Would you go to work as a deep-sea welder and then complain that you don’t get home enough? Or how about an over-the-road truck driver? Or a fireperson(?) who works three on/three off shifts? No, you wouldn’t. And who would be so dim, right? People going into those jobs know the requirements up front, and still choose them. They don’t later bitch and moan that what they lack is a fireman’s committee that will present grievances to the higher-ups – and they especially don’t complain about this falsehood called work-life balance.
At my last firm, there was just such an “Associate’s Committee,” and they put together a manifesto of sorts that they presented to the partnership. And you know what? Not a damned thing changed, except the partners got angry. And I was angry. It was embarrassing to me that I would be viewed by some partners as actually agreeing to that tripe. I knew what I was in for when I signed on for firm life so very long ago. Don’t get me wrong, I am not taking the tack of a codger lecturing to newbie “why, in my day…” To the contrary, I am speechifying that if you find yourself in a position at a law firm in which you are unhappy, it is likely your own damn fault.
Just as surgeon general warnings on the sides of cigarette packs are a joke, so are these mantras of work-life balance. The fact is, there isn’t any. It is a lie. If you believe the lie, you are a fool. If you are so foolish to have fallen into the trap of the lie, and now find yourself physically and mentally abused by the workload that is required in Biglaw, I really can’t help you. Here is the truth:
When you graduate, if you are fortunate enough to find yourself employed at a law firm, you will work many more hours than you ever thought possible. You will be given menial tasks such as redacting, or Shepherdizing – for days and weeks on end. You will be expected to stay very late, sometimes overnight, and no one will ever thank you. You will take home a sizeable paycheck. Except you won’t take anything home because your office will be your home and that check will be direct deposited. Unless you are a trustafarian, your loan bills will start to come due, and they will make your outsized rent look reasonable. This will continue until you quit, or are pushed out by throughput. That is the truth.
If you decide to have a family during this, you are foolish. I was just such a fool. I got married, and had a child in my first year in Biglaw. And it did – not – work. I was crazed. Running to and from the office like a speed freak from “Valley of the Dolls”, just so I could get some baby time — forget about marital time. Eventually, I crashed, making a sound like that at the end of “Detroit Rock City.” I did it bassackwards, and if I had to do it again, I would not. I would not even attempt such a feat. I should have pulled a Costanza and done the opposite of every thought that entered my head.
I should have stayed single, dating my love for as long as it took, until I was financially secure enough to marry her properly, without burdening her with debt that was my own fault. (Even before that, I should never have gone to an expensive private school – I am smart enough to have graduated with honors from a less expensive institution, and I still would have landed a Biglaw spot.) I should have then purchased a home with the money that I had set aside. Then, and only then should we have had kids. I wouldn’t trade my kids for anything, but this is a re-write so go with it. And work-life balance would never have been an issue.
Please, spare me the anomalous anecdotes of how you were successful. B.S. The fact is, and I will argue this until I am blue in the face, you cannot successfully raise a family and have a Biglaw career. Oh, you can get by, scratching a living out of what is left of your paycheck. But true balance? No way. So, if you are considering entering the world of Biglaw, consider the facts above. As I tell everyone who asks, if you are young and single, Biglaw in a big city is a great step. However, if you are married, or want kids in the next decade, run, don’t walk away from that no good very bad idea.
As lawyers, we are supposed to be good at thinking; it is what we are paid to do. Take yourself out from under the lure of $160k, and think! Am I worth that kind of money? Hell no you’re not, and no one gets paid that kind of money unless there is something unpleasant to be exacted by the partners who are paying you. If you have a family and want to enter that world, trust me, you’re doing it wrong. But if you go forth, don’t whine about work-life balance. It is not owed you, and you are not deserving. That is why God created in-house positions.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.