Is work/life balance in the legal industry an oxymoron?
Often, it can be, especially if you plan to work for a large law firm -- or already do -- where billable hours are usually paramount.
“Most lawyers really can’t complain about being paid $150K to $200K [a year] and not put in some sweat equity,” says Maureen Brady, division manager for the Legal Solutions-Permanent Placement Division of legal placement firm Hudson.
Perhaps counterintuitively, work/life balance tends to worsen as you move up the ranks in a large-firm setting. That’s likely one reason why associate attrition rates at major law firms are at historic highs, according to the 2006 Legal Hiring Wrap-Up published by the National Association for Law Placement.
“When I researched my book, a lot of former large-firm attorneys told me they left their large firms after a few years, because they realized that the partners were still working as many hours as the younger associates,” says Deborah Schneider, author of Should You Really Be a Lawyer? “When they got a glimpse of their future, they decided they didn’t want any part of that.”
A Little Perspective on Legal Work/Life Balance
There is hope, though. A few large firms are beginning to address work/life balance, especially as more and more of their employees come from the Millennial Generation, whose members tend to have a work-to-live versus live-to-work philosophy, notes Brady. But work/life balance in the legal field is a much more realistic expectation if you plan to pursue a job outside the large-firm setting.
“There are other sectors of the legal market that tend to provide a more family-friendly work environment -- government, some smaller corporate firms, education, alternative legal careers, etc. -- and that quite openly promote this as one of the great advantages of working in their legal environments,” says Bridget Kenadjian, assistant director of career services at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota.
So how do you find a legal-industry job that won’t become your entire existence?
Do Your Homework -- Before the Interview, Not During
If you start asking work/life balance-related questions during your interview for a legal job, don’t be surprised if the employer concludes you’re unwilling to work hard, says Kenadjian.
The time to ask such questions is before your interviews, Kenadjian stresses. Talk to people who work in various legal environments. Contact fellow law school alums for their observations and see what career center professionals at your school have to say about potential employers of interest.
“If you do your homework first, you should know what you’re getting into in terms of workplace culture,” says Schneider.
Pinpoint What You Want -- and Don’t
With all the stress and time that go into any job search, it’s easy to overlook one critical task: Identifying what you actually want in a job so you can align your expectations with marketplace realities.
Do you want, more than anything else (including work/life balance), to earn a high salary in your legal career? “Then it’s not realistic to expect to get paid a $125,000-a-year starting salary and work only 40 hours a week,” says Schneider. “A high salary will come at a price.”
Conversely, if you want to establish solid work/life balance from the start of your legal career, you’ll likely have to temper dreams of a lucrative gig with a major law firm.
Tap a Recruiting/Placement Firm’s Expertise
Law industry recruiters are “gatekeepers who have the ear of the hiring manager,” says Brady. A recruiter can serve as a go-between of sorts who can assess an employer’s work environment without putting your candidacy at risk.
“It can be a delicate situation to put someone in ‘play’ with [a] client,” says Brady. “If the person is well-received and well-liked, we can then go back and say they need or want a flexible schedule. It doesn’t always work out, and we risk upsetting our client. But it’s our job to find this candidate the right job, and sometimes that means upsetting the status quo.”