I watched the sunset with my son last night. I told him that today would never come again, and that I was so happy to have watched the day end next to him. It then occurred to me that I had missed so many events since becoming a practicing lawyer; and for what? The easy answer is that I was such a hungry young turk, that I would always choose work over play because that is what lawyers do. Especially Biglaw attorneys. It was simply a rite of passage to regularly catch the 8:03 p.m. with a couple of oilcans of Foster’s Lager, arrive home after 9 p.m., and be up again at 6 a.m. to rinse and repeat.
Even more hardcore was pulling an all-nighter in an effort to prepare a brief for filing. Associates would lament, with an undercurrent of braggadocio, about how they had to cancel a vacation in order to complete a filing. And the funny thing is, I don’t recall any partners cancelling anything — ever. So, the hard (and candid) answer is that I was a fool….
I thought, wrongly, that I wasn’t entitled to time off, or time away from the office. If I did go on a long weekend to the Hamptons, or Newport, I would ensure that my Blackberry was always attached — just in case. Everything was rationalized as “just in case.” And guess what? When you obtain for yourself a reputation as always available — suddenly, you are always available. And you know as well as I do that there was no shortage of partners willing to take advantage.
When I arrived for my first clerkship, and judge told me to go home at 5:00 p.m., I didn’t know whether she was serious or not. Turns out she was not joking. She ran chambers like a well-oiled machine. Our work was done timely, and we were expected to have a life outside of work. The motion docket stayed current, and we were rewarded for our efforts. Conversely, I know of other judges, and one in particular, who appeared not to care less when decisions were issued. Some motions reportedly sat untouched for years — the benefit of a lifetime appointment I suppose. And his clerks were miserable.
Jumping back into firm life, you would think I had learned my lesson. Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and it wasn’t long before I was back to being always available. But, being a workhorse is a much simpler proposition when you don’t have two kids and a wife trying to make her own professional path. Luckily, I ended my “practicing” career by going in-house, and lo and behold, life accompanied by time away came calling again. I have written before about being able to schedule and take vacations, and it remains true.
I have received questions about how to navigate Biglaw or a legal career and take time for yourself. Just do it. The only person that is benefitting from your intransigence about taking time is the partner who is happily lining her pockets on your back. The firm where you summered and have spent the last years of your life wouldn’t give you a second thought if money got tight. Loyalty does not exist in today’s legal market. And believe me when I tell you that the same goes for in-house positions. It is a different paradigm in which we practice these days.
So, if you’re offered four weeks of vacation, be sure to take them. If you are offered time off to be with a newborn, be sure to take that as well. The sexist bastards who run the place are already considering you “less than” because they know you’re going to have a baby, and therefore are not quite partner material. Take advantage of all of your benefits. Bank your salary each month, take your time off, and you can still work as hard as necessary to make the billable minimum. You may be surprised that the firm can exist without you. The company will still run itself, and you’ll be healthier for the effort you make to take time for yourself. And don’t forget to catch a couple of sunsets.
After two federal clerkships and several years as a litigator in law firms, David Mowry is happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company. He specializes in commercial leasing transactions, only sometimes misses litigation, and never regrets leaving firm life. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.