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In Love with Your Law Job?

An Open Relationship with Your Work Is Possible -- and Even an Asset

In Love with Your Law Job?

Is it possible for attorneys to passionately pursue both their vocation and their avocations?

For lawyer Thomas Tuohy, it’s not only feasible to engage in his chosen avocation of community involvement, it’s a necessity. “If someone does not choose to have both a life and a law career, they will not be much of a lawyer,” says Tuohy, a Chicago attorney who hung a shingle in 1982 shortly after graduating from law school. Tuohy’s extensive community involvement includes founding Dreams for Kids, which creates programs for children who are isolated by disability.

“Community-minded” may not be the descriptor that first comes to mind when people think of lawyers, but it does describe a large fraction of the legal profession.

“When I need help on a community project or money for an organization, I know there’s a huge cadre of lawyers out there who are happy to help,” says Lauren Rikleen, a senior partner with Bowditch & Dewey LLP in Framingham, Massachusetts. “When you need to get something done, it’s always the lawyers that step up first.”

So how do you balance your legal vocation with your devotion to the greater good? It helps to start early.

Early Career Decisions Make a Big Difference

“A lot of these decisions will be made in law school,” says Bradley McGavin, director of contingent recruitment at staffing firm Hudson Legal in Los Angeles. “The real decision is what kind of law you practice.”

If, for example, you become a litigator who spends months at trial without a speck of discretionary time, it will be hard to devote any personal resources to community or family.

Some lawyers will tell you that large firms, with their high and increasing demands for billable hours, are no place for a community activist. But it may not be that simple.

“At small firms you don’t have as many resources, so you have less power to delegate to a secretary or other staff,” says McGavin. Ultimately, the managing partners’ attitude toward associates’ and partners’ community activities may be more important than the firm’s size.

Alternative Legal Careers Make Sense for Renaissance Men and Women

Some lawyers will balance their professional and community interests by finding an alternative setting for practicing law or otherwise exploiting their expertise. They may, for example, turn to an alternative arrangement such as working on a contract basis.

“When you’re in the middle of a contract engagement, your hours may be about the same as at a firm,” says McGavin. “But you can work three or four months and take a month or two off. Still, you have to be cautious about how long you work on contract; if you stay out of firms too long, it will be very difficult to get back in.”

Also, alternative legal careers like teaching “can be a fantastic option for people,” says McGavin.

Making Something Happen in a Big Firm

Being committed to community involvement doesn’t mean giving up the dream of success in a large, prestigious law firm. “You have to pick the big firm that allows you to have a balanced life,” says Tuohy. “Look at what pro bono work they do; will they let you do it?”

Rikleen has managed to integrate her professional and community interests. “I worked with my firm to create a subsidiary, the Bowditch Institute for Women’s Success, through which I could consult professionally,” she says. “Now a lot of my volunteer activity is focused on women’s issues.”

But doesn’t a deep commitment to outside causes impose a limit on what a lawyer can accomplish professionally? Not necessarily.

“Community involvement shouldn’t be an impediment; if anything, it’s a plus,” says Rikleen. “It should provide you with many opportunities to show your firm how it’s enhanced your skills, for example, as a leader.”

Indeed, some attorneys do their best rainmaking when engaging with the larger community. “I had to be out in the community to generate the first client that I got in my career,” says Tuohy.

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