I Love My Job, But Can I Get My Life Back?
There are innumerable benefits to working in Big Law: excellent training, sophisticated work and clients, attractive compensation and, for those who seek the brass ring, the chance of partnership. There’s usually a price as well, often extracted from one’s personal life: trips interrupted, missed dinners, foregone family events and unpredictable weekends. We are regularly asked to field the inevitable question: is there a way to create balance in my life and still reap all the benefits Big Law offers?
Q: What are some winning strategies for maximizing work/life balance?
A: The first thing you can do is ask. Firms are aware that there is a growing need to provide lawyers with opportunities to practice in a manner that will balance their professional obligations and their personal lives. As an attorney, you need to be aware that the right balance will not be the same for everyone, and circumstances change over time that can impact your views about the right balance. Take the opportunity to speak to others about your goals and what makes you happy professionally and personally, and come up with a plan to achieve those various goals. Firms do realize that, in order to retain talent, they need to provide alternative work arrangements such as part-time, flex time and telecommuting schedules. Additionally, it is important for you to take a close look at the practice area that you are choosing because some practice areas offer a lot more flexibility than others. Firms have started to take action in response to this shift. For example, there’s been an increase in the number of committees specifically focused on achieving work/life balance, creating a forum whereby associates and partners can work collaboratively to address these needs. For those who are not looking for a change in schedule, some firms offer paid sabbaticals so attorneys can check out for a period of time. At the end of the day, you need to find out what is available at your firm and you need to be proactive about approaching the relevant people who can help you achieve your goals.
Q: Will I be taken off partner track if I switch to an alternative work schedule?
A: Not necessarily. Again, firms loathe losing top talent, and if they view you as someone with advancement potential, then they will look for ways to accommodate you. Most firms can point to attorneys promoted to partner while working an alternative schedule. Some firms can point to multiples of attorneys. Do your homework to figure out how your firm fares in this regard and then seek out those who have successfully made this transition to get a better sense of what their path looked like and whether it’s right for you.
Q: Will I miss out on the most desirable work if I transition to a flexible schedule?
A: In some instances, you may. Big Law is a service industry and the reality is that if a particular client requires a team that can be on call essentially all the time, the firm will staff accordingly. That said, there are plenty of matters which offer a more reasonable time frame and there are plenty of clients who are willing to accommodate different work styles. You can also continue to be involved in larger, fast paced matters albeit in a more discrete role, thereby preserving your schedule and getting exposure to the higher profile work and important clients. At the end of the day, you need to communicate with your group about how you want to be engaged. Being transparent about your career goals, including the type of work you want to be exposed to, as well as occasions where you can devote more time to a particular matter, requires an open dialogue as well as flexibility on everyone’s part.
Q: Does it make sense to think about other firms?
A: What if you conclude that work life balance is not attainable at your present firm? The Yale Law Women’s list of family friendly firms, as well as Working Mother and Flextime Lawyers are good places to start educating yourself on what other firms are doing and who is succeeding. It also may make sense to sit down with a recruiter to talk through your career and work/life goals. The opportunity to speak with a professional in this space will provide you with valuable information on those firms that embrace alternative work schedules as well as those firms that, by virtue of their of their work culture, promote a work/life balance without resorting to an alternative work schedule.