The simple answer to this question is that, traditionally, the legal industry has been known for having poor work-life balance. Many high-paying City jobs have been known for this issue, and while the balance is usually still worse in other areas such as Investment Banking, the issue is still very prevalent in law. At the elite US firms, for example, skyrocketing salaries of over £150,000 at NQ level (often aged around 24/25 if taking a traditional route) are being matched by increasingly poor work-life balance.
However, the picture is actually much more nuanced than you might expect at first. There are a number of specific factors which exert a significant impact on the work-life balance you will encounter when working in law, and which can all swing the balance in either direction. Some are purely luck-based and unavoidable, but the majority are in fact within your control if you make your decisions wisely. This article outlines a range of factors which are worth considering when thinking about the work-life balance in law.
Arguably the most important factor determining how good or bad your work-life balance is must be the company you choose to work for. Solicitors will traditionally be employed at a law firm, while barristers will usually be tied to chambers.
The work-life balance varies massively between law firms in particular. Deciding which law firm is right for you can be a difficult decision, and this is an important factor in that conversation, too. At the top of your considerations might be the number of billable hours (a target of how many hours each fee-earning member of staff should work per year) each firm sets.
At one end of the spectrum, you find the highest-paying City law firms. Traditionally this meant the five Magic Circle law firms. Pay at NQ level now sits at just over £100,000, partially as a result of the increasingly rough hours employees are expected to work. This model has been taken even further by the more recent growth of elite US law firms, who operate on a model of much fewer staff and leaner teams – meaning higher billable hour requirements for each lawyer (but then equally more pay – a trade-off).
At the opposite end of the spectrum, smaller firms tend to have better working hours. ‘High street’ solicitors, or even regional law firms, tend to be less intense in this respect. However, the work-life balance is not only about hours worked. In terms of the merging of personal and work issues, lawyers in such smaller settings often deal with incredibly difficult personal issues such as divorce, bankruptcy or immigration. As a result, there tends to be a draining sense of constant empathy required which isn’t as prevalent when acting on behalf of a multinational conglomerate at the other end of the spectrum.
An alternative to working in a law firm, of course, is going in-house (as a lawyer within a normal company). The general sentiment appears to be that in-house counsel work offers a slightly better work-life balance, since your time is not based on billable hours targets and you are more aligned with colleagues working more regular hours. However, some have also suggested that in-house legal work can be more stressful due to not having the benefit of any distance from your ‘clients’, who will now be standing by your desk when you arrive. Discussing the work-life balance with lawyers already at the organisation is your best bet in evaluating this often-unclear situation.
A final point worth considering is which office you sit in. London is known for being relatively intense (arguably only beaten by the US, and particularly New York) in their attitude towards work, but staff who go on a secondment abroad often feel that working in other offices of the same firm offers greater work-life balance. A permanent move sometimes follows, and is certainly a consideration for many.
Another major influence on your work-life balance will be the practice area you choose to specialise in. A number of practice areas are well-known for having slightly favourable hours – for example IP (intellectual property) or Tax. Private client work also tends to be slightly more relaxed than representing larger organisations (and is a well-developed area of work at firms like Macfarlanes).
On the other hand, some practice areas are known for having particularly harsh work-life balances. These tend to be found in the more corporate, financial areas of law. M&A is known for having crushing hours in the weeks leading up to a deal closing, for example, while Insolvency & Restructuring often involves incredibly time pressured deadlines for a business facing imminent collapse.
However, practice areas such as M&A are not always bad. Instead, the hours tend to come in ‘peaks and troughs’ – very busy at some times, but relatively quiet at others. Many of these factors are simply based on things outside a lawyer’s control. The time of year is one example – the build-up to Christmas, for example, is known for being particularly busy. Market conditions are another example – when private equity is booming for a few months, for example, lawyers will be extremely busy too (and vice-versa).
Another factor outside of your control will be your supervisor. Some will be very demanding and set high expectations, while others will be more understanding and flexible if you need to leave work early on a weekday for an evening social event if you have given enough notice, for example. As with many other areas of a legal career, developing solid interpersonal skills can be of great benefit in this area.
The specific role in which a legal professional operates also has a significant impact on their work-life balance. For solicitors, it is difficult to say whether hours consistently rise or fall with increased seniority (e.g. from trainee to associate to partner), although it is widely agreed that partners at least have more control and flexibility over their own hours, since having oversight on the deal strategy means that upcoming periods of intensity are more easily predictable.
Often, barristers also have a greater deal of flexibility in their hours, since they are, to some extent, self-employed, and thus can be more selective in how much work they choose to take on. However, the reality of remaining a prominent barrister often does involve long hours.
Of course, not all staff in the legal industry wish to become qualified lawyers at all. Paralegals are a great example of pivotal staff within a team who are paid reasonably well yet generally experience much better work-life balance than fee-earning staff.
All employees need time off to recharge, and this is even more important in an industry as demanding as law. As with all jobs, legal staff will have a set number of days of annual leave in their contract (often varying between 20 and 25 days). There is no clear correlation between other factors (e.g. firm size, specific role, etc.) and the amount of typical holiday allowance, but making sure that you are being offered a competitive market rate for annual leave is an important step when considering a new job.
A large number of employers are now offering the ability to work from home. In many law firms, this has resulted in a hybrid working environment with a working week of three or four days in the office and one or two days at home.
For many, the ability to work from home allows for a greater work-life balance, since it cuts down on lost commuting time and makes fulfilling other commitments, e.g. spending small pockets of time with family throughout the day, more accessible. As a result, some lawyers are now refusing to work for any firms not meeting these demands.
However, the ability to work from home also blurs the lines between personal and work time and space, which can actually worsen the perceived work-life balance for some (and generally reduce the benefits which can arise from connecting with people in-person). Ultimately, this is a personal decision.
It is important to consider the culture of an employer in the legal industry when considering how your work-life balance is likely to look. If your preferred law firm is known for high-performance, ‘the client is always right’ style militant excellence, then this will naturally result in longer and more demanding working days.
Ensuring your firm has a reputation for friendliness, understanding and flexibility if other things come up, on the other hand, will be very important for aspiring lawyers who care greatly about preserving work-life balance. Note that any attempts to discover a firm’s culture via Google or a firm’s website is unlikely to reap useful results – instead, in-person experience in the office (e.g. a vacation scheme) is the best way to gauge it for yourself.
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