Make BigLaw Work for You: Our Journey to Life-Work Balance
Are you in charge of your life and career?
Most BigLaw attorneys that we know are dissatisfied with their jobs and with the trajectory of their lives. Many are deeply dissatisfied. The paychecks are coming in, but they aren’t living the lives they once envisioned for themselves—not even close. They experience debilitating stress and anxiety on a regular, if not daily, basis. The negative effects of this stress and anxiety spill over into their relationships, which suffer. Despite their massive salaries, they couple high levels of debt with low levels of savings, thereby squandering an unheralded opportunity to revolutionize their financial health and mental well-being. They don’t take regular vacations, and may not have even taken a real vacation in years. They don’t have time for any of the activities they used to love. At best, ‘work-life balance’ to them is just an empty corporate slogan. At worst, it sounds like a cruel joke. They feel trapped, and they are. They feel that they have lost control over their lives, and they have. In fact, many lost control so long ago that they can’t even remember when it was that they resigned themselves to a life that they did not choose. That is no way to live.
Conventional wisdom leads to conventional results
Not so long ago, we were unevolved, typical BigLaw junior associates who could see the trajectory of our lives in front of us, and it was frightening. Despite our mega salaries, we were basically living paycheck to paycheck due to mindless consumerism and general financial illiteracy. As we continued through the associate ranks, we could see that time was going to get scarcer and scarcer until it would disappear entirely. We considered that in just a few short years, we might get lucky enough to experience the immense additional pressure and responsibility of income partnership. If we played our cards right, sacrificing those few precious moments of free time that remained, then we might even reach equity partnership, where we would make even more money, but have even less time to spend on the experiences meaningful to us. We would buy a big house, then a bigger house, a fancy car or two and various designer goods, none of which we really wanted when we reflected on our values. The commodity that we most valued—time to spend doing the things we truly loved—would slip away, to be replaced by less valuable but much more expensive commodities. We knew we had to make a change.
Take back control
Looking back now, it is clear that what we were experiencing as junior associates was a growing sense that we were losing control of our lives. Common BigLaw wisdom told us that if we just put our heads down and played by the rules, then we would reach the Promised Land. But what no one bothered to explain was what made the Promised Land so promising. It certainly wasn’t the fabulous quality of life and boundless happiness. Industry veterans spoke of the prestige of partnership and of sophisticated and challenging work. They spoke of immense riches in the form of second and even third homes. This sounded okay, but the life that we envisioned for ourselves was one where we would wake up each day with smiles on our faces, excited for what lies ahead; we envisioned a life of adventure and exploration; a life filled with unforgettable experiences and opportunities to learn and grow in areas stretching far beyond the law. We could see where ‘playing by the rules' was going to take us and it wasn’t where we wanted to go. We needed a new playbook.
Taking control of your life starts with taking control of your finances
The simple truth is that if you want to write your own rules then you have to be in charge, and so we knew that so long as we were dependent on our BigLaw income we would never be in charge. Think about it. BigLaw attorneys who spend to the brink of their income (or beyond) don’t get to decide their own destiny. When you’re counting down the days to each monthly paycheck in order to service credit card, student loan, mortgage and auto debts—or even just to support a day-to-day luxury lifestyle—then you had better put your head down and play by the rules. What choice do you honestly have?
In order to reshape our BigLaw experience in accordance with our own values, we were going to need to chart a new course that would put us in charge of our own livelihoods and lives. Our search for a different path ultimately led us to the Financial Independence movement, which hit us like a bolt of lightning. The giant BigLaw salaries and generous perks meant that everything we needed to take back control was, apparently, already right in front of us. Armed with new insight, we immediately started the process of converting our BigLaw paychecks to long-term wealth that would reduce and, eventually, if we wanted to, completely eliminate the need to work, long before the typical retirement age.
Borrowing a page from the related Minimalist movement, we began our journey to financial independence by devoting hundreds of hours to reflecting deeply on what exactly makes us happy and fulfilled. We identified the things that truly sparked joy in our lives and we permitted ourselves to spend lavishly on them, while mercilessly cutting any and all expenses that did not. The result was a complete overhaul of our life and finances. We stopped purchasing all consumer garbage and instead started purchasing our freedom. Our savings rate skyrocketed from essentially zero to approximately two-thirds of our income. We invested every dollar saved in low-cost, index funds. It wasn’t long before the BigLaw pay scale had allowed us to accumulate a substantial net worth, which we continue to grow through aggressive saving and passive investing today. Turns out, partnership isn’t the only path to BigLaw riches.
Unlock your hidden potential
As our net worth increased each month, we became more and more empowered to reimagine the BigLaw paradigm. Things that before seemed way too risky or even impossible started to look realistic and within reach. When you have a $0 net worth, or worse—when you’re buried under hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card, student loan, mortgage, auto and whatever other toxic debt you’re carrying—the stakes are high. You really need that next paycheck and the day-to-day challenges of your BigLaw job become suffocating. The burden of a high-stakes existence isn’t just stressful, it stifles your imagination. But once you are living far below your means and have years' or decades’ worth of living expenses set aside, the stakes are very low. The mind opens up new creative spaces and possibilities start to reveal themselves. Was the BigLaw adventure-explorer career path viable after all?
Live intentionally, not accidentally
Having amassed a substantial net worth early enough in our associate days, when we were deciding whether we wanted to pursue partnership or an alternative career path, we could afford to look at factors beyond salary. We surveyed the ranks of partners at our and other firms and realized that, while we admired so many of them for their impressive professional achievements, they came at a great personal cost that we didn't want to—and, more importantly, could afford not to—pay.
So when the time came, we opted out of partnership and into atypical roles that both allowed us to be valuable assets to the firm and to pursue our true passions, which included adventure travel, the great outdoors, photography and creative writing. During our associate days, we spent 4 months each year seeking creative inspiration at some of the world’s most amazing destinations: Patagonia, Namibia, Seychelles, Botswana, Galapagos, Hawaii, Oman, Greece, Brazil, Mauritius, Bali, Myanmar, Easter Island, New Zealand, Tanzania… you name it. It was a whirlwind that at one point took us to 5 continents in 30 days, and to over 50 countries over the course of about 6 years. During this period of intense travel, we didn’t take any sabbaticals or extended leaves of absence, but we did pour every ounce of our energy into structuring our work and personal lives dramatically differently than other BigLaw attorneys in order to achieve the goals that we set for ourselves.
Our latest adventure has only just begun. After traveling the world for many years, we realized that we wanted to be somewhere that afforded us an unparalleled quality of life not just when we travel, but every single day. To make this happen, pre-pandemic we negotiated with our law firm a role that allows us to work fully remotely from the last of the great American wilderness—the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. A few years prior to our move, we formalized a flexible arrangement allowing us to take most Fridays off. Despite our heavily lifestyle-oriented mindset, we also devote much attention to our work and derive great joy from mentoring and helping younger attorneys achieve their professional and personal goals. Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too?
Radical change requires radical thinking
Radical thinking is the opposite of regular thinking. Regular thinking is the unintentional adoption of common or popular ideas. The fascinating thing about common or popular ideas is that they are not often good ideas, and adopting them can even be disastrous to your well-being. In the BigLaw context, popular but dangerous ideas are things like: ‘my work responsibilities make it too difficult to find time for vacation,’ or ‘I work really hard, so it’s okay to spend whatever is left over after making minimum payments toward my student loans and token 401(k) contributions,’ or ‘it’s up or out at my firm,’ or—our all-time favorite—‘if you’re not seeking partnership, then you’re selling yourself short.’ You can either thoughtlessly adopt these limiting ideas commonly circulating in BigLaw, or you can choose to adopt extraordinary ideas that will make your life better. It’s up to you.
If you desire something that seems impossible, then it’s not enough to challenge conventional wisdom: you have to throw it out the window. Once you’ve razed everything to the ground, you can start reconstructing your own reality brick by brick, in accordance with your own values. We didn’t build a significant net worth by saving the recommended 10% to 15% or by making minimum payments towards our student loans. We didn’t travel the world by accepting the conventional BigLaw wisdom that you’re only permitted one vacation, if any, per year. And we didn’t get approved for remote work in the Tetons by subscribing to the BigLaw myth that the only viable career options are to move up into the ranks of partnership or take a job elsewhere. After all, conventional wisdom leads to conventional results.
One last thought
To state the obvious, accumulating any sort of material net worth while traveling the world and living in a resort town would simply not have been possible without the unreasonably high compensation paid to BigLaw attorneys. And BigLaw attorneys who support children and/or are their family’s sole earner will undoubtedly face additional financial pressures. But if you are lucky enough to be making wages that most Americans can only dream of and have access to employer perks that most Americans will never receive, then you had damn well better be sure that you aren’t squandering your good fortune and living an unreflective existence.