This is definitely a very difficult question to address. If you are generally happy with your current job but a better offer comes along, you probably feel a little sad about leaving. This makes it much easier to leave your job without burning bridges. However, if you are miserable, frustrated, and angry, it makes it much more difficult to leave your job without burning bridges unless you are Vulcan and you can bury and ignore your emotions (I guess at some point having a Trekkie husband rubs off on you).
Unfortunately, I must admit that I am the opposite of a Vulcan — my emotions stay right on the surface ready to spill over at a moment's notice (though now I don’t let as much get under my skin).
Blowing up, burning, and completely destroying the bridge
Here is an example of a terrible resignation letter published by Above the Law. I am so thankful that I did not choose this route but I will admit it crossed my mind (and my computer screen) several times. I also daydreamed of how I would quit and my daydreams made the ones in the movie 9 to 5 appear tame.
Maybe with age comes wisdom or maybe we are just too tired to care anymore because it takes so much energy to deal with drama. As embarrassing as this may be, this example of burning a bridge is my own. I did not just burn the bridge, I set off a nuclear blast that scorched the earth 100 miles around the law firm and made it completely uninhabitable for me forever. I was much younger, which is absolutely no excuse because I knew better, but we cannot change the past. We can learn from it though.
When I finally made the decision to leave this specific law firm, I had waited much too long to leave (about 3 or 4 years too long). The position was as a paralegal and office manager. I was exhausted. I worked at least 60 hours a week. Sometimes I came in at 4 a.m. and would not leave until 7 p.m. or later. I was under an enormous amount of stress (some of my own making) and my boss had a temper that would rival a reality TV housewife. It had gotten to the point that my family doctor said she was putting me on medication for anxiety attacks and high blood pressure if I didn’t leave (it still took me over a year to leave). So why didn't I just leave? I am loyal to a fault and I hate change. Neither of those reasons should keep you in a job where you’re not happy.
I waited so long to resign that I was bitter, angry, and deeply hurt. All of this negative energy affected my work, my relationships with co-workers, and my relationship with my attorney. It finally dawned on me that I needed to leave because my work was suffering and I despise making mistakes. My attorney always told me he could never be as hard on me as I was on myself.
Unfortunately, the bitterness kept me from leaving graciously. I did give a 30-day notice because I had been with the firm for over a decade; however, I barely spoke to anyone that last month. I did only the work that was necessary and I didn’t bend over backwards to be very helpful. I have not spoken to my old boss or any of my co-workers since the day I left and I regret staying in a job where I was miserable for so long. I burned a bridge I treasured and still miss to this day.
A hard lesson learned
Jump forward almost a decade to last year when I resigned from my last job. There were problems in the office and I needed to leave because those problems were created by others and out of my control. However, I didn’t wait to leave until I was completely miserable. This time I coated that bridge with enough good-will to settle the problems in the Middle East. My resignation was "textbook perfect" and could be used in the ethics class at our local paralegal school.
Tips for resigning with grace to preserve a bridge
I did learn my lesson from my first resignation or I am older but it could be a little bit of both. Last year when I decided to leave the law firm, I knew that I did not want to repeat the mistakes of the past; therefore, I did something very simple. I put myself in the position of my attorney and my co-workers and did everything I would want someone to do for me if they were resigning.
- Proper notice - I didn’t give a 30-day notice at this law firm because I hadn’t been there as long nor was I the office manager. Offering a two-week notice is the minimum even if the employer chooses not to accept the notice. However, you may need to adjust the time period depending on your role in the office. Try to give as much notice as possible so the attorney can find a replace for you to train and so you can wrap up loose ends before leaving.
- Complete current projects - I worked overtime during my notice to finish every project possible before I left. The projects that I couldn’t complete had detailed memos attached to each file so the next person could pick up where I left off.
- Training my replacement - I spent a great deal of time with the person who would be taking over my responsibilities, training them so they would feel comfortable. I created a notebook with detailed information, checklists, office procedures, and sample documents. I even included directions for removing paper jams from the copier, getting the internet to work again when it went down, and the attorney's favorite places to order lunch.
- My secret contact list - If you work long enough in the paralegal field, especially in one area of law, you develop a "little black book" of contacts that is more valuable than your paralegal degree. I gave my replacement a copy so they could start with on the right foot.
- Meeting with the attorney - I met with my attorney several times before I left to update him on each file and answer any questions he had. I also asked for a list of his priorities so that I could make sure those were finished before I left.
I left on very good terms. I refer cases to the law firm, speak with the attorney regularly, and stay in touch with co-workers. Yes, I was ready to leave and very frustrated with some things by the time I gave the attorney my notice, but I did learn my lesson about burning bridges and staying too long when you are unhappy.
Tonya Pierce is a paralegal with over 24 years experience in several areas of the legal field (17 years as a bankruptcy paralegal and trustee paralegal).