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Here's Why You Struggle to Achieve Life-Work Balance in BigLaw

Life-work balance isn't free

Readers of this blog know that we are almost manic in our pursuit of a new kind of work-life balance weighted heavily towards life. The possibility of working a fulfilling BigLaw job remotely from a mountain resort town only 4 days per week while traveling for half the year (or your own preferred arrangement) is the entire premise of this blog.

Getting to life-work balance, however, isn't easy. There are many reasons why BigLaw associates struggle to achieve meaningful life-work balance, but one reason is because they are asking for too much.

Achieving balance in BigLaw is already hard. But those who prioritize control over their time make it even harder on themselves by simultaneously pursuing the most prestigious BigLaw job title available to them (whether that be partner or counsel) and seeking to maximize their earnings along the way. Life-work balance isn’t free folks. It’s a lot easier to achieve than most would believe, but here’s the key: only if you’re willing to give up something meaningful along the way.

The Leverage Theory of BigLaw

If you want unprecedented control over your time in BigLaw, then you’re going to have to make a trade.

The Leverage Theory of BigLaw says that your firm isn’t going to just give you what seems fair or what you think you deserve, but only what market conditions require and what you are able to negotiate. While associates are currently blessed with favorable market conditions, your ability to negotiate your preferred BigLaw arrangement boils down to (1) your leverage and (2) how you choose to deploy your leverage.

Typically in BigLaw, associates maximize their leverage by billing tons of hours or, alternatively (or perhaps simultaneously), through the strength of their work product. After 7-8 years of building their leverage in this way, they tend to deploy it for maximum title and compensation. Making partner (and even making counsel in most cases) involves cashing in all, or nearly all, of the leverage you have built up over the years for the most prestigious title available to you and the highest possible compensation.

Today’s associates get an extra leverage boost thanks to favorable supply and demand economics in the BigLaw marketplace. Here too, associates typically choose to deploy their leverage for maximum title and compensation. Associates with enough experience can lateral into counsel or even partner roles that they might not otherwise get. Firms are paying six-figure signing bonuses. Attorneys who threaten to leave are sometimes rewarded with promotions or retention bonuses. More money is better, right?

As with everything in the law, it depends. Choosing to be ‘underpaid’ relative to your maximum income potential can be a new source of leverage, which you can then deploy in service of other goals, such as schedule control. Perhaps it’s obvious, but it’s worth saying anyway: in BigLaw, you cannot simultaneously obtain both the most money possible and the most schedule control possible. You have to trade some of one for more of the other. What’s not so obvious to BigLaw attorneys is that, even in BigLaw, the exchange works in both directions.

You aren’t restricted to in-house if you’re looking for more control over your life. Even within BigLaw, you have the option of trading money and title for more schedule control and life satisfaction.

When associates say that real balance is ‘not possible’ in BigLaw or that their practice group 'does not allow’ for their preferred arrangement, what they often really mean (even if they don’t themselves realize it) is that they are not willing to accept the consequences of what their choice would entail: less money and a ‘lesser’ title.

Turns out, it’s just too difficult for most people to turn down money. So they keep the money, but resolve to do partnership differently from all other partners who came before them. More sustainably. On their own terms. What they don’t understand is that when they cash in all their leverage to make partner, they have no leverage left to insist on ‘their own terms.’

We can count on one hand the number of people we know who have turned down money or opted out of a promotion that was within their reach. But here’s why you might want to consider it.

Supercharge your BigLaw experience with a demotion

Perhaps more than anything else, what has enabled our life of travel and adventure while working in BigLaw has been seeking out pay cuts and demotions.

As associates, we both took 10%, and later 20%, pay cuts in exchange for a reduced billable hour requirement. But we didn’t stop there. Mrs. A|E was told by her group that she would make partner, but she understood that accepting a partnership promotion would leave her with little to no leverage to obtain the amount of schedule control required for our preferred lifestyle. So she opted into a lower-paying counsel role with strict schedule parameters instead. Mr. A|E was also well-regarded by his group, but was not going to make partner. So rather than aggressively pursuing a transition to counsel at the end of his associate runway, he instead opted into a non-partner track role called ‘senior attorney’ that retained counsel-promotion potential in the future. It was precisely because these demotions involved substantial pay cuts relative to our earning potential in other roles that we were able to pursue a very different BigLaw lifestyle.

In all candor, at first, neither one of us was perfectly comfortable with these ‘lesser’ titles. We knew in our hearts that it was what we needed to do to achieve the life-work balance we desired, but it wasn’t psychologically easy. Knowing that she could have been a partner, Mrs. A|E struggled in the first year to know that she had made the right choice. Mr. A|E also experienced a form of psychological dissonance in having switched to a role never before associated with ‘success.’

But our early bouts of mental anguish did not last long. After all, these voluntary demotions served a purpose, and they served it quite well. The ability to drop our canoe into the Snake River at 4PM on a Wednesday afternoon was far more valuable to us than partner-level compensation, so we decided to judge our success against our own value system rather than against traditional metrics. Since our move to Jackson Hole, we’ve never looked back.

Real power comes from not needing what BigLaw is offering

The BigLaw model motivates its attorneys to bill unsustainable hours by getting them addicted to income and prestige early in their careers, and then dangling the possibility of more money and more prestige if they just keep billing like crazy. The twin pillars of our contrarian BigLaw philosophy are designed specifically to strip BigLaw firms of their leverage: (1) get your finances to where you don’t particularly need the money; and (2) get your mind to where you don’t particularly need the promotion. When the usual incentives no longer motivate you, that’s when you get to dictate the terms of your own employment.

Being fairly compensated is very important, but we don’t encourage wealth for wealth’s sake. For us, wealth is just an especially effective tool to get more of what we really want—control over our time. Money can either be a tool, or a trap. Real power in BigLaw doesn’t come from getting more money; it comes from needing less of it.

To be clear, it is not our opinion that traditional work-life balance in BigLaw is out of reach to those who follow the usual path of maximizing title and earnings. Some savvy partners are able to take time off in the evenings and generally limit weekend intrusions. The industry is changing for the better, and even BigLaw’s HR departments are encouraging little bursts of work-life balance as an anti-burnout strategy. But work-life balance and life-work balance are not the same thing. If you’re aiming for the latter, then you’ll need a strategy to get there.

Add a reimagined BigLaw role to your list of promising BigLaw exit options

BigLaw attorneys are always talking about exit options. The common wisdom says that if you’re looking for schedule control, then you should go in-house. Indeed, in-house can be a great exit option. But it’s not the panacea that mid-level associates think it is. First of all, it can be hit or miss. We know some former BigLaw attorneys who have true 9-5 roles, and others who are working just as much as they were in BigLaw, but for a lot less pay. Furthermore, even beyond the generally lower salaries, going in-house means starting over in terms of building the leverage and relationships that you'll need to achieve your career goals. This is not at all to disparage the in-house career path—we’ve both strongly considered it ourselves—but only to point out that it does have certain downsides and risks.

Partnership-track attorneys thinking of leaving BigLaw for greater balance have another option: non-partnership track BigLaw roles with a flexibility focus. In many cases, the salary for the non-partner track and/or part-time BigLaw role will still be more than what companies can offer for in-house counsel positions. And seeing as BigLaw is a largely self-directed adventure, with the right mix of boundaries, the flexibility can be even greater.

We’re not suggesting it’s perfect for everyone, but we do believe that, for many, it’s at least worth considering.

To obtain our irregular BigLaw roles, the biggest battles we fought weren't with our firm or with our practice groups—they were surprisingly supportive—but with ourselves. First, we had to overcome the fear of asking our partners for what we really wanted, even though there was no precedent for it. Then we had to overcome our egos, making peace with roles and titles that were ‘lesser’ than the alternatives. We don’t profess to have it all figured out, but we do have what’s most important to us, and we didn’t have to leave BigLaw to get it.

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