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How Saying ‘No’ To Crushing BigLaw Workloads Can Make You Rich

Yes, seriously

As we’ve written before, life-work balance is a worthy pursuit because you deserve better. You deserve better than a non-working hour or two each day to tuck the kids in or go for a run. You deserve better than to waste away the better part of your life in pursuit of carpal tunnel syndrome, relationship problems and deteriorating vision. Everyone knows that life-work balance is a worthy pursuit because it is healthier than the alternative.

Not everyone knows, however, that aggressively pursuing life-work balance (in BigLaw at least) can be a wildly effective wealth-maximization strategy. The argument here is quite simple: pursuing a high quality of life allows you to stay in BigLaw long enough to accumulate wealth without burning out.

What does it take to achieve BigLaw wealth?

Many assume that partnership is the only path to BigLaw wealth. Sure, that’s one way to become wealthy. But it’s not the only way, and this path has risks. First, most people won’t last long enough to make partner. Second, of those who do, many won’t get the coveted promotion. Third, if you’re waiting on the partner paychecks before you save and invest, you’ve missed out on a valuable window—the earlier you accumulate your first million, the easier you’ll get to a multimillion dollar net worth because the stock market will do most of the work for you. Fourth and perhaps most significant, if you wait until partnership to save, you may have lifestyle inflated to a point of no return: getting accustomed to a $430K senior-associate spend means you need an 8-figure portfolio to retire. That's just math, and it assumes that you will not further increase your spending once you become partner, which is a risky assumption. So yes, you can work 80-hour weeks for 40 years and be wealthy at the end of it, but this is not your only option.

Another option is to accumulate your first million without jockeying for partnership at all. As we’ve written about before, the BigLaw associate pay scale makes it mathematically possible to achieve a 7-figure net worth (on a single BigLaw paycheck) before you’re up for partner.

We aren’t alone in thinking so. Needless to say, different personal circumstances—like needing to provide significant financial assistance to loved ones, or having two sets of student loans to repay, or poor market conditions—might mean that you need a couple of extra years to get to your first million (and if you fall short by a year or two, then take comfort in the fact that you are still absolutely crushing it). But if you can manage to stay in BigLaw for 7-10 years, that should be a sufficient runway to $1 million for most attorneys who otherwise manage to cap their spending early and aggressively save.

So to get to your first million as a BigLaw associate, you’ll need to (1) spend a lot less than you earn, investing the difference, and (2) figure out how to stay in BigLaw long enough to continue spending a lot less than you earn for 7-10 years.

Neither of these steps is easy. Saving most of your earnings when all of your peers are spending big and taking out mega mortgages is definitely tough. But for most BigLaw attorneys—ourselves included—longevity in BigLaw is the harder of the two problems to solve. Most BigLaw attorneys simply will not last 7-10 years in BigLaw. It is a notoriously difficult thing to do. Perhaps especially in today’s pandemic-fueled age of the Great Resignation, most BigLaw attorneys will leave long before they make it to senior associate, which is also when BigLaw compensation starts to get really silly. Of course, there’s no shame or judgment from us in leaving BigLaw after a few years, or even after just a few months. BigLaw isn’t for everyone and we firmly believe that everyone should unapologetically pursue their own path. But if you are interested in using BigLaw as a tool for wealth maximization, then you have no choice but to solve for longevity. Short of getting lucky by loading up on the next alt-coin headed to the moon, you won’t become a millionaire after just 3 years in BigLaw, so you need a longevity strategy.

Putting all your chips on the table

There are two primary solutions to the longevity quagmire. The first is just to go 'all in.’ Going all in also happens to be the longevity strategy chosen by most BigLaw attorneys who are still in BigLaw after 7+ years. Going all in typically means resigning yourself to a largely boundary-less existence, where work thoughts and responsibilities tend to seep into any opening they can find. The partners and partner hopefuls usually choose to just go all in because that’s often what it takes to successfully navigate BigLaw at the partnership level. Or maybe they choose to go all in because they are the True Believers who legitimately love what they do.

Sadly, in our view, many non-partners who have little or no interest in partnership similarly resign themselves to a boundary-less existence because they incorrectly assume that there is no other BigLaw option. Then, after a few years, they burn out and quit. Since they aren’t interested in partnership, they lack the motivation to suffer through the many long nights, sacrificed weekends and ruined vacations. At least the partners and partner hopefuls do it for a reason, whether that be money, prestige or both. But for those of us who aren’t motivated by partnership, the partner-level sacrifices are too much. And so the ‘all-in' solution is a temporary solution, at best. It won’t help us stay in BigLaw for the 7-10 years needed to achieve a 7-figure portfolio.

An against-the-odds alternative

Those of us unwilling to go ‘all in’ need a different strategy if we hope to achieve BigLaw longevity. This is where it gets interesting. Since a poor quality of life is what drives most BigLaw attorneys out the door, what would happen if BigLaw associates chose to aggressively pursue a high quality of life instead?

We understand that to many this will sound like madness. ‘You can’t realistically set the kinds of boundaries necessary for a high quality of life in BigLaw,’ some might say. To be sure, that certainly is the ‘BigLaw wisdom’ you will hear if you take your cues from your colleagues. But what if you just ignored them and pursued a high quality of life anyway? After all, the success or failure of your boundaries primarily depends on you, not others. ‘Sure, but you’re not going to last very long in BigLaw if you carve out a bunch of time for yourself,’ others might retort. Needless to say, we are not so foolish as to suggest that you can do whatever you want in BigLaw and get away with it (nor should you as a responsible person and attorney).

But understand that those in BigLaw who say you ‘can’t’ do this or ‘can’t’ do that almost certainly have not tested these assumptions. They are just repeating to you what was once repeated to them.

The truth is that if you are not interested in partnership and are comfortable with a transition to counsel or a similar alternative role, or an exit at some point after your associate years, then you simply don’t need to sacrifice every last ounce of yourself to the job. Why would you? Again, you should work to be a good and responsible attorney—we would never suggest otherwise. Please, don’t be a jerk. But can you protect most of your weekend time and vacation time? Yes, you can. Can you make plans with friends or family and, except in rare circumstances, keep your commitments? Yes, you can. Can you do all this while still being a valued team member and finding success and fulfillment during your associate years? Yes, you can.

The simple fact is that we would never have been able to accumulate 7-figure wealth in BigLaw had we not aggressively pursued the kinds of boundaries that most BigLaw attorneys probably think are impossible. Our against-the-odds pursuit of a high quality of life is what prevented us from burning out, quitting and giving up on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for financial prosperity. We ignored all the ‘BigLaw wisdom’ about what’s ‘possible,’ and did what we had to do to keep the job healthy, enjoyable and fulfilling in light of our goals and values.

We would never have guessed it as first-year associates, but boundaries didn’t end our BigLaw career. Just the opposite: aggressive quality-of-life boundaries are what enabled us to get the most out of BigLaw, both financially and psychologically.

Exit options

When we were making our way up the associate ladder, our partners understood that we were not interested in partnership and so they gave us a little more leeway with boundaries. They still expected plenty of us—senior associates get paid a lot—but they did not expect partner-level sacrifice. Everyone understood that at the end of the runway we would find a non-partner solution that kept the employment relationship intact or we would eventually decide to go our separate ways.

We won’t shy from the truth: some firms / groups may be less receptive to alternative career tracks, which could mean that, at the end of your 7-10 year runway, you may need to leave. And if you’re primarily interested in quality of life, you may want to leave. But if the goal is to save your first million and then transition to something else that more closely aligns with your long-term plans, then you don’t need a ‘forever’ solution to BigLaw. You just need 7-10 years. This was essentially the trajectory of Mr. A|E, who made a successful decade of BigLaw, and then early retired to pursue outdoor recreation, writing, photography and other activities not legal in nature. Turns out that if you hit aggressive savings goals in your early 30s, then you don’t have to wait until 65 to start living your Golden Years.

Even more shockingly, at the end of your 7-10 years, you may find that in pursuing a high-quality-of-life BigLaw strategy, you are able to carve out a niche that allows you to continue to maintain this high quality of life and have a fulfilling career for longer than 7-10 years. Some luck and skill is required, but Ms. A|E has unquestionably achieved just that. If anything, as her expertise in a high-demand practice area grows, her ability to set remarkable boundaries grows with it. At this point, she has effectively created a viable 9-5 counsel position working only 4 days per week.

Longevity is the key

In sum, aggressively pursuing life-work balance isn’t just healthy, it’s what enabled our BigLaw longevity: a critical component to BigLaw wealth accumulation. After all, you won’t get senior associate paychecks and bonuses if you quit before you become a senior associate. So if you’re wondering whether life-work balance is worth fighting for, just remember that maintaining your sanity is an excellent path to BigLaw wealth maximization. Who says you can't have it all?

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