Dear LiL – I have been told many times that law is not a “9-5 job” and “if you want to have evenings and weekends free, look elsewhere.” Any time I feel frustrated about my work hours, I’m reminded that other lawyers work 80 hour work weeks and, if you don’t like it, leave. I am not super motivated by big $ or the thrill of making partner, but I do enjoy legal work (and I’m good at it!). Am I an entitled millennial who can’t hack it in the legal profession, or is it reasonable to have a legal career where you generally eat dinner at home and don’t work weekends? Signed ~ Nearing the Five Year Mark
Dear Nearing the Five Year Mark:
Thank you for your excellent question but first, congratulations on making it to the almost five year mark of your legal career. Those first five years are the toughest you will face in your career. Not only are you continuing the never ending journey of learning the law, but you are also having to learn how to apply the law to real life situations, how to interact with clients, how to navigate the practice of law and what the privileges and responsibilities of being a lawyer really mean. Please know that you have come through the toughest part of your career and that the years ahead of you will be easier. If it hasn’t happened already, you are on the cusp of receiving a question from a client that you already know the answer to, a question that you don’t have to research to answer, a question that you are confident to answer without seeking advice of a more senior lawyer. Not only does the transition to being more comfortable in your legal knowledge and expertise make the practice of law more pleasant, it also makes it more efficient.
Your question is an excellent one and it is one that has dogged the legal profession for decades. It is not a millennial question. The question is really whether it is necessary, to be successful in the practice of law, to set aside any semblance of a life outside of law. Do you have to work 80 hours a week to be a successful lawyer? Do you have to forego vacations, weekends, time with family and regular dinners to be a good lawyer? The short answer is a resounding no! While there may be times in your career where it is necessary or important to work an 80 hour work week, you do not have to resign yourself to a lifetime of that to have a career in law.
As you have already recognized, law is an amazing career. The work is interesting, intellectually stimulating, you are making a real contribution to our society and you are helping people. To me it is the best job anyone could have. That being said, there are many different paths that a career in law can take and it is almost a certainty that throughout your long career in law, yours will take many different paths. Life changes and so does a career in law.
Know that the success of your career will not be gauged by the number of hours that you put in. It will be measured by the quality of the work that you do, the relationships that you develop with colleagues and clients and the contributions that you make to the legal profession and to your firm. One of the greatest things about a legal career is the many different forms and paths it can take. One of those paths definitely involves working 80 hours a week. Many other paths involve eating dinner at home and not working weekends. Working less than 80 hours per week doesn’t mean you can’t be in private practice and it doesn’t mean your current firm is not the right one for you. What it does likely mean though is being involved in less files and taking on fewer clients. It may also mean you make a different amount of money than the lawyer who is willing to forego a life for a career in law. Be honest with yourself and with your firm about what you want. Remember that it is your life and your career. Do what is important to you.
Hope this helps and wishing you much joy as you continue in your law career.