How do I find the 'quality of life' law firm?
April 25, 2005 2:32 PM   Subscribe

How do I find a "quality of life" law firm? I'm in the middle of this exciting JD program and I want to figure out how to craft my career so that I don't hate my life.

More about my particular situation: I'm going to one of those schools that's generally regarded as a free ticket to go anywhere, but in fact, 3/4 of the graduates go on to work in a corporate firm for 70+ hours a week. This is not my idea of a good life; I really value my time outside of work. To be clear, I don't expect to make the standard 125K plus bonus; I'm more than willing to sacrifice some pay to have a reasonable schedule; how do I communicate this in interviews without coming off as lazy?

I don't expect any specific firm recommendations (though they're always welcome), but more like searching strategies and who to talk to. Ideally, the firm would be in a major coastal city (or Chicago) or within about 45 minutes of one.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Rough question. Law schools love to boast of an average exit salary of 125k, and I definitely feel pressure to work at a Big Firm. And guess what, that's what I'm doing this summer. I'll be at Winston & Strawn, known for having a good working atmosphere, but still along the lines of many hours of work per week.

I also got the distinct impression during interviews that firms are generally not looking for people with real personalities and interests, but rather people who are so "driven" that they'll gladly sink hours upon hours into the firm for dubious return. I'm overwhelmingly glad to be at W&S because I got the impression that they're better than most, but I'll be very interested in what folks here have to say about alternatives to Big Firm life.

You probably already know that many government or public interest jobs are WAY better time-wise and satisfaction-wise, though not necessarily so. I also understand that working conditions abroad in general are better, so you may look for UK-based firms with East Coast locations. They're a popular choice.

(my relevant info: 2L in NYC)
posted by lorrer at 2:42 PM on April 25, 2005

If you're looking for "BigLaw" then I think you're screwed. A firm recently held a 1L info-session at my school. One of the big selling points was that they "only" expected their associates to work 55+ hours a week. Some of my fellow students were really excited about this, but none of them had worked a real 40-hour-a-week job before and known how tiring that is. But if you want, email me (name @ gmail) and I can figure out which firm that was.

When I got to law school, I went out with some other student to an informal meeting with a professor. I voiced my concerns that I didn't want to end up working 60 hours a week and being unable to enjoy my family and private life. My prof. looked at me in all seriousness and said, "oh, so you don't want to be a lawyer?" sigh.

(1L in NYC, at a school where only the top 10% can expect BigLaw offers)
posted by falconred at 2:54 PM on April 25, 2005

I am in my third year at a "BigLaw" firm in Chicago now. It's not 40 hours a week, but it is not bad at all. Most nights of the week, I put my 6 month-old baby to bed and my wife and I have dinner together. If you want to hear about my life, feel free to e-mail me.

My general advice to you would be to avoid the on-campus firms. They are generally the biggies and so you can expect that - even though their summer programs rule - associate life will be difficult. If you have a good career services office, find someone you trust there and secure their help in finding a lifestyle firm. If you don't have a good career services office, use google and and Infirmation's Greedy Associates boards.

Good luck.
posted by AgentRocket at 3:08 PM on April 25, 2005

Just ask a lot of questions in interviews or take notice of the questions they ask you.

I don't work for a large corporate firm. I work at a 15 lawyer firm. We do litigation and transactional work for hospitals. I didn't necessarily have a strong interest in healthcare law, but when I got hired away from my first firm, I noticed in the interview that they wanted to do know about me personally, not just my resume. I got the feeling that the environment here focused heavily on finding people who fit in well to the happy environment. They made it clear that time was flexible--if I was going to take a day off, I didn't need permission or anything. They made it clear that I am a professional, so they will leave it to me make professional decisions about when and how much work I need to get done.

My quality of life has skyrocketed. I am making very good money, and I love the people I work with. We have a great quality of life.

The factors that add to that are, for example, we aren't in a skyrise downtown; we are in an old renovated historic building that's all brick and hardwoods. That keeps our overhead way down which means we don't have to bill like psychos to keep it up. We also are business casual which adds to the quality of life. My old firm was suits everyday including Friday which I thought was cool at first because then I'd be hotshit suit boy. But, after the novelty of that wore off, I am quite happy being in business casual and only putting on a suit when clients come in or I go to court. It fits with the overall theme at my firm which is that we are here because we enjoy what we are doing--we aren't here because we thinks its cool to be lawyers and want to strut our stuff.

So, my advice is to get your priorities figured out at first. What's important to you. Explain in an interview that your quality of life is important to you. If that offends the employers, then they aren't people who value it as well... they are probably all about billable hours. You can make very good money at a firm without having to bill 50 hours a week. Remember, 3/4 of what you bill goes to the bosses anyhow at most larger firms. So in interviews or NALP research, find out what firms only ask you to bill, say 1800-2000 hours. Then find out what they pay. If you find a firm that is only asking you to generate 3x your pay instead of 4x your pay, then you probably have a great firm that focuses on keeping you happy.
posted by dios at 3:09 PM on April 25, 2005

Have you looked here, at Vault's top twenty best firms to work for list? That is a good place to start. Vault has a list of top twenty firms listed by hours worked, but you have to subscribe to get it. (However, if you are doing a job search, a six month subscription to Vault is well worth it).

From your question, it sounds like you still want to work for a law firm, while working less hours for less money. This will eliminate most "BigLaw" firms outright. The list I linked to above will provide a pretty good indication of the few bigger law firms that don't work people to death. However, even on that list, most of the firms are going to require more than 40" hours a week.

I'm in law school right now as well, and it's been made clear to me that the kind of experience you're looking for (lower hours, lesser pay, but still at a law firm) is best found at medium to smaller size firms. Your school's job placement office should be able to help you find these firms in your area.

As for specific recommendations, I don't have that many, but I can tell you that for a big law firm, Arent Fox (In Washington DC) is very well regarded as having a great lifestyle. I interviewed there, and people seemed very happy.

Please email me if you have any questions.
posted by thewittyname at 3:11 PM on April 25, 2005

Oh, and I wanted to add, if you any questions, you can email me. I'm more than willing to answer any questions from you to help you consider tradeoffs since I have worked on both sides of the game.
posted by dios at 3:15 PM on April 25, 2005

IANAL, but I'm a law firm librarian. I can only speak for Boston, but the Boston Globe and the Boston Business Journal put out lists of the best businesses in the city in which to work (obviously, it covers more than law firms, but if a firm is listed there, that's a very good sign). My firm has consistently ranked pretty high in such surveys, and I can babble incessantly about how much I love working there. I can't speak to the associate's working hours, but no one looks like they're ready to drop, and everyone is really, really nice. I've worked at one of the firms listed in the Vault's top 20, and I really think the atmosphere where I am now is much better.

If you want names of firms, feel free to email me (email's in my profile). Oh, and they give us free ice cream every Friday (except for the first Fridays of every month, when they ply us with a huge array of various foods).
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 4:03 PM on April 25, 2005

I'll be a Boston biglaw summer associate in a few weeks, and my firm has an excellent reputation for humane treatment. Anywhere you go, though, it really depends on the partner you work for and the department you work in. This isn't always something you can plan for ahead of time, so don't be surprised if "lifestyle" varies significantly within the firm.

We have an offsite mailing list, MefiLawyers, for lawyers and law students. It could use a kickstart, so feel free to sign up under an anonymous name and join us there.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 4:17 PM on April 25, 2005 [1 favorite]

I work in a small firm in San Francisco. The billable hours requirement is quite humane (1650) by most big firm standards. I've come in on the weekend perhaps three times in the nearly four years I've been here. One of my fellow associates recently left our firm for a $50K+ salary increase which came with a significant increase in billables. The difference between 1800 and 2000 hours is huge. A boutique firm is more likely to have a lower billable requirement.

I started out in a big firm in New York City, and in my work now I regularly interact with attorneys at big firms in New York and Chicago. They work *significantly* more hours than I do. In my experience, New York firms tend to take a sort of perverse pride in how hard their attorneys work. The Chicago attorneys I deal with (at Mayer, Brown Rowe & Maw, Sidley Austin Brown & Wood and Chapman & Cutler) work crazy insane hours- I know this because on a regular basis, I get emails from them time-stamped in the wee hours of the morning and weekends. California firms tend to sell the "lifestyle" aspect more- so if that's what you want, come on out to the left coast (if you aren't here already.)

It was my experience coming from a California law school and interviewing at New York firms, that New York firms were reluctant to hire graduates of California law schools- their experience was that associates would come and stay for two years and then want to move back to California. Which is exactly what I did.

One tip I heard about looking for a "lifestyle" firm: when someone claims that they don't work late, or that their firm is a "lifestyle" firm, test it out by calling them after 6:30p.m.- whether or not they answer will tell you a lot.

E-mail is in profile, feel free to follow up with any questions.
posted by ambrosia at 4:26 PM on April 25, 2005

There is no such thing as a quality of life law firm if you are talking Big Firms. I did all the stuff I was supposed to do to find one, and sure thought I found one, and yet I've billed somewhere around 250 hours per month for the last six months and am here part of every weekend. And our billable hour req is notoriously low by local standards (1800 hrs).

Really, try for a small firm, where you will be sure to go to court or do more during your first year than review documents and finalize filings that were mostly written by other people. Or a firm with a good pro bono program where you can get real courtroom experience early.

And if part of the real reason you want to have reasonable hours is so that you can have a family, look into the firm's policies on pregnancy leave or paternity leave, as well as their "part time" policies. (For many big firms, "part time" means 40 hours a week.) See whether day care is provided on site, or whether there is an emergency day care service.

Sorry to be such a downer, but this pace for the last few months has been pretty sucky!
posted by onlyconnect at 5:02 PM on April 25, 2005

MMMMMmmmmmm Cookies. MMMMMMmmmmm Cake. Whaaaaa, I waaaaaannnttt both. Ha Ha, it doesn't work that way. Maybe for a lucky few. Good luck. Otherwise, choose between $$$$ and zzzzz. Don't discount the zzzz, it includes being there at your son's baseball games, your daughter's dance recital, etc.
posted by caddis at 5:38 PM on April 25, 2005

As a prosecutor, I can vouch for the advantage of a truly manageable schedule. The pay is WAY less than the big firms (albeit I'm in Canada - so YMMV, but likely not much), but there is a lot to be said for security, benefits and a pension. I get to do all the law stuff and none of the business of law stuff (no billable hours, no client "eat what you kill" requirements, no marketing). Of course, if you're not into criminal law, I wouldn't recommend it, but there are other fields that need gov't lawyers.
posted by birdsquared at 6:47 PM on April 25, 2005

BigLaw in the midwest. If you're set on BigLaw, then I recommend this: pay a lot of attention to departments and how they operate within the firm. Find one that operates like a family - think of it as going to a great big undergraduate institution but finding a dorm - or better yet a hallway - full of friends.

Worked for me - I love my job. Not 40 hours a week, but not usually 80, either. If you want more specifics, email.
posted by dpx.mfx at 7:35 PM on April 25, 2005

A lot of what has been said already is good advice. I would only add that (in my experience) BigLaw firms are not monolithic -- much depends on the particular group/partners you end up working with. It is quite possible in many firms to end up working primarily for a partner who values his/her time, and encourages you to do the same (while at least hitting the billing minimums, of course). Admittedly, it is far more likely that you will run into partners who represent the opposite -- law is their life and they expect you to do the same. Avoid them.
posted by pardonyou? at 6:32 AM on April 26, 2005

a) Do something that interests you. If you are working at law that you think is worthwhile and meaningful you will want to work more than if you're just clockwatching.
b) Consider litigation over transactional work. In my experience, litigation requires short periods of large bursts of work followed by long periods of more relaxed time.
c) When interviewing, talk to the support staff. They will be much more likely to give you a straight answer on your questions. Better yet, get their email addresses and contact them after the interview.
posted by norm at 7:45 AM on April 26, 2005

You also may want to consider a non-traditional career path - using your JD for something other than practicing law. That's what I'm doing; I make very good money, rarely work more than 50 hours a week, and I'm still in the law firm environment. You really have to consider what you love to do, though. I love the law and I love marketing.

I spent a lot of money on my JD as the education was important to ME. Not for my job, though the JD does make me much more marketable. I also took the bar exam (and passed) for personal enrichment purposes. I am a lawyer, but I don't practice.
posted by MeetMegan at 8:38 AM on April 26, 2005

Keep in mind that there's more to job satisfaction than hours and money. Like others have said, find something you like.

I'm currently a 3L in Washington, D.C. I did BigLaw at a firm in L.A. last summer which put itself out as a lifestyle firm (that's not why I went there, but it was part of their schtick). Most of the attorneys came in between 9-930 and were gone by 7. The one time I went in on a weekend, it was a ghost town. Salary was within a few grand of the real big boys. Sounds decent at first.

But there was something about the firm that didn't click with me. It was an institutionalized chip-on-the-shoulder, proud-of-not-being-the-best, if that makes any sense. It came up in weird places, too. For example, whenever we asked questions about salary or benefits -- questions I still think were fair for someone in our position -- we were told things like, "Look, this is a lifestyle choice. If you want to earn more money, you can go to Skadden." The firm management was also saying a lot of things that made me uneasy, and I saw it in the younger associates too.

And they didn't do nearly as much of the work I want to do as I thought they did. This was a huge problem for me.

I'm not going to Skadden (though I did interview there this fall), but I'm not going back either. I got the hell out of dodge. I found another firm that does more of the work I want to do, and the people seem nice and happy. We'll find out when I get there.

Though it's not always the case, smaller branches of bigger firms often aren't as intense, but come with a lot of the benefits. The same is sometimes the case with bigger firms whose main office isn't NYC/DC/Chicago (there are a lot of them if you look).

As for finding out about lifestyle without seeming lazy... ask about things like what support services are available on weekends. Skadden and Cravath, for example, have true 24/7 staff support. They use it. Firms that don't need it don't have it. When you're in the office for interviews, look for evidence of a life outside the office (relatively recent pictures of the attorney with family, a gym bag, some personality, etc).

Like everyone above, my email is in my profile if you want more info.
posted by jewishbuddha at 10:42 AM on April 26, 2005

I was in a similar position last year, and here is what I was told:

Go government. Exactly what you're describing: a great quality of life in exchange for a big paycut. If you can't get one of the really competitive spots (DOJ, etc.) try the less competitive jobs, state government positions, etc. If you're anything like most law students, this may hurt your pride, so you've got to decide what prestige is worth to you.

In terms of private law firms: One option is to go overseas. European attorneys don't seem to work as hard as American attorneys at the same level of prestige.

In the US, it seems to me that you have two options, depending on how far down the scale of work/life balance you want to go. The first step, just below the mega law firms, is either a medium sized firm in a large city (by which I mean, Chicago, NYC, and LA) or a large firm in a medium sized city (St. Louis, Seattle, etc.). That'll get you somewhere around 90K and 1900 to 2000 hours, as a general rule. Maybe less if you hunt for it. (I know that, in St. Louis, it's entirely possible to work 1800 hours at one of the larger firms). The advantage of this is that the firms are still large enough to need a regular influx of young attorneys, so it shouldn't be too hard to get hired.

If you want even more time to yourself, then my guess is that you're going to have to take a deeper paycut and do a lot more independent work finding a job. You'll have to find a small firm that happens to need a new attorney, and you'll have to get to know them and convince them to hire you. Picking a particular city (especially one in which you can do some networking) and sticking with it is what I'd advise here - a national search will probably just distract you.
posted by gd779 at 10:49 AM on April 26, 2005

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