Want a BigLaw Career Where You're in Control? Play the Long Game
Anything worth doing takes determination, perseverance and patience
We get asked all the time: How did you do it? How did you get a BigLaw job where you work only 8 hours a day, 4 days a week and not on weekends? How did you get approval to work remotely from a mountain resort town? I want life-work balance in my BigLaw career too—how do I get it?
Most of our posts are an attempt to answer these questions, from different angles. We’ve talked about how important it is to aggressively save and invest, because getting what you want is infinitely easier from a position of financial strength. We’ve written a four-part series on how to set boundaries. We’ve spoken about the need to reflect deeply on what truly matters to you, and then redefine success according to your own goals and values. We’ve discussed how market pay comes with market expectations, so lower expectations on your time almost certainly require giving up some income potential. We’ve stressed the importance of breaking down limiting assumptions regarding what’s possible. We’ve encouraged attorneys to think outside of the box when it comes to things like stress management, and to dream bigger on the topic of work-life balance. We’ve reminded folks not to give up too soon.
We started in BigLaw the same as everyone—overworked and overwhelmed. If someone had told us as first-year associates that we would one day be working flexible, high-paying BigLaw jobs from a wilderness paradise only 4 days a week, we wouldn’t have believed them.
There’s a very simple reason why we didn’t start writing about life-work balance until later in our careers: in the early years, we hadn’t yet achieved it. We didn’t go from overwhelmed to in control overnight. It took many years of commitment to strategic thinking and strategic action.
‘Okay, but what’s the secret?’
Still, attorneys want ‘The Answer.’ A secret recipe for success. Is it about lateraling to the right firm? Or choosing the right practice group? Finding the right clients? Or just getting lucky?
Sure, some groups may be more receptive than others and a little luck never hurts, but if you’re looking for a quick or simple solution, look elsewhere. That’s not how we did it. There wasn’t any single ‘aha!’ moment and we didn’t get to skip any steps. We wish we had one easy trick to share—that would make things so easy—but we don’t. (If forced to pick just one thing, we would say save your money.)
The honest answer is that, for almost a decade, we’ve been playing the long game. You won’t lose 20 pounds overnight. And you won't become a millionaire with your first BigLaw paycheck. Anything worth doing takes determination, perseverance and patience. Creating a life-first BigLaw career that you are in control of isn’t any different. The BigLaw lifestyle we’ve created for ourselves didn’t happen in a week, a month, or even a year; it was nearly a decade in the making.
The BigLaw long game: this is how we did it
The BigLaw long game isn’t a hustler’s game of quick tricks, but an endurance sport. If you think you have the patience for the long game, here is our best attempt at breaking down what we did in order to get to where we are.
Step 1: Find your passion
First and foremost, playing the BigLaw long game requires finding your passion. The mental, physical and emotional stamina necessary to endure BigLaw for any significant amount of time requires a goal that you are passionate about. The best goals are the ones that excite you. And the most exciting goals are the ones that, through their pursuit, enable you to live a fuller and truer version of yourself because they align with deeply held personal values.
Depending on the person, examples of such goals could be regaining your freedom by aggressively paying off a formidable student loan balance, financially setting yourself up for life by saving a million dollars as an associate, finding balance in your career that allows you to show up for your kids by being there at every baseball game or other important moments, building a resume and reputation that enables a pivot out of BigLaw and into another prestigious or exciting opportunity, holding to a daily fitness regimen, finding a BigLaw niche where you can pair professional fulfillment with near total schedule control for the long-haul. The possibilities here are endless.
In our case, the core values that motivated our career goals were adventure, financial security and personal growth.
As junior associates, these values manifested in the goal that one day in the not-too-distant future it might be possible to live and work from Hawaii (we later developed a passion for wild spaces and wildlife photography that was better suited for the Mountain West). As we continued up through the associate ranks, our goals further evolved and crystallized around our values.
As our work responsibilities increased in our third year, we became terrified that our days of adventure were numbered, so we resolved not to pursue partnership which would squeeze us even further. In our fourth year, following a month-long honeymoon in Africa, we realized that having time to pursue personal growth in areas outside of the law would require us to work part-time schedules. Around that same time, the FIRE movement taught us that lifelong financial security might be attainable in about a decade if we could find a way to stay in BigLaw while curbing wasteful spending.
Putting it all together, we had a long-term goal—we wanted non-partner BigLaw roles that could be worked remotely on a part-time schedule. In the early years of our careers from 2012 - 2016 there was no precedent for this goal that we were aware of, but it didn’t seem categorically outrageous so long as we were willing to give up income potential and so long as we continued to be valued members of our teams doing good (and profitable) work. But it wouldn’t be until 2019 that we actually received permission to permanently relocate to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as part-time, non-partner track attorneys. We experienced the inevitable difficulties and frustrations along the way, but what kept us going was passion in a future that we believed possible.
Step 2: Commit to meaningful action
The second rule of the BigLaw long game is commitment. It is, after all, a long game, and you can’t win if you don’t play until the end. Passion comes from believing in a goal. But commitment is how you actually get there.
Commitment is a form of goal-oriented focus that guides your decision-making.
Commitment does not mean that you should commit to years of suffering, with some hazy promise that things will get better in some unspecified way, in some unspecified future. Quite the contrary. Commitment means taking the unconventional, uncomfortable and often frightening steps that are required to move you in the direction you want to go. Commitment means commitment to problem solving.
In our case, commitment has meant different things at different times. In our junior associate years, commitment mostly involved building a reputation for excellence that we could later deploy in service of our longer-term goals.
As we rose higher through the ranks, it became just as important to build a reputation as attorneys who set firm but fair boundaries. With the goal of permanent remote, part-time work, we couldn’t afford a reputation of never saying no. Rather, we had to prove that we could be valuable without around-the-clock availability.
For us, commitment has also meant forcible removal from the occasional toxic matter, focusing on the cultivation of legal skills that required less in-person commitments and could thereby be performed remotely (e.g., for Mr. A|E, focusing on brief writing as opposed to in-court advocacy), choosing clients based on whether we anticipated the work could be done remotely, occasionally disappointing a partner by turning down assignments that would be inconsistent with our longer-term goals, and closely aligning ourselves with partners that we believed could be supportive of our vision.
Generally speaking, we committed ourselves to a strategy of incremental improvements over the course of many years, and always in service of the ultimate goal.
It is true what they say—that BigLaw is a marathon, not a sprint. And the metaphor holds regardless of whether you hope to rise through the ranks of the partnership or, as in our case, you seek BigLaw longevity in service of a different goal. Throughout your career, thousands of decisions need to be made about what to do and how to react. Let your commitment to your goal guide your decision-making, and you just might get there.
Step 3: Embrace your vulnerability and seek allies
The third rule of the BigLaw long game is embracing your vulnerability. One of the biggest reasons why attaining life-work balance in BigLaw is so difficult is because you often can’t achieve it without help, and you won’t get any help if you don’t ask for it. Asking for help means being vulnerable.
In our case, nearly every aspect of our plan required partner approval. Attaining part-time, remote, non-partner track roles was going to require help from our mentors and buy-in from our supervisors. It felt unwise to ask for everything all at once, so we worked at it in stages. First, slightly reduced hours, then alternative-track positions, then further-reduced hours and, finally, fully remote positions only once we had the savings cushion and bargaining power to make that request (in the pre-COVID days, fully remote felt like the biggest ask).
Needless to say, we worked hard for many years to cultivate the relationships that would help us achieve these goals. Doing good work for good people for a long time was an important part of our plan. Still, even if you think you are doing good and valuable work, asking your partners for help—especially for help with life-work balance goals—can be terrifying. We’ve experienced that ourselves. Before asking for a reduced-hours schedule as a fourth-year associate, Mr. A|E first had to take a few laps through the local park to calm the nerves. But, in the end, if you want something that you can’t get on your own, then you have to take a leap of faith.
There are some things we can do to reduce the unpleasant feelings that prevent us from embracing our vulnerability. Our top tip is to lower the stakes of asking for what you want by paying off any student loans and aggressively saving and investing. Second, reflect carefully on just how much you are consumed by irrational fears.
Most associates will never ask for what they really want because they are afraid that the answer will be ‘no’ (or worse—that they will get fired). It has been our experience, however, that the worst part of the whole process is making the request. Partners are often willing to help good associates.
After all, law firms are businesses, and requests that make business sense often get approved. Finally, it is also important to take the time to discover what you truly want out of life and your career. When you know yourself and your needs, then you have no choice but to embrace your vulnerability because the alternative is to persist down a path that you know is not right for you.
Long-term goals require long-term thinking
BigLaw is a grind, and everyone is looking for ways to make it better today. We hope that our blog provides some tips that can help in the short term, but it’s important to distinguish between short-term and long-term goals. In the short term, we can practice setting a healthy boundary; we can schedule a meeting with a mentor; we can stand up for ourselves when confronted with unfairness; we can go to an exercise class; we can keep a commitment with a friend; we can help another associate in need. But it is only in the long term, if at all, that we can design a BigLaw experience that aligns with our own personal goals and values. Long-term success is achieved by claiming enough of these short-term victories.