What steps have you taken to improve your situation?
Overworked Olivia was over it. She had just emerged out of a 250 billable hour month, and things were only going to get worse until Mega Deal's closing. Who knows when that would be. Every Monday brought with it a new reason for 'all hands on deck,' so vacation wasn’t in the cards for Olivia anytime soon. It had been like this for a while. Aside from the occasional weekend off, Olivia hadn’t taken a real break in over a year.
Olivia didn’t hate the job per se, which actually had its moments when the workload wasn’t literally crushing her. What she hated was the unforgiving and all-consuming schedule. All she wanted was a little more time for herself, but that didn’t seem possible at Boyd Ulmer Sigfried & Yost. Olivia had heard of a few allegedly satisfied BUSY attorneys on part-time and other flexible schedules, but they were like ghosts, and their stories like legends. She thought about investigating the option, and even started to type up an e-mail to her partner supervisor to discuss the possibility of a four-day work week. But was there really any point in asking? Her group didn’t allow that, she figured. Flex attorneys don’t get the best assignments and don’t get to work on the most high-stakes matters either, she remembered. She wasn’t sure where she heard that, but it sounded like it was probably true. Nah. Flex is a bad idea, she decided.
So, instead, Olivia typed up an e-mail to one of the faceless headhunters that was constantly spamming her inbox. Maybe the headhunter could help her out of this mess. Indeed, it only took a few weeks before she had received and accepted an offer at BUSY’s well-respected uptown rival, Sampson Ames Maxwell & Ellison. Olivia would start next week. Things would be different at SAME.
You have nothing to lose
Needless to say, there are good reasons to change firms, and good reasons to leave BigLaw altogether as well. Crippling stress should never be taken lightly, and no one who struggles with such a serious condition should remain in a triggering environment. Nor would we ever suggest that someone whose heart is elsewhere should stick around in BigLaw for the long haul. Or maybe an opportunity just presents itself, and is too good to pass up. There are good reasons to leave.
But there are bad reasons too. Maybe you’re like Olivia. You’ve got one eye on the exit, but you can also imagine a fulfilling BigLaw role if only it didn’t require around-the-clock availability. It just doesn’t seem possible. Your options in that scenario are: (a) suffer in silence; (b) jump ship, and see if doing the same thing somewhere else leads to different results; or (c) actually do something to change your circumstances. If you’re thinking about quitting anyway, then what have you got to lose?
There for the taking
So what does it mean to ‘do something about it?’ For starters, it means understanding your options. There is intense competition among BigLaw firms to outdo each other with an impressive menu of wellness benefits in an effort to attract and retain top talent. These include specialized and flexible roles; four-day work weeks; three-day work weeks; remote work arrangements; unlimited vacation policies; gender-neutral parental leaves; paid sabbaticals; temporary personal leaves; externships and secondments; and an ever-evolving array of other benefits.
We’ve been experimenting with various permutations of these options for years. Between the two of us, we’ve tried at least five different flex arrangements until we were able to get to a schedule that truly works for us. It took time and effort, but today we have roles that we defined, and work on flexible schedules that we are in charge of. We are no longer chained to our phones on nights and weekends, and are instead free to spend that time doing the things we love most: hiking and skiing in the mountains, photographing bears and moose, and working on creative writing.
The BigLaw job that we started out with is very different from the BigLaw job that we have today. Some of that has to do with the experience and seniority we’ve accumulated, but the vast majority is due to the many changes we negotiated along the way. We have poured, and continue to pour, a lot of energy into optimizing our BigLaw experience.
Life-work balance doesn’t just happen to you. You have to claim and re-claim it constantly.
But once you have a handle on it, you can continue to build transformational wealth through your insane BigLaw paychecks without sacrificing your quality of life. It’s almost too good to be true.
‘That’s great for you, but this doesn’t fly at my firm / group’
How do you know? Is your information coming from the toxic rumor mill or from the HR department? Have you asked? We know very well that it can feel impossible to fix your situation in BigLaw because we have been there. We’ve made limiting assumptions about the possibility of life-work balance, but they turned out to be false when actually put to the test. We’ve seen the barriers to a fulfilling BigLaw role in front of us, but came to understand later that many of them we put there ourselves.
Many will persist: ’My firm / clients expect 24/7 availability’ or ‘The powers that be won’t respect my time off and I’ll end up working anyway.’ We understand that the BigLaw pressure is real, but your partner or associate supervisor is not with you on vacation. They are not in your house, hovering over your shoulder as you attempt to have dinner with your significant other or take a mental-health Friday. No one is actually forcing you to work when you’re out of the office.
What’s instead standing between you and meaningful workplace boundaries is probably one (or more) of the following: (1) fear of not being the best; (2) guilt / fear of disappointing others (mind you, not family and loved ones, but almost complete strangers); and/or (3) financial dependency on the job. Understand what’s really stopping you, and you can get back in the driver’s seat.
(1) ’To achieve any sort of balance in BigLaw, you have to be ok with being mediocre and delivering mediocre work product.’
This type of thinking is hardly surprising. Most of us in BigLaw are Type A overachievers. We’ve spent our entire lives working hard and aiming high. Many of us have been pulling all-nighters for as long as we can remember to guarantee our spots in the most prestigious colleges, law schools and law firms in the nation. How are we supposed to be comfortable with something less than BigLaw ‘rockstar’ status? Yes, Fridays off would be nice, but to be able to enjoy a modicum of life-work balance in BigLaw, then you surely must be willing—for the first time in your entire life—to embrace relative mediocrity. Right?
Not quite. We’re not here to tell you that being amazing at what you do is not important—it absolutely is.
But if you think you’re performing at your highest level when you’re a sleep-deprived, anxiety-ridden mess who doesn’t have time to eat well, exercise and grow in other areas of life, you’re sorely mistaken. Setting boundaries designed to improve your well-being doesn’t mean you’re a mediocre attorney: it only means that you have self-respect.
Indeed, most people perform better when they’re well rested, happier and more fulfilled. And understand: being on a flexible schedule doesn’t mean that you’re devoting less time to your clients and delivering shoddier work product; for us, it’s meant working on fewer, more carefully selected clients and matters that we now have more time for. We also find ourselves having a lot extra time for mentoring and other activities that we enjoy because our billable workload isn’t taking over our entire work lives.
(2) ‘My group is just so busy right now—there’s no way I can take a vacation.’
It’s obviously great to be responsible and to take big deadlines into consideration as you’re planning your life, vacations and adventures. But ‘my group is too busy’ can be a very treacherous excuse. Your group might always be busy. We’ve spent close to a decade in BigLaw each, and our work has yet to slow down.
You simply cannot put your life on hold waiting for things to get better: you have to make things better yourself.
Nor can you feel guilty that you’re ‘abandoning’ your team. The beauty of BigLaw law firms is that they’re huge and there are a ton of people who can cover for you. By taking your vacation you’re not abandoning your colleagues—instead, you’re changing the BigLaw paradigm and empowering them take their own breaks when they need them.
‘I’m stressed but I can’t switch to a flex schedule because my partner supervisors will be disappointed in me.’ You know who’s likely already disappointed in you? Your family and your friends. Have you noticed that it can feel easier for you to cancel plans with friends than to say ‘no’ to a weekend request from a partner? It’s because we assume that those who are closest to us will always be there, but the truth is BigLaw has seen too many broken friendships and dissolved marriages. As you go about figuring out your life priorities, think about which relationships actually matter in the long run. On their death bed, nobody wishes they had sacrificed more for their colleagues and supervisors. And besides—while many attorneys in BigLaw are wonderful people—BigLaw is just a job. If you disappear tomorrow, you will be almost immediately replaced by someone else who can do the exact same work and the wheels will keep turning. Reflect on this when thinking about who you’re disappointing.
(3) ‘If I’m going to work around the clock, then I’m going to live large. Otherwise, what’s the point?’
Living large is great. But if don’t have time for the things you most love, then how large are you really living?
Achieving life-work balance in BigLaw is hard enough already. But when you’re blowing through all of your BigLaw income, it’s that much harder. Prioritizing life over work can absolutely be done, but it means swimming against the current. It takes a lot of effort. It’s uncomfortable. It feels risky. If you’re spending all of your BigLaw salary to service massive student loan / mortgage debt and to sustain your lifestyle, then you’re going to be a lot less willing to take the perceived risk of putting yourself first. The stakes of losing the income are just too high. So instead, you’ll convince yourself that it’s just not possible to have a life-work balance. When your mortgage or your lifestyle requires a massive BigLaw salary, telling yourself ‘I can’t do that’ is a lot easier than telling a partner ‘No.’ But if you save, invest and grow your net worth aggressively, reducing and eventually eliminating your dependence on your BigLaw paycheck, then your supervisors lose their power to ruin your weekends because you will have taken away their leverage.
We’ll admit it: finding balance in BigLaw is hard. But the reason most BigLaw attorneys can’t find balance is not that it doesn’t exist, but because they’re not taking any meaningful steps to achieve it. Over the years, we’ve seen countless attorneys hit their burnout limit and simply quit. Very frequently, these are people who never asked for a flex schedule, never took a sabbatical and rarely, if ever, went on a real vacation. Many are happy in their new roles and we are happy for them. Our only point is that this wasn’t necessarily their only option. So before you take a massive pay cut in exchange for the promise of better life-work balance somewhere else, ask yourself: what I have done to try and achieve it where I am? The balance you seek might be closer than you think.