After eight years in the legal profession, Miriam left her job as a lawyer to travel. She set off on a journey with no end date and no plans for her life or career afterwards.
Since returning to the UK, Miriam has started a new career in the public sector and discovered a passion for writing.
In this interview, she discusses her decision to take a travel career break, the experiences and lessons along the way, the challenges of returning home, and why she ultimately chose not to return to the legal profession.
What was your career situation before you took a travel break?
I had worked in legal practice since the age of 19. When I left school, I committed myself to the studying needed to qualify as a chartered legal executive lawyer, working in civil litigation. This meant I was studying part time while working full time from the age of 19 to 24.
I was generally happy in my job in the dispute resolution team at a small law firm, although the work was mentally and emotionally tiring.
Why did you decide to leave your job to travel?
There wasn’t one isolated moment or a specific reason that led me to the decision. I was somewhat of a ‘novice’ traveller; I’d only ever been on a handful of trips abroad, and after taking a trip to Barcelona with a friend in early 2018 decided I wanted to do more travelling.
The previous few years had been chaotic for me, and during that time I struggled a lot with depression and anxiety. I’d thought about going travelling before, but I’d never felt like I was in the right place mentally.
However, I had reached a point in my life where I had more confidence and felt much more at peace with myself. Studying had taken up a big chunk of my twenties, I was lucky enough to be financially stable with sufficient money to pay for a trip without any income for a while, I was single, I didn’t own any property – it seemed like a good time to do it.
I wasn’t sure how long I wanted to travel for, so I decided to leave my job to give myself more freedom. I didn’t want an end date hanging over me – it’s bad enough going back to work after a week’s holiday!
Perhaps more importantly, the trip was an opportunity to move forward in my life, and returning to the same job seemed like a move backwards.
How did your family and friends react to your decision?
My friends were very supportive. I think they were just pleased to see me doing something which made me happy!
In particular, my closest friend was amazing – she helped me move all my things into storage, drove me around after I’d sold my car, and her parents even let me have post redirected to their address.
What about your workplace – how did you approach the situation there?
I had a great relationship with my colleagues and I think they were genuinely sad to see me go, but like my friends everyone was very supportive.
My manager and I set up a phased plan for handover of my case files to the other team members. I informed my clients individually, knowing that for some of them, my leaving would be concerning.
As a lawyer, you have to not only know the case but the client as well. It was important to reassure my clients that their case would be in safe hands with someone else.
Before setting off on the journey, did you have any thoughts about what your career might look like after returning home?
No, I didn’t give it a lot of thought, which is out of character for me because I’m normally a meticulous planner. If I’d worried about what I was going to do, I’m not sure I would ever have worked up the courage to take the trip!
I suppose I assumed that I would go back to legal practice, perhaps taking the opportunity to relocate to a job in a bigger city.
“Although I consider myself to be quite introverted, I loved meeting and hanging out with other travellers from all over the world.”
Where did you go on your travels, and what were the standout experiences?
I left for my solo leg of the trip to Europe in September 2018, where I travelled for three months. In January 2019, I flew to Australia with a friend, where we hired a car and did a road trip along the east coast.
I really wanted to make up for lost time with travelling, so Europe was quite a busy itinerary. I visited Greece, Italy, Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Although I packed in a total of 20 cities, it didn’t feel like a rush because I took my time. I spent a lot of my time just exploring and people watching outside cafés!
Athens will always have a special place in my memory because it was my first stop on the trip, and it’s just such a beautiful city.
Although I consider myself to be quite introverted, I loved meeting and hanging out with other travellers from all over the world; and I’ve even stayed in touch with some of them.
Did you encounter any particular challenges travelling solo as a woman?
I’ve always been comfortable with my own company, so taking a solo trip wasn’t especially daunting for me.
The only experience which springs to mind as being uncomfortable was in a hostel in Italy where I stayed for one night. I ended up sleeping in a dorm room with five men who were staying there for work. Even though no one behaved in a way to make me feel unsafe, I felt rather uncomfortable about the situation. I think as a woman you are always conscious of your safety, no matter where you are.
For anyone planning to travel alone, male or female, I’d say it’s important to stay in touch with people back home. I was constantly in touch with friends via messaging while I was away, so there was always someone who knew where I was. This was important for my wellbeing as well, keeping me connected at the times when I got a bit lonely.
“The skills and experience I’ve got are transferable into a lot of jobs. The most important thing is that I’m happy with what I’m doing.”
What were the biggest life lessons from your travel career break?
I think it’s given me the perspective to realise that there are a lot of opportunities out there for me. Everything I’ve done professionally has some value.
I bumped into an old friend soon after coming back. When I told them that I wasn’t returning to law, their response was: “That seems like such a waste”. I can see why it might seem that way, because I invested a lot of time and money into qualifying as a lawyer, but I don’t see anything I’ve done as time wasted.
The skills and experience I’ve got are transferable into a lot of jobs. The most important thing is that I’m happy with what I’m doing.
How did you find the experience returning after your travels and readjusting to life back at home?
After flying back from Australia, my plan was to stay and study in Berlin for a few months, as I loved the city when I was there. Unfortunately, I ended up suffering from a bad episode of depression which cut my plans short.
I travelled to Berlin as planned, but it became evident quickly that I wasn’t in any state to navigate life and study in a foreign city. I came back to the UK after a week.
I was incredibly disappointed. It was a huge blow to have my plans derailed by illness, and it seemed all the more unfair that it was happening when I was supposed to be out seeing the world and enjoying my freedom.
I was lucky enough to have a financial safety net, but I didn’t have the option of living with family while I got back on my feet. Being unemployed with no home to go back to and no plans for what I would do next was a massive shock to my system, and only exacerbated my mental health.
Fortunately, I have some fantastic friends who let me stay with them. They looked after me until I was better and had a new job and a place to live. I don’t know what I would have done without them, and I’m incredibly grateful for their unwavering support.
What has been your career path since returning?
While I was travelling, I started to reflect on how much I’d changed since beginning a career in law. I realised that my motivations had changed.
I didn’t relish the thought of going back to the world of civil disputes, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, and it was hard to imagine myself working in anything other than legal practice.
My priority when I got back to the UK was to get a sense of stability, which meant getting myself another place to live and back into work. As I started applying for jobs in legal practice I realised that going back to a stressful, adversarial job perhaps wasn’t the best thing for me when I was recovering from a mental health crisis.
I decided to get some experience working in the public sector, and took up a post working in administration at the Forestry Commission (a part of the Civil Service).
I’ve been with the organisation since 2019 and recently got a promotion to a new position writing organisational guidance. The role really suits me – it’s challenging and engaging, without being constantly stressful.
Have you made any lifestyle changes as a result of your travel experiences?
When I was thinking about possible career changes, I explored the idea of retraining as a counsellor and took an introductory skills course.
Even though I decided not to pursue this any further, I’m glad I did the course. It’s not something I would have thought of doing before I went travelling.
The biggest change aside from my career is that I’ve taken up creative writing, something which I wouldn’t have had the time or energy to even consider doing when I was working as a lawyer. I used to love writing when I was a child, but lost my enthusiasm for it as I got older.
Now that I’ve rediscovered my creative side, I’ve done a couple of writing courses and joined some writing communities online. It’s my dream to get something published, so watch this space!
“With hindsight, I could have made my return to ‘normal life’ easier.”
If you could go back to before your travel career break, what would you do differently?
I would love to travel again, so I suppose this is more a question of what I’ll do next time.
With hindsight, I could have made my return to ‘normal life’ easier. I’d quit my job, given up my rented flat and sold my car before I left, because I didn’t really have a plan and didn’t want to be restricted in the length of time I travelled for. As it turned out, I was only away for a few months.
At the time it seemed liberating, but in the long term rather impractical. If I travel again, I’d keep my flat to have some security to return to.
That all being said, if I’d done things differently, my life would be different now – and I’m happy with my life now.