In the spring of 2009, I was feeling burned out and frustrated at my job. The brown nosers and backstabbers made the law firm where I worked a daily hell more often than not. I celebrated the days when the worst of them were out sick or on vacation. When they were around, Stim and other friends helped keep life bearable.
I was checking the job ads, but there were no promising prospects. I figured I'd keep on surviving day by day and checking the ads more often. Meanwhile I kept getting more pressure to deliver on accounts receivable, my least favorite part of the job.
The economy had already been hammering a lot of our business clients for a while. In the previous year, several had filed for bankruptcy and more had downsized significantly. Bankruptcies had left us with over a million in uncollectible billings in the last 2 years. More clients were teetering on the edge, and my bosses were breathing down my neck to collect anything from them. I did what I could, but how could I get blood from a stone when there was little or nothing to be gotten?
Disputes were breaking out more often between the partners. Many of the uncollectible billings were coming from clients who were their soft spots, who other partners thought they should have cut off long before. What had been rare arguments were turning into monthly or even weekly arguments. Most of the support staff had no idea this was going on, because they weren't dealing with billing, daily bank deposits and collections like I was. For me, it was like seeing a train wreck coming but having no way to escape.
One Monday morning in June, I was diving into my usual routine, reviewing pending tasks and setting my priority list for the week, then going through the mail, recording payments and starting to prepare the bank deposit for the day. The phone rang. I checked the display: HR. I picked up. She asked "Can you come and see me?" "Sure." As I walked down the hall, I was not encouraged by the tone I'd heard in her voice. When I walked into her office and saw the expressions on her face and the senior partner who was in the meeting, I knew before she said the words I was expecting: "Your position is being eliminated." It happened to four of us on the same day (one young lawyer, three support staff), but none of the others had a hint that it was coming.
HR and the senior partner went through their spiel, gave me a packet of paperwork, and asked me to stay on a few more days to train a few people to cover various aspects of my job, which was being divided between them. I spent most of my time in those last days getting my co-workers up to speed on the additional tasks that I knew would be a burden in their already hectic days. The others who were laid off were walking around stunned on that day. This cut seemed to be all about the money. In the months after we left, I heard from friends who were still there that the operation was too lean and not functioning well.
When I walked out of there at the end of the week, every inch of my body screamed with joy. "I'm free, I'm FREE, I'M FREE of this hellhole!!!!!!" I never imagined that I would be without a permanent job almost 3 years after walking out of there.
I filed for unemployment right away. I also got six weeks of severance pay, and that helped. I took a week as vacation, then started applying for jobs and signing up with agencies. In the first year, I got a handful of promising leads, a few temp assignments and a few interviews. Over and over again, the continuing theme was "almost." I collected unemployment for a year while I continued looking.
Having a financial safety net kept me from living in stress 24/7. About a year and a half before I got laid off, my dad died after suffering from Parkinson's disease for years. In the process of settling the estate, I learned that he'd been more frugal than any of us realized. My brothers and I each ended up with a substantial chunk of money, and I'd barely touched it before getting laid off. My husband makes good money, and we were able to cover most of our monthly expenses from his salary. I take a bit of that nest egg each month to cover the rest.
I've kept in touch with a few friends from the old job. When I left, I was at a point where I was searching for a new direction. A few of the others were, too. Some had no desire to work in another law firm, because the legal field had tanked so spectacularly around that time. Some of the largest firms in town each laid off a hundred or more people that year or the year before. I heard through the grapevine that my old office laid off more people after I left, and one of the more successful litigation partners had reached the point of enough and left for another firm.
Between temp jobs, I started spending a lot more time volunteering for a few non-profits and found it much more rewarding than the old job - except for the money, of course.
I went through an extended period where health issues made it difficult even to look for work, because chronic pain from old injuries affecting sleep and everything else. I didn't feel like I could physically handle a daily commute, much less spending five full days each week at a job in addition to that commute. At times I've considered looking into disability status, because the pain was so debilitating. I'm grateful that I was able to be added to my husband's medical insurance without significant additional cost. That's been a lifesaver. Last week we closed on a HARP refinancing of our mortgage, lowering our monthly expenses by over $400. That helps, too.
Several weeks ago I started on a new medication that has radically improved my quality of life and ability to function. After so many months when I couldn't maintain a regular daily routine because I was so exhausted most of the time, it's been a real effort to re-establish a regular schedule. I'm still not there yet.
I've taken a series of classes in non-profit management, hoping to improve my chances of getting a job with a non-profit. I've done some networking at times, and I'm spending more time reviewing job ads, although I'm still finding few that are a good fit. I'm about to start a grant writing class - one more tool in my quest to transition into the non-profit sector. This period of lower income has shown me that I could live with less money than I made before. I'd rather have more job satisfaction and not feel like I'm on a pointless treadmill every day.
I've mulled the idea of starting a new organization, either for-profit or non-profit. Launching a small multi-faceted business looks the most appealing right now - perhaps a combination like making and selling small items on Etsy, offering organic garden planting and garden care in the neighborhood, doing bookkeeping for small businesses, and boning up on my web design skills and trying to get some web development business. Volunteer work is my job for now, on a flexible basis.
In some respects, this whole odyssey has been like an unintended vacation. Doing the volunteer work (bike projects and events, environmental work, and clean-ups on our neighborhood trail) has been a very positive experience. I haven't missed the stress of my old job. We've cut back on expenses - not the end of the world. We have enough to pay the bills. That's what really matters.
If I had enough money to go on indefinitely without working again, I'd gladly do so. I have more than enough volunteer projects, gardening projects and other interests to keep me busy 24/7.
Compared to some of my unemployed friends, I feel very fortunate. I haven't been forced to take a really horrible job, or one with a grueling commute, in order to survive. That's an incredible blessing, especially in light of my health situation.
I have no idea what's will happen with my health over the next 5 years. If the medication keeps working, and I can continue to function with a lot less pain and minimal side effects, perhaps I can regain a more normal life. If it stops working, or side effects become unbearable, the alternative may be knee replacement surgery, followed by a lengthy recovery. If I could develop a home-based business that earns a moderate amount of money, that could be ideal.
For everyone who's working at a job that they suffer through, just to be able to pay the rent and keep food on the table, and those keep working at the job search and keep finding dead ends and almosts, this song's for you.
I'd like to be working - at something worthwhile, in a situation that won't kill me from stress and physical pain. I'm hoping that I can find an answer (or combination of answers) within the next year. The unintended vacation can't go on forever.