about it this way. Law school is 3 years. If OP sticks it out for 3 years in the big4, he will be a 4th year accountant, which will set him up for some pretty attractive exit ops. If he stays another 3 years in big4, he will be a senior manager, which will make him very in demand. Compare that with his trajectory in law. In 3 years, he will be a baby lawyer with 100k in the hole. He will then have to spend 2-4 more years in biglaw, which is nobody's idea of a good time, just so he can maybe make an extra 20-40k a year. Sure, he might make more money later in his career, but his net worth at retirement is going to be the same or lower because of the debt and the time he took off.
Your best-case scenario for OP in accounting three years from now is the median (or 25th percentile at many schools) outcome from a T13, though. Right now, OP's making $60K a year.

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Re: Does this career path make sense?

Post by dabigchina » Wed May 13, 2020 12:57 am

LBJ's Hair wrote:
Tue May 12, 2020 7:00 pm
dabigchina wrote:
Tue May 12, 2020 3:37 pm
OK. I see that my experience as a big4 manager and v10 associate are not relevant here.

And to be perfectly clear, there are plenty of in house legal jobs (especially outside of NYC/SF) that get you "stuck" at "only" 150-200k. In SF and NYC, there are plenty of accounting jobs that OP can get with 4-6 years of big4 experience that will get him over 200k. I've tried to recruit accountants before. big4 managers aren't falling from the sky over here and they demand a premium.

Think about it this way. Law school is 3 years. If OP sticks it out for 3 years in the big4, he will be a 4th year accountant, which will set him up for some pretty attractive exit ops. If he stays another 3 years in big4, he will be a senior manager, which will make him very in demand. Compare that with his trajectory in law. In 3 years, he will be a baby lawyer with 100k in the hole. He will then have to spend 2-4 more years in biglaw, which is nobody's idea of a good time, just so he can maybe make an extra 20-40k a year. Sure, he might make more money later in his career, but his net worth at retirement is going to be the same or lower because of the debt and the time he took off.
Your best-case scenario for OP in accounting three years from now is the median (or 25th percentile at many schools) outcome from a T13, though. Right now, OP's making $60K a year.
Please tell me of these mythical 9-5 jobs that pay mid six figures that T14 grads are getting straight out of law school.

Notice how I haven't even mentioned debt.

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Re: Does this career path make sense?

Post by rich91 » Wed May 27, 2020 3:07 pm

Go look at jd CPA on linkedin...outcomes seem very decent....being a CFO with legal exp seems in demand

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Re: Does this career path make sense?

Post by nealric » Wed May 27, 2020 3:24 pm

A JD/CPA combo is a great combo for an in-house tax lawyer. I note this is true regardless of whether your background is audit or tax- you can pick up the tax later, but having the accounting background is helpful You should be able to exit biglaw well above $100-150k. Keep in mind that Big4/Biglaw comp is all cash, but megacorp salaries can have pretty substantial benefits. It's not uncommon for a base salary for a junior in house tax lawyer to be in the $150-200k range, but all in equivalent comp close to $300k after you add 401k match, RSUs, pension (yes, they do still exist at some companies), more generous health insurance plans, etc.

I also disagree that you'd be stuck with no advancement. Senior in-house tax counsel can make over $250k base, which is equivalent to around $400k at a professional services firm taking into account bonus/RSU and other non-cash comp. Heads of tax (which you'd be relatively well positioned for) can make substantially more (how mutch depends a lot on company size). Hours at a well run company should be pretty regular 40 hours (give or take). You'd need to transition from tax to a more corporate role to be on the GC train. I know of one person who went that route.

Finally, I'd also say that biglaw tax usually isn't quite as much of a grind as biglaw corp/lit. There's comparatively less mindless work, although that can also be a bit of a downside as there's not as much time you can bill with your brain half on. No real doc review, although there will be some tax diligence. Overall, the most difficult part of biglaw tax is maintaining focus for so long- it can be mentally exhausting. It's not easy, but you don't need to do it all that long before being marketable in house.

As compared to staying on the Big4 train: A good Big4 outcome can be just as good (if not better) than a good biglaw outcome, but the median outcome is probably better for T14/biglaw.

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Re: Does this career path make sense?

Post by Anon-non-anon » Wed May 27, 2020 5:26 pm

OP also genuinely sounds like he'd like to be a lawyer, and knows more about it / has a more realistic view than most 0Ls.

Go baby! Probably worth retaking to try to get more money first, but if not, $$ at T14 is a good outcome in my book compared to what you have now, especially since you actively dislike it.

Think about doing tax, and if you don't like that, think about doing corporate, as your background will help more in those contexts. PPL do really seem to like tax and from what I understand, you get to do some big picture stuff early, as taxes dictate a lot about how a deal is structured. Even if you do lit, your background will be useful.

Plus, putting in 2 or 3 years of biglaw clear-eyed about your plan to leave isn't as bad as people make it out to be, in my humble opinion.

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Re: Does this career path make sense?

Post by Lemonman97 » Thu May 28, 2020 12:10 am

Thanks for the additional comments and perspectives from everyone.
nealric wrote:
Wed May 27, 2020 3:24 pm
A JD/CPA combo is a great combo for an in-house tax lawyer. I note this is true regardless of whether your background is audit or tax- you can pick up the tax later, but having the accounting background is helpful You should be able to exit biglaw well above $100-150k. Keep in mind that Big4/Biglaw comp is all cash, but megacorp salaries can have pretty substantial benefits. It's not uncommon for a base salary for a junior in house tax lawyer to be in the $150-200k range, but all in equivalent comp close to $300k after you add 401k match, RSUs, pension (yes, they do still exist at some companies), more generous health insurance plans, etc.

I also disagree that you'd be stuck with no advancement. Senior in-house tax counsel can make over $250k base, which is equivalent to around $400k at a professional services firm taking into account bonus/RSU and other non-cash comp. Heads of tax (which you'd be relatively well positioned for) can make substantially more (how mutch depends a lot on company size). Hours at a well run company should be pretty regular 40 hours (give or take). You'd need to transition from tax to a more corporate role to be on the GC train. I know of one person who went that route.

Finally, I'd also say that biglaw tax usually isn't quite as much of a grind as biglaw corp/lit. There's comparatively less mindless work, although that can also be a bit of a downside as there's not as much time you can bill with your brain half on. No real doc review, although there will be some tax diligence. Overall, the most difficult part of biglaw tax is maintaining focus for so long- it can be mentally exhausting. It's not easy, but you don't need to do it all that long before being marketable in house.

As compared to staying on the Big4 train: A good Big4 outcome can be just as good (if not better) than a good biglaw outcome, but the median outcome is probably better for T14/biglaw.
Nealric, thanks for this write up. Like I stated previously, I’ve lurked here quite a bit. As a result, I’ve seen many of your helpful posts on working as a tax lawyer and am vaguely familiar with your T14 JD/LLM > BigLaw > In House path. If you have time, can you describe what your day to day actually looks like in house? Do you work side by side with CPAs and, if so, how does what you do compare to what they do? Are you satisfied with your career?

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Re: Does this career path make sense?

Post by nealric » Thu May 28, 2020 11:44 am

Lemonman97 wrote:
Thu May 28, 2020 12:10 am
Thanks for the additional comments and perspectives from everyone.
nealric wrote:
Wed May 27, 2020 3:24 pm
A JD/CPA combo is a great combo for an in-house tax lawyer. I note this is true regardless of whether your background is audit or tax- you can pick up the tax later, but having the accounting background is helpful You should be able to exit biglaw well above $100-150k. Keep in mind that Big4/Biglaw comp is all cash, but megacorp salaries can have pretty substantial benefits. It's not uncommon for a base salary for a junior in house tax lawyer to be in the $150-200k range, but all in equivalent comp close to $300k after you add 401k match, RSUs, pension (yes, they do still exist at some companies), more generous health insurance plans, etc.

I also disagree that you'd be stuck with no advancement. Senior in-house tax counsel can make over $250k base, which is equivalent to around $400k at a professional services firm taking into account bonus/RSU and other non-cash comp. Heads of tax (which you'd be relatively well positioned for) can make substantially more (how mutch depends a lot on company size). Hours at a well run company should be pretty regular 40 hours (give or take). You'd need to transition from tax to a more corporate role to be on the GC train. I know of one person who went that route.

Finally, I'd also say that biglaw tax usually isn't quite as much of a grind as biglaw corp/lit. There's comparatively less mindless work, although that can also be a bit of a downside as there's not as much time you can bill with your brain half on. No real doc review, although there will be some tax diligence. Overall, the most difficult part of biglaw tax is maintaining focus for so long- it can be mentally exhausting. It's not easy, but you don't need to do it all that long before being marketable in house.

As compared to staying on the Big4 train: A good Big4 outcome can be just as good (if not better) than a good biglaw outcome, but the median outcome is probably better for T14/biglaw.
Nealric, thanks for this write up. Like I stated previously, I’ve lurked here quite a bit. As a result, I’ve seen many of your helpful posts on working as a tax lawyer and am vaguely familiar with your T14 JD/LLM > BigLaw > In House path. If you have time, can you describe what your day to day actually looks like in house? Do you work side by side with CPAs and, if so, how does what you do compare to what they do? Are you satisfied with your career?
It's hard to describe a single day (and things are of course a bit wonky with everyone working from home right now), but I can give some background on my role:

1) I work within the tax department rather than the law department, although I work closely with law. Most of the folks I work closely with are CPAs. I will lean on them to assist with modeling and raw information (tax basis, E&P calculations, etc.). They will lean on me for things like reporting transactions and understanding changes to our structure.

2) A crude simplification of my role is I do the words while they do the numbers. My job concerns overall tax strategy for the company, keeping executives informed on material tax matters, summarizing current and potential changes to the tax laws, advising on M&A transactions, audit support (preparing written responses to audit issues and negotiations for foreign audits), and review of transaction documents. I'm also a general resource when some other company unit has a question about taxation. I spend more time in meetings/calls, and a lot less time just reading law or writing than I did as a biglaw associate.

3) I'm very satisfied. The work is interesting and varied, pay is good, and I my work life balance is likewise good. There is occasional unplanned/last minute travel that can be a bit stressful (I've had to leave the country on a few hours notice before), but overall it's a good match for family life. One caveat is that I'm in a pretty downtrodden industry (oil & gas), and there's inherent stress of being in a downcycle. The good things is that while my network is energy focused, my skills aren't totally limited to energy.

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Re: Does this career path make sense?

Post by Lemonman97 » Thu May 28, 2020 6:22 pm

Thank you

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