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John UyHam is a radical. He just doesn’t look like one. In fact, he looks like your classic nose-to-the-books associate. He wears a navy blazer, tie and pressed khakis. His dark hair is short and neatly cut. But he’s not the usual young lawyer, slouching toward partnership. Last fall, the third-year associate quit a plum securities and M&A job at Atlanta’s King & Spalding, temporarily gave up a six-figure salary, and spent 2-1/2 months visiting China with his father. He didn’t hate his job and he wasn’t having a career crisis. He just left because he wanted to. Taking time off after just three years in practice is very unusual, according to Cheryl L. Oliver, managing director for the Atlanta office of The Partners Group, a legal recruiting firm. Though still uncommon, she sees more associates leaving in their fifth or sixth years, when they’ve begun to re-evaluate their careers. But most associates never take time off, unable or unwilling to vault out of their practice rut and into a gap on their resumes. Many can’t take the income hit. When associates do take time off, they often wait until their career angst is so great they can’t stand the sight of another Lexis-Nexis search screen. Others fear the impact time off may have on their careers. UyHam, 28, says he was concerned about the effects of leaving, but started thinking seriously about it when he heard that New York firms such as Shearman & Sterling offered sabbaticals to their associates. If those lawyers could leave for a while, he reasoned, so could he. MOTIVATIONS His motivations were several. First, working at King & Spalding, he says he continually met clients and ex-lawyers who had enviable jobs in business, venture capital and investment banking. He started wondering if traditional law practice was for him. But going straight from Columbia Law School to a Northern District of Georgia clerkship to King & Spalding and the daily demands of associate life never left him with energy to plan. “It’s nothing against any firms,” he says. “It’s just the nature of the beast — big law firms. You’re really being dominated by your routine.” He also wanted to spend time with his father. After a career as a brain surgeon in UyHam’s home state of Michigan, Rodolfo UyHam was retiring and had time to travel. The two started talking about taking a trip together and learning Chinese. UyHam had long wanted to become proficient, which he hadn’t spoken as a child but had studied while a Duke University undergraduate. And he wanted to learn more about the country where both sides of his family originated. UyHam and his father chose a foreign language program at Fudan University in Shanghai, working through the Center for Study Abroad. The program cost about $5,000, excluding airfare, UyHam says, and was affordable with his savings from his King & Spalding job. Though UyHam knew putting his life on pause for a few months wouldn’t be easy, he says that because of his dad’s job, “We didn’t get tons and tons of father-son time growing up.” To him, the trip was a unique opportunity to be with his father, hone his Chinese and examine his life. After much thought, he resigned from King & Spalding. Colleagues were supportive, he says, telling him to contact them about coming back to the firm when he returned. Still, UyHam says he knew there were no guarantees. Then he let his apartment lease expire, moved his worldly goods to his girlfriend’s house, put his car payments on automatic withdrawal and headed to China with his father. LIFE IN CHINA They arrived in Shanghai in September. Their new home, Fudan University, was a set of modern, boxy buildings surrounding a green dominated by a 50-foot statue of Chairman Mao. “It doesn’t let you forget where you are,” he says. UyHam says he did forget worries about his career. Instead, he focused on his reasons for being in China: spending time with his father, learning the language and culture, and taking time to think — not fret. He and his father spent about four hours a day, five days a week attending classes in speaking, reading and writing Chinese. In their off hours, they explored the city. In all that time together, he says, they couldn’t help but get closer. Nor could he help but learn about China. “I learned as much on the bus and on the street as in the classroom,” UyHam says. He learned to navigate a city of 14 million, met its residents and experienced shopping in the city’s varied markets. At one open-air food market, fresh cuts of pork and beef were displayed — unwrapped — on large wooden tables. The Chinese offer every part of the animal for sale, UyHam says with a slight grimace. “Even the face.” Another market sold counterfeit compact discs and Nike, Timberland and Louis Vuitton knock-offs. “We did a lot of haggling,” UyHam says. “I’ve helped negotiate $100 million agreements and I’m having to bring all those skills to bear to haggle a $12 jacket to $10.” TIME FOR CONTEMPLATION When he wasn’t exploring, UyHam says that, thousands of miles away from associate life, he found time to contemplate what he had to offer and imagine how his career could play out in five or 10 years. He realized that instead of going into business, he wanted to practice law and continue to represent clients. So when he came back to the United States in November, he knew what he wanted: a law firm job. And that’s what he got. After four or five interviews and an equal number of offers, he chose Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker for its global practice and long-term fit. UyHam makes the whole process of taking time off and coming back to work look easy, though he says it was unsettling to return to the United States during a sliding economy and without a job. The Partners Group’s Oliver says UyHam’s credentials-an Ivy League law school and King & Spalding — and the fact that he only stayed away a few months helped him come back to an equivalent legal post with less difficulty than a lawyer with lesser — known credentials. But in the process of getting a new job, UyHam’s quietly radical streak showed up again. In interviews, he didn’t deliver a sales pitch about how his China experience could benefit a firm. Instead, he primarily talked about how he’d wanted to spend time with his father. “I didn’t think it would be truthful to go out and self-promote,” he says. UyHam says not a single interviewer asked if he were serious about returning to law. The one repeat question he got was, What do you want to do with this experience in China? His answer, developed after his time in Shanghai, was this: the same things he’d done before in securities, private equity, and mergers and acquisitions. Though his time away brought him right back to where he started, he says the difference is that now he’s sure about his career. “I’m approaching it with a more enlightened frame of mind,” he says. “It’s really positive to be able to know this is really what you want to do.”

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