Everyone from your mother to your mentor has probably warned you about just how small the professional world really is. We keep our word, don’t scream expletives at our bosses, and give two weeks’ notice even when we’d rather bolt right out the door.
So, what I’m about to tell you might feel a little taboo.
Sometimes it is okay to burn a bridge professionally.
I was a young attorney in late 2009 when the market was hitting the peak of the downturn and associates were being laid off left and right. After my inevitable meeting with HR was over, I ran straight to my favorite partner’s office looking for guidance.
He picked up the phone and called a friend at another firm to tell him he’d be stupid not to snap me up. I was lucky enough to not go one day unemployed. I even convinced a client to go with me, which was a huge coup for a third-year associate.
Unfortunately, the honeymoon was short-lived. My second law firm was the antithesis of my first law firm. I was micromanaged and my growth as an associate was stunted from the day I arrived.
I knew within the first two months it wasn’t the right place for me, but my plan was to grin and bear it until the job market improved.
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The breaking point for me was the day I was called into the managing partner’s office and was told I would need to fire my client. This was a client who generated about $80,000 annually in legal fees and always paid on time. They’d loyally followed me from my first firm, and they were in a niche practice area I thought the firm valued.
What the firm didn’t value was my independence. They told me my time would be better spent working more closely with a partner on his clients. They said that’s how I would make partner one day, by attaching myself to a partner who would stand up for me in the partnership meeting.
What I was hearing was the complete opposite of what I’d been told, and had witnessed, about how you got ahead as an attorney. Having a “book of business”–clients you can take with you anywhere you go–is the way to make sure you always have a job. No matter what this new firm might tell me, I knew it was career suicide to let go of this client I’d fought so hard to develop.
However, I also knew the partner I worked under would be furious if I left, and I feared the partner from my first firm who went out on a limb for me would be disappointed or angry.
The first thing I did was schedule lunch with the partner from my first firm. I wasn’t going to potentially burn two bridges by not warning him about my decision.
“I would have never sent you there if I’d known it was like that,” he said nonchalantly. He assured me I was right to protect my burgeoning book of business.
Piece of cake. I still keep in touch with that partner years later, and I’m not even a practicing attorney anymore (which, I promise, is not a consequence of having made this decision).
When you’re ready to burn a bridge, don’t plan a sneak attack with dynamite. Instead, warn the villagers. Do everything you can to minimize the damage you leave in your wake.
In other words–when possible–handle the situation as professionally as you can. I didn’t simply send an email and quit on the spot. I scheduled a meeting with my supervising partner and the managing partner, and I laid out my concerns. I didn’t say anything negative about the firm, and I tried to emphasize it wasn’t anyone’s fault. We simply weren’t a good fit. I offered to work out two weeks notice.
It was terrifying. Despite the fact that I didn’t blame them, they very clearly blamed me for wasting their time the four months I was at the firm. I truly believed if my name ever came up in conversation around them, they would tell everyone that hiring me was a huge mistake.
But I was willing to take that risk. I weighed it against the future I was hopefully securing by holding onto my own client, and I decided it was worth it. I’d also made sure I secured a new position before I told them I was leaving, so at least I knew they wouldn’t immediately impact my employability.
Every situation is going to have a unique set of circumstances. However, I do think there are some common threads of untenable situations that warrant bridge-burning. The three big ones for me are:
- A boss or manager who is verbally abusive
- Unethical behavior or activity by a manager or the company at large
- Bottom-line mentality, meaning the company’s bottom line is always more important than your individual professional development
The last one is the toughest to spot and usually has the lowest risk-benefit ratio. At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself if the situation will hold you back from your long-term career goals. If the answer is yes, it’s time to start planning your exit. Unless you’re in a situation like I was where they’re requiring an immediate action that would harm you long-term, those jobs are sometimes worth sticking out for a year so it doesn’t look like you left too quickly.
Yes, I survived it. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. In fact, five years later, I’m in a completely different industry, and I still felt the need to delete this job off my LinkedIn before this piece was published so no one would be able to figure out the name of the law firm.
Traumatic though it was (and still is), it was the best decision I ever made for my career.
This article originally appeared on Levo and is reprinted with permission.