These days we’re hearing more and more stories of people who have climbed the career ladder only to find themselves stressed and unhappy. Some continue on despite feeling unfulfilled, and others, like Rachel Murray, take a leap.
After training to be a lawyer and dedicating years of her life to the practice, Rachel ended up in an unexpected situation; she no longer wanted to practise law. With no idea of what she might do instead, her career change journey led to her starting her fortnightly newsletter, Pivot!
From her candour about choosing to leave a job that caused her to burn out, to her advice for anyone trying to switch careers, Rachel’s interview is a must-read for anyone with itchy feet when it comes to their work life.
Hi Rachel! Let’s start with your previous career as a lawyer – was that always the plan?
Yes, I had always wanted to train as a Barrister. I was desperate to be one from the word go, from about age 13, and the reason was Ally McBeal! I was in love with Billy. I remember being in a maths class at school and my teacher was trying to teach me algebra, and I just said “I don’t need to learn algebra, I’m going to be a lawyer”. And that was it.
I did an A level in Law, which I had to teach myself because they didn’t offer it at my college beyond AS Level, and went on to study law at university. I then got into Bar school before qualifying and finding a job as a Legal Aid paralegal. I was applying and interviewing for pupillages on top of working full-time. I did actually get offered a pupillage, but circumstances at the time meant that I didn’t take it. My boss back then also asked me not to leave, and offered to pay for me to qualify as a solicitor, and become in-house counsel. That never quite materialised, but I found that even though I had never wanted to be a solicitor initially, I really enjoyed the client contact and being that kind of support system for them. The problem was we never had any support for us as practitioners.
We were working on really difficult issues; domestic abuse, alcoholism, drugs, child abuse, it’s a lot of stuff to deal with and not have an emotional reaction to, especially in your early twenties. Government cuts affected our work and what we could do for our clients, and got me down. It wasn’t just the long hours, it was the intensity of what we were dealing with. There was no distinction between work life and home life. I was taking my work home with me, literally and emotionally.
After five years, I got headhunted to work at a private firm. I wasn’t learning enough where I was due to lack of resources and support staff, so I thought I might as well give it a try. I thought it would be nice to go somewhere where not everything is moving at the speed of light and not everything is an emergency application to protect a child. In my previous job I was doing so many things at once that getting a piece of paper off the printer down the hall would lose me too much time, that’s how busy I was.
The new job was a slight step down career-wise, but much higher paid – it turned out to be awful. I wasn’t sleeping and had crippling anxiety. In five years of being at my last law firm I had six days off sick all in one go because I was really poorly, but at the new place I was in and out of the doctor’s every few weeks. And it was entirely because of the job. When I left, all the problems I had… gone!
I just thought one day ‘Why am I doing this? It’s not worth it.’ I wasn’t enjoying practising law; by the end, I hadn’t been in front of a judge for a year and a half, and I’d lost all confidence to do it. I felt undermined every day so I feared even doing basic applications. I just wasn’t learning or progressing anymore. I didn’t care about money – all I needed was enough to live off – so with a tiny amount of savings, I quit.
Was there a breaking point? Or was it a gradual decision?
I went to an interview with a firm that was headed up by a woman who had worked in fashion. I was in awe of her because I love fashion and had been writing a fashion blog on the side. I’d done really well at both interviews, but as I left she followed me out of the room and kindly said: “Have a think about whether or not this is something you really want to do”, and I knew then that if they offered me the job I wouldn’t say yes. I was burned out and I think she could see I was done.
It was not the greatest way to have left, but I made my peace with it. I didn’t leave on a career ‘high’ so to speak, I left in order to protect myself, and that, to me, means more than anything. The thing is, I don’t care about status and reputation; I knew that I’d never go back to law, so to me it didn’t matter.
How did you recover from the burnout?
It’s still a work in progress. I’m not burned out anymore but I’m still learning how I respond to stress. I find that once you’ve suffered burnout you are probably a little more sensitive to stress. Back then I wouldn’t react to it, which I think led to problems down the line. Whereas now when something stressful happens, I’m much more likely to take a step back. I’m better at recognising when there’s something going on that could lead to burnout again.
I’m better at recognising when there’s something going on that could lead to burnout again.”
When you left, did you have an idea of what you wanted to do next?
How did you handle that?
It was more difficult to handle everyone’s opinions. A lot of people wanted to help. It was well-intentioned but I just had no headspace to think, all I knew is that I didn’t want to be in law anymore.
So… I ran away to France for ten days to do some writing and thinking, and one of the best things I did was take myself to dinner. I never used to be able to walk into a restaurant or a café… five years ago I would have waited for you outside this café rather than walk in and find a table!
But I took myself to dinner, and as simple as it sounds, it changed my outlook. By the time I left law I was just a shell of a person; I’d lost part of who I was – the happy, passionate part. From a young age, my life had just been law-focused. For the first time in a long time, I had to think about what I really wanted… I knew I liked writing but I had no idea how to make a living out of it.
A few months after quitting, I met someone at a friend’s party who put me in touch with a startup he knew who needed some help, then a friend of mine kindly asked me to help her out with some writing, and she put me on this accessible list of writers. After that it began to snowball.
At this point were you intentionally looking for work or was it just coming to you?
No it was just a case of opportunities coming to me, and three years on I’m still in this position. I’m very lucky. I landed a position at Tatler on my own merit because I desperately wanted to work for a magazine, but other than that it’s all been work that’s come to me through word of mouth.
What made you want to work for a magazine?
Initially, because I loved fashion, but I realised early on that I didn’t want to be a fashion writer. I want to be writing about lifestyle, opinion, political pieces, etc. It confirmed to me that I wanted to be a journalist. I recently had an article published in Restless Magazine on Domestic Abuse, which was fantastic; I want to do more, but it’s finding time to pitch around other freelance work.
One freelance journalist I really respect called Anna Codrea-Rado, who has written for the Guardian, the New York Times, Vice, etc. She writes a great newsletter called The Professional Freelancer and a friend of mine from school suggested I sign up to it. Anna turned it into a monetised community, and even though I hadn’t utilised the newsletter advice as much as I would have liked, she started running events so I thought ‘I’m going to pay for this and learn’.
The dream is to eventually write a book about career-changing; I’ve written the premise and all the chapters for it a few years ago, but then I thought… walk before you can run.
I write every day for work, but editors and publishers are not going to care that I’ve just written about tech development, they want to know that I can write about lifestyle, etc. So I thought, start a newsletter! I’m a big believer in practising what you preach. If I want to write a book about career change and write for women’s magazines on the subject, I have to first write on it myself.
How are you juggling work while writing a book?
When I first changed careers, I attended a Guardian writing masterclass; one of the staff writers told us that some people hate the writing process and love the end result, and that’s me. It feels counter-intuitive to say this, but I do not enjoy writing. I love the ideas, love the starting, hate the writing and then love the end result. Apparently it’s kind of 50/50 in terms of other people having that same feeling.
I’m a brain dumper, not a planner. My creative process is to just word vomit onto the page. As with anyone, when I write about things I care about, the words just tumble, but often it’s in no real order – I then have to go back and painstakingly edit it all. My newsletter, Pivot! got me writing on a personal level again, rediscovering writing for ‘pleasure’ and establishing my niche/expertise which will put me on course for writing more of the book soon I hope!
With Pivot!, did you already have an audience of people interested in changing career?
Short answer: no. I know a lot of people who have gone on to start businesses, but it’s not quite the same as career-changing to me, because that’s striking out on your own with an idea. I wanted to share the whole journey, from leaving to finding something new.
I career changed at a really stupid point. I have a shared ownership property and at the time I left, had just staircased to buy more shares so my mortgage payment doubled. I live on my own and I’m fully responsible for myself. I had serious financial commitments and no plan to cover them. That strikes a lot of fear in people, and I want to help with that. I want to help people make rational decisions, to think about the consequences and enjoy the process.
I wanted to share the whole [career change] journey, from leaving to finding something new.”
Speaking of fear, what do you think brings people to that breaking point that makes fear no longer an issue? For you it sounds like you were more scared of what that job was going to do to you than what would happen if you left.
I’ve written a lot about flexible working and mental wellbeing at work, because I’ve been on both sides of it, and I think there’s such a huge shift happening. They blame the millennial generation for being entitled, but what they’re actually doing is just not accepting the status quo anymore. I think a big part of that is because it doesn’t benefit women or those with caring responsibilities and so on.
Millennials are not taking it lying down anymore, they’re demanding more from employers. And that’s what I care about in my career; I want fun, I want passion and I want purpose. I think all of that can happen at work.
I think when I was a lawyer – and this is what I think played so much into my idea of identity – there was ‘work me’, and ‘home me’. And I didn’t know how to marry the two (nor were we really allowed). What’s interesting about working in the startup world is seeing how open everybody is about everything, and that it is good for them. I still tend to be quite private and there are certain things that I still think are N.S.F.W – not suitable for work! But I’m trying to loosen up a bit.
Do you find you’re able to control stress more now?
Yes, to a point. I’m far more stressed about emails. You know, inbox zero… never going to achieve it! But also putting your own writing out there can be stressful sometimes. I have to constantly remind myself that it really doesn’t matter what people think. I’m writing about my experience, not anyone else’s, and you can’t invalidate that. You can pick up on my grammatical errors, but you can’t invalidate my experience.
How do you think your personal experience can help other potential career changers?
I learned by doing it a really crazy way! I started at the bottom, I had three jobs; a full-time writing job, two freelancing projects outside of that, and I put my flat on Airbnb and slept on people’s sofas for a year, just to cover my mortgage. I had another quasi-breakdown during that time, so career changing was not a fix-all!
I think a lot of people are looking for silver bullets in changing career, in house moves, whatever the shift is. People think that any change will change their life. For some people it really does, and my life has changed a lot, but I’m still the same. I’m still in the same flat, I still have the same friends. I still eat too many burritos.
When someone says ‘Oh you look so much happier’, it grates. It implies that life is binary and by making this change you have fixed everything and have somehow achieved Nirvana. But it’s just about having more control. I have more control over my day-to-day schedule, like I get to spend a whole Monday working on Pivot!, and that’s amazing… in isolation! The stress of getting it out there and growing the community and everything, that part’s tiring! So, I’m trying to share the good and bad parts of the career change experience, so people have a more realistic overview and can equip themselves with what’s needed and boost their resilience.
… I’m trying to share the good and bad parts of the career change experience, so people have a more realistic overview and can equip themselves with what’s needed… “
What kinds of conversations have you been having with the Pivot! audience?
I technically started Pivot! in June/July last year. So far a lot of people have talked to me about being unhappy in their jobs, and about quitting. I’m very good at rational advice about work, and I have had some lovely messages about how much Pivot! is helping them feel less alone and giving them food for thought.
If someone was in your position before – really unhealthy, really unhappy – and they want to make a change but they’re not sure what they want to do, what advice would you have for them?
The same advice I tell everybody and it never changes: ‘Always quit on a good day, not on a bad day’.
On a bad day your judgement is clouded, you tend to have a knee-jerk reaction and not react appropriately to the situation. If you quit on a good day, you know that you’re doing it right, and that it’s the right decision. It should lead to a bit more clarification about what you really want.
And also, if you can, quit with money. It’s very easy to say because I was lucky enough to be in that position for a short while, but I saved from the minute I was unhappy. I started putting little bits of money away. It didn’t amount to much and that money disappeared quickly, but I then took on three jobs to cover it; it was a sacrifice I was willing to make. Some people won’t want to put themselves in debt, and hats off to them. But to me, debt equalled my freedom, so I was OK with that. Learn where you can be flexible and what your boundaries are before you jump. Doing that is half the battle.
Curious about career changing? Rachel’s fortnightly newsletter, Pivot!, is for prospective job and career changers, offering advice, tips and stories. You can subscribe to Pivot! here. And you’ll find her on Instagram here.