Trading money for time in your legal career

One of the unexpected benefits of this blog for me is the correspondence I’ve received from people who’ve read something I’ve written and have struck up a conversation about it. Recently, I received an email from a reader in the western US, and I thought you might be interested in both his question and my reply — especially if you disagree with my conclusions. Here’s the letter:

I was wondering if you have any suggestions for me. I graduated with a degree in accounting and had worked in a Big 4 accounting firm for a year before I quit. It’s not that the work was especially terrible, but working 60-90 hours a week, 6-7 days a week, I just didn’t have time for anything else.

While I’m finishing up my accounting licensing requirements, I’m contemplating going to law school, because I have always had quite an interest in legal work. However, I want to enter a career where I am not working over 60 hours and get the majority of weekends off, even if it means less money.

Are there any sectors of law where lawyers have these kinds of hours on a consistent basis (with a comfortable and reasonable salary) or does becoming a lawyer come with the implied recognition that there is no semblance of a “9-5”?

Here’s my response:

I’m probably in the minority of people in the legal world who would still recommend a law career to their children (though I suspect my preschoolers are destined for engineering). I still think the law offers a rare combination of intellectual engagement, collaborative activity and social benefit, especially to those of us who are a little challenged in the math-and-science department. That latter difficulty wouldn’t present itself to you, with your experience in accounting, but I’m nonetheless bullish on law as a career.

That said, I’m bullish only to the extent that someone is choosing a legal career for the right reasons. I’m one of the stereotypical Arts majors who went to law school because (a) it seemed challenging and worthwhile and (b) there’s not much else you can do with an English degree. There are a lot of lawyers out there, like me, who went into law because they didn’t know what else to do and it seemed like something worth trying. That’s an approach you can afford to take if, say, you’re attending a Canadian law school in the early 1990s, where tuition topped out at around C$2,500 a year. That environment, though, is pretty much gone today: tuition at my alma mater has risen about 400% since I graduated, and it’s still reasonably affordable in the overall context.

So to one extent, law is simply too expensive a degree to undertake just to see if you’d like it, both in terms of the tuition costs and in the difficulty of getting a really high-paying job (NALP’s figures on median lawyer incomes for recent graduates are sobering, and should be digested by anyone considering a law school application) to help quickly pay down your debts. That was certainly the case before the recession, and it goes double or triple now: this is going to be a longer and deeper downturn than most people are willing to admit in the run-up to an election. There are no safe careers anymore, and that very much includes the law.

But your question is about hours, and your priority is more safeguarding your personal time than necessarily earning a big salary. It’s good that you recognize the reality of trading off between these two criteria — you might be surprised how many new lawyers don’t yet get that. In this regard, I would say that there are legal jobs and careers — or perhaps more accurately, jobs and careers available to a law graduate — that require more traditional hours and a bare minimum of weekend and evening work. But I don’t think there are very many of them.

I would rule out almost all private-practice jobs these days, and not just with the big firms — ask any sole or small-firm practitioner about the necessity of not just doing the legal work, but collecting outstanding accounts receivable, making equipment lease and premises rental payments, marketing the practice, doing all your own IT troubleshooting, and so forth. I expect there might be some positions with established firms in smaller communities that require predictable and relatively brief hours, but you could not describe them as either remunerative or secure. Legal support jobs — in research, knowledge management or (especially in your case) financial management in bigger firms — would seem to be much more promising. But until clients’ concerns start keeping 9-to-5ish hours, private-practice lawyers can never be entirely the masters of their own time.

In-house work for a long time supposedly offered a respite from the time demands of private practice — steady white-collar work in a predictable corporate environment. If that was ever true, it sure isn’t now: small law departments are overwhelmed with issues that keep their lawyers at the office well past the time other employees have taken the bus home, and larger law departments usually have multinational and multi-time-zone concerns to cope with. The rapid rise of governance as a key corporate worry has also added tremendously to in-house lawyers’ workload, usually without a commensurate increase in staff and resources to handle it. And as tough as law firm partnerships can be about billable hour targets, CFOs facing a long and dark recession make law firm partners look like church mice. In-house lawyers often say they have more predictability in their work flow than law firm lawyers do, but the hours are definitely longer than the corporate average, and the stress is at least equivalent, if not more so.

I’d say your most promising avenue for a legal job or career with more traditional hours might be in the public or non-profit sectors. Many of my law friends work for the federal government, and they enjoy both the challenge of the work and the benefits its provides, in terms of health coverage, work culture and vacation time (both the availability of vacation time and an expectation that it should be taken).

Again, I stress that the work is by no means easy, and if you’re offering legal services, no matter in what environment, urgent matters always emerge that will require you to arrive early and leave late. It’s also not the ticket to a Maserati in the driveway and Ivy League schooling for the kids. But as a general rule, the culture tends more towards the kind of predictable and traditional hours you’re seeking. And if the events of the last several weeks are any indication, the government is going to become a busier and more active employer for quite some time to come — we’re heading into an era when governments are the lenders of first and last resort, so as a legal employer, government is hot for the first time in awhile.

So in general, I’d suggest looking into law firm support work on the financial side, or government legal work. But I don’t want to end this email without a friendly caveat regarding the approach you’re taking.

I understand completely the drive and need to safeguard personal time — I’m not a Millennial, but I’m not a Boomer either, and I tend to be agnostic about this issue. But I would suggest that of all the criteria you might use to decide what sort of career path to pursue, time demands ought to be fairly low on the list. For one thing, hourly demands can change in a hurry — bankruptcy lawyers who were twiddling their thumbs 18 months ago can attest to that. But more importantly, what really sustains you in any kind of job or career — especially during those times, and we all experience them, when the people or the client or the environment gets you deeply down — is whether you have a passion for the work itself.

If you care about the nature of your work — if you look upon it as much as a calling as a job, or if you could honestly say some days that you’d do it for free if you had to — then you can ride out the rough patches. But if you don’t — if the job is just a means to an end, or rewards criteria that are largely unrelated to what’s really important in your life — then even the good days won’t be great days. That’s true in any career, but I feel like it’s especially the case with the law, many of whose practitioners are, frankly, kind of geeky about it.

What’s more, you’ll always be at a competitive disadvantage to those classmates or colleagues who do care about it. These people will work harder and longer on their assignments in law school, maybe even irrationally so, because they get a charge out of it. And they’ll show more enthusiasm and garner more positive attention in the workplace because at some level, their genuine enthusiasm for the subject can get them past dumb bosses and bad policies and silly clients.

So I’d have to advise — strongly — against going to law school in hopes of landing a job with limited hours. Not just because there are fewer and fewer of those jobs all the time, but because unless something about the law really appeals to you, matters to you, and sustains you, it’s very hard to make it through the doldrums, of which there can be more than a few in this profession.

The happiest and most successful lawyers I know love something about the law — from the driest black-letter contract interpretation to the social activism of anti-poverty advocacy, it doesn’t matter what — that makes it all worthwhile. I’d recommend giving some serious thought as to whether you think there’s something in the law that would similarly touch your heart — and if not, law might not be the right path for you right now.


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