Law Firms Flirt With Flexibility

Much to the frustration of ambitious working moms with legal degrees, law firms -- particularly the largest, most prestigious ones -- have eschewed work-life balance. Hard-charging women stormed the gates of law schools starting in the 1970s, entering the profession in record numbers. Ironically, "balance" decreased dramatically at the same time. Billable hour quotas have risen from roughly 1,200 to 1,600 hours a year in 1965 to 2,000 to 2,200 annual hours today, which translates to 42 hours a week (requiring at least 60 hours per week in the office). Industry practices have long included partnership tracks based on seniority, not performance; salaries and bonuses based on billable hours instead of revenue generation and miserly family-leave policies.

But red flags in recent years are finally forcing the profession to question whether it's time to restructure billing practices, schedules and partnership tracks. They include a grassroots rebellion by students at Stanford, Yale, and New York University law schools; the American Bar Association calling for the end of the billable hour; Working Mother Magazine introducing the Top 50 Law Firms for Women; high numbers of young female lawyers leaving big firms and 78 percent attrition of associates of both sexes within five years.

Deborah Epstein Henry, founder of the FlexTime Lawyers consulting firm, recently captured the moment for the New York Times in Who's Cuddly Now? Law Firms:

"There are enough things happening everywhere, enough to call it a movement. The firms don't think of it as a movement, because it is happening in isolation, one firm at a time. But if you step back and see the whole puzzle, there is definitely real change."

Ms. Henry published her solution packet last month in Diversity and the Bar magazine. Her program, called FACTS, proposes the following options for restructuring work time:

Fixed -- More predictable hours, lower-profile work assignments

Annualized -- Intense periods of high-profile work followed by relative lulls

Core -- Blocks of key hours on a predictable schedule that allows for time with kids, e.g. 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 12 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Targeted -- On an annual basis, all lawyers "target" or project how many hours they will work, and take ownership of the schedule (and compensation structure) they commit to

Shared -- Two or more attorneys sharing high-profile, high-intensity assignments

What's your experience with, or observation of, finding balance in a legal career? What does it take to transform a firm or an entire industry into a more family-friendly environment? Would a flexible work-life structure succeed at your firm? Have you left a company or profession because of its refusal to accommodate your work-life needs? What's your ideal solution?

By Leslie Morgan Steiner |  January 28, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Workplaces
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I'm a lawyer with two small children although not a woman! I don't think you necessarily need to think in terms of transforming an entire industry. People just have to make choices that work for them. I am a government lawyer by choice. I have a predictable schedule, no billable hours, ability to take leave, telecommute, and work a flexible schedule. I can be home before dinner to have several hours to play with my kids before bedtime. I only work on a weekend if there is an emergency which is almost never. I chose this lifestyle just like any man or woman attorney can. i chose it because I knew i wanted to have time with my wife and kids and not be working weekends and coming home at 9pm every nught when the kids were already asleep. it was important to me. Granted i make less money but that was a choice. If a man or woman wants to be partner at a huge firm and make a million per year, that is a choice too. I don't think it is incumbent on the big firms to change everything. if people want balance there are other choices out there. Work for a temp firm that does legal work on a contract basis. Work part-time. Work for a legal editing company, the local or federal government or teach at a local law school. There are so many options in the legal field that I think people have some obligation to make choices that work for them and not assume that an entire industry has to change for them. That is why these other jobs exist. The big law firms are not the only gig out there and far less than 50% of all lawyers work at those firms. Make a choice that works for you and keep at it until you get it right.

And oh.....FIRST!!

Posted by: happydad | January 28, 2008 7:30 AM


"Granted i make less money but that was a choice. If a man or woman wants to be partner at a huge firm and make a million per year, that is a choice too."

What he said.

Posted by: chittybangbang | January 28, 2008 8:05 AM

Hubby is a 6th year associate with a NY firm here in DC. We don't have kids; even so, the amount of time he spends at work intrudes into our lives on a weekly basis. We cannot makes plans for a Friday night - the few times we have, we have had to back out at the last minute. He must have his Blackberry with him all of the time and answer to it immediately. He swears that he will have a heart attack in ten years unless we make a change.
Yes, it is a choice. For women, it is tough.
I think the hardest part is that he has to be in the office to do his work. If working from home, at least some of the time, was an accepted part of the practice, it would really help out. There have been many times that we have spent several days of a vacation with him working, which is telecommuting, but not what I mean by that (vacation should be vacation).
I know that we be making a change as soon as possible - just as soon as we can sell our house, which, unfortunately for us, may be a while. I suspect that we will be leaving the DC area - its just too crazy and too expensive to live here unless you owned a home more than 6 years ago, or unless you make just a ton of money. I don't work (there is a good reason for this), but we may be starting a family, and I know that I want to stay home. It is now or never for us, as I am in my very very late thirties.
Most of all, the law firm life is a choice, but I do think that these firms could win big if they offered a great deal more flexibility in their approaches to work.
It will be much more rewarding for us to go to a firm where one still makes an incredible amount of money, but where it also isn't so expensive to live and where the lower salary means more time for family - and where he can actually do fun things on the weekends.

Posted by: goodwater1 | January 28, 2008 8:33 AM

Totally off topic as I am not a lawyer and you know that Freida is not either.

She was released from the hospital yesterday. Doing OK. Today, I play nurse and maid. Sainted Mother taught me the maid bit, but I don't know nuthin' about nursing!

Posted by: Fred | January 28, 2008 8:35 AM

This column is number two, quote this if you are down.

Posted by: obblehit | January 28, 2008 8:45 AM

Well, one could always work at a "lower tier" job like most of the working Moms.

Posted by: Krazijoe | January 28, 2008 8:47 AM

I'll leave the culture observations to mn, laura, and lizabean but billable hours business model = crazy hours from everything I can see. Perhaps if legal services were delivered up using a software development pricing model (x amount of hours to a project costs y) then things might be different. In that model there is pressure to do things more efficiently and return profit to the company.

Posted by: tntkate | January 28, 2008 9:05 AM

Fred: glad to hear frieda is okay. You'll do fine. We are all hoping for a healthy and quick recovery.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | January 28, 2008 9:16 AM

Okay, HappyDad covered a lot of ground -- and I think his solution (work less, get paid less) will work for a whole lot of moms and dads. Important to note that this can be a temporary situation while your kids are young -- when they need you less, you can ramp up (unless ageism rears its ugly head).

But there is a subset who can't or won't use this path. Goodwater1 is married to one of these folks.

Some men and women are intensely ambitious and crave recognition, promotions, making it to the top of their field, and earning lots of money. Sometimes they are born that way or have something to prove. God bless them. It's foolish and short-sighted to stereotype them as money-hungry cold-hearted fools. The truth is far more humane and complex.

And sometimes, believe or not, these type As also want to be very involved parents. It is particularly torturous when you are a competitive, achievement oriented woman who also wants to play an integral role in your children's daily lives.

There have to be ways for these moms (and dads) to do BOTH. It is smart for firms to be flexible to ensure that they can retain this subset of ambitious employees who are also highly involved parents. We've got a lot of them in DC, god knows, in private practice and the non-profit, governments realms.

It is important for our society overall to make sure that these types, who have so much energy to contribute, are granted some flexibility so they can contribute on the home front and in their professions.

Posted by: leslie4 | January 28, 2008 9:36 AM

Fred, very glad to hear you and Freida are home now; I have my fingers crossed here.

And wow, I'm actually qualified to speak to today's topic -- not that I ever let that stop me anyway. :-) We are really pretty good at this as firms go, but it's still a struggle. A few years ago, I made partner while on a part-time status, and another woman was elected while on maternity leave. Strangely enough, we're apparently better about doing it than we are at bragging about doing it -- we only recently had a formal policy ("policy" used to mean "ask the managing partner and he'll say ok"), and we only updated our website @ 6 mos. ago to talk about what we do. It was strange to realize that our younger associates didn't always understand how flexible we are, because we hadn't bothered to write anything down -- those of us who had been here a while just knew that whatever you wanted to do was fine.

The problem is in finding a way to make it work. Many female lawyers are married to other lawyers, which can remove some of the financial "need" to work full-time (barring 6-figure loans, of course). And if you want kids, it is very hard to juggle two big-firm jobs. Meanwhile, it seems like more women still are interested in taking on primary child-care responsibilities than men, and it is definitely still much more socially accepted for women to quit or take lower-pay/prestige jobs than men. So you hit the mid-level associate point, you realize two 60-hr/week jobs aren't very compatible with kids, you start to wonder if this is really how you want to live for the next 20 years, you realize you could afford to make less (or no) money -- and suddenly a lot of folks leave for the government or to stay home.

The only way to fight the brain drain is to convince people that they really can have a satisfying career AND a life. We have come up with a few ways to do that. First, if someone wants to go part-time, they can do that -- at any level -- and get paid that percentage of their salary (including bonus elibigility). Yes, we do say even as low as 10-20% (we have some telecommuters who don't do much more than that), although that will very likely delay partnership. But offering on-demand part-time only works if part-time isn't a mommy ghetto -- which is why a lot of people were really psyched when they elected me partner after I'd telecommuted part-time from another state for several years, and voiced my intention to stay part-time for the foreseeable future (we've also recently elected another part-time partner).

Second, we kept our baseline hours expectations set at a reasonable level; we asked our associates a few years ago, and they said they did NOT want us to match the big DC firm salaries, because they knew that higher pay = higher hours. For those associates who want to bill more and make more money, we offer set hours-based bonuses for exceeding the baseline -- but if you don't shoot for that, you aren't hurt in any way. We also offer merit-type bonuses that everyone is eligible for.

Finally, we have also let a variety of people telecommute from various locations around the US (and starting next year, around the globe). Again, with two-career couples, you can't always guarantee that people will be able to stay in the same area. So when there are people you want to keep, you find ways to entice them to stay. In fact, one of our telecommuters actually led to the opening of a new branch office.

But it's hard. You want to make sure this is a good place to work for people like me, who want a rewarding career and a life. But you also can't focus so hard on rewarding people like me that the folks who decide to work their butts off working 2200 hrs/yr feel undervalued. Which is why the top requirement for success here remains getting the work done when it needs to be done. If you want flexibility to go home with your kids, you need to be prepared to give back some of that flexibility when a client crisis happens outside your "scheduled" work hours.

Posted by: laura33 | January 28, 2008 9:37 AM

I am an attorney,the main breadwinner in the family, and a mother. I used to work at a firm in NYC but always knew I would look for something less crazy after a few years. Even though my husband is a SAHD and I could feasibly do the law firm thing, I had no desire to live my life like that. I believe a lot of lawyers also agree, both men and women, and are increasingly willing to take less money for more time. There will always be some who love making it their life, but people like that are not sufficient to meet all the demand, and that is why the firms will have to change some.

I now work for a government agency and am very pleased and grateful for my present job-- mostly regular hours, interesting work (far more interesting than what I had at the firm in fact), relaxed atmosphere, and more than decent pay, even if it is substantially less than what I would make at a firm. Unlike many of my former firm colleagues, I never allowed myself to get into buying expensive things and trying to work myself into an upper class lifestyle, so it was not really a sacrifice (other than paying debt off more slowly and saving less-- more than counterbalanced by saving my sanity) to go to a lower salary.

Posted by: rybatskoye | January 28, 2008 9:38 AM

Fred, good to hear about Freida' hospital release!

If you can keep in mind that a nurse is one of those special people whose primary function is to deal with other people's body fluids, you'll do fine. Yuck! If you're cheerful about your duties, it's called good bedside manner. I'm sure you'll do great playing the role of a makeshift nurse. You can even borrow my wife's stethascope, thermometer, and bloodpressure cuff. (The white dress I'm not sure about though) :-)

Posted by: DandyLion | January 28, 2008 9:45 AM

Thanks dandylion.

But white is not my color and my knobby knees look horrible in a dress!


Posted by: Fred | January 28, 2008 9:51 AM

I did forget about a woman who telecommutes from another country - but she has a very very specialized skill set that makes her very valuable to the firm, so they accept it. It wouldn't be ok for any other associate to do this.
In response to leslie4, I think the problem with hubby is that he went to a top 10 law school, which, while he has the brains to go along with that, means that we have a very heavy load of student loans, which requires working at the a top firm for a while in order to fulfill that obligation. We made a huge mistake with this house - the timing was very very bad for us - both career and market wise. If we didn't have the house, we would leave now and find a job in a place where we can still pay the student loans and yet have a more normal life. Does that make sense? If hubby had known how extremely demanding firm work would be, I think he would have been better off going to a lower-tier school, which would mean that we wouldn't have so much school debt. There is a great deal of nuance here and it is difficult to explain without writing a terribly long post.
Driven? Ambitious? I think he was right our of school, but the past six years have taken a lot of out of him, and although well-paid, he feels that he needs more internally rewarding work right now. He doesn't have time to do things outside of work that would give him those feelings of internal satisfaction, so he ends up being really really empty. He is really really smart and very good at what he does.

Posted by: goodwater1 | January 28, 2008 9:54 AM

Hey, Fred, It's good to hear that Frieda has successfully busted (as it were) out of prison -- I mean, been discharged from the hospital! I'm sure you and still-at-home kid will do a great job taking care of her. My best guess is that, after all the bustle and numerous sleep interruptions in the hospital, Frieda may now want to rest up as much as possible, so no loud dance parties at Chez Fred for the next few days, OK? But maybe by Mardi Gras, she should be rested up enough to start enjoying the music, too!

Posted by: mehitabel | January 28, 2008 9:59 AM

Well, you know Mardi Gras parades started last weekend!

Mardi Gras is early this year, Feb 5.

Posted by: Fred | January 28, 2008 10:08 AM

Hey Laura, what is this wonderful firm you work at? I'm sure many here will be interested. Or you can just email the name to me, if you like -- kidchicago at gmail.


Posted by: pmcmullen100 | January 28, 2008 10:11 AM

Fred, glad to hear your wife is doing well. Sending our warm wishes your way.

On topic, I am not a lawyer but it sounds like there are other options for attorneys like government work, part time, working independently, etc... I don't think there is anything wrong with allowing a few killer jobs for top salaries. Some lawyers want to do the firm thing till they pay off their loans and then switch to something else. Some just like the challenge. Others seem to like the money. There is nothing wrong with that. But I think Laura is right. Offer a range of options, and let people choose. But with each option, you got to give something to get something. Why would anyone expect to get tons of flexibility, work less, but get paid the same amount of someone working more and someone willing to be less flexible?

Posted by: foamgnome | January 28, 2008 10:13 AM

Well, Fred and Frieda, in that case:

"Laissez les bons temps rouler!"

Posted by: mehitabel | January 28, 2008 10:16 AM

Laura brings up a good, often overlooked point: part of the problem in finding "balance" is that lawyers often marry lawyers, etc. Special care is needed to find balance when both mom and dad want to work hard, do well, and be involved parents.

More often than not it is still the mom who makes the career sacrifices, for the reasons Laura outlined. To me, one person making all the work sacrifices, and the other making all the family sacrifices, does not add up to "balance."

Posted by: leslie4 | January 28, 2008 10:19 AM

You know, it's not just lawyers with crazy billable hours - it's any consulting firm.

Back when I worked for a large Internet development and services firm, I can't count the crazy hours I worked. I had to be billable for at least 90% of my time or the threat of being laid off was quite real. And since everyone feels web sites need to be up from the minute you conceive them, despite the complexity and changing decisions of the clients, well, 60-70 hour 6 day work weeks were the norm. (Our boss drew the line at regular 7 day weeks and protected us from the higher ups when they pushed - he pointed out that we needed a day to rest and be away from the projects to be effective.)

My husband is a federal contractor, and he works long hours on a regular basis, crazy hours when a deadline is looming. There have been weeks of time where he is out of the house by 6 am and home at 9:30 pm.

Lawyers are the obvious target for this, but anyone who does consulting work knows this level of frustration. Being excessively billable is how you survive as a consultant (at least when you're not working for yourself and can set your own limits).

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | January 28, 2008 10:23 AM

My husband and I are both lawyers and it is always a balancing act. We're fortunate to live out West where the pace is slower and the work expectation is much better balanced with family. This community has a huge focus on children and family which makes a difference. That being said, my first firm here where I was an associate was purchased by a large firm out of Phoenix. When that happened, they made a happy announcement what a good deal it was because they could get Phoenix billable hours from us but continue to pay us the local salary. And they were surprised when all of the associates then left. I'm in-house now with a normal schedule of 40 hours per week but with flexible start and stop times. No weekends. Some travel. So easy compared to a few years ago. The large firms will have to recognize that this generation, in many cases, values both parents being able to work and have a successful and fulfilling career which means balance for both men and women. I know both men and women who have left large firms for small, for government, or to go out solo (although this did not mean fewer hours, just ownership of the product and the proceeds). I loved being an associate and a litigator but I value the time I have with my children too much to go back to that life.

Posted by: Stacey | January 28, 2008 10:33 AM

Hey, pmcmullen, sorry to disappoint you, but we're sort of a specialty geek firm, so it's fairly unlikely we'd be up your alley -- and we're actually all full up for the time being anyway. :-)

Posted by: laura33 | January 28, 2008 10:34 AM

I am also a govt lawyer and the problem with saying that everyone can make choices is that, for lawyers, there actually aren't a lot of choices. There really aren't that many govt jobs out there - for every opening we have, over a hundred people apply. So don't count on a govt job. Finding flexibility at law firm you've already paid your dues at seems to be the norm, but going somewhere cold straight into a flexible situation never seems to happen.

Posted by: jecarros | January 28, 2008 10:50 AM

Goodwater1, Thanks for your two posts. I read them very closely as my wife and I are in a similar position: I am 40 yrs old and put off my first kid until I felt established as a lawyer. That has not happened but I have the hour requirement and the blackberry thumb anyway. We had our first child recently and I am very scared that we won't be able to do much more. When I was trying to get established, the money flow was not too great. Now I need the salary to help compensate for the student loan debt and new cars needed, as well as the new expenses with my son. I feel trapped.

Posted by: bobh1967 | January 28, 2008 11:18 AM

I've worked in legal HR for almost 20 years (with a break for a bit to be a SAHM). I think we're on our way to becoming a kinder, gentler place to work, but it's going to take time. First of all, the billable hour is going to go bye-bye in my working lifetime, probably sooner than later. That will have a sea change on the structure of all firms and they'll become a pay for performance kind of deal. Right now, there are plenty of older partners (sorry to be ageist, good thing this blog is anon!) who think that the younger generation, while a force to be reckoned with, are whiney and entitled. The men have largely had stay-at-home wives who handled the domestic side so they could excel at their careers. The women often had to outperform the men to make partner in the first place and don't necessarily take too kindly to the idea that it should be easier for the rising generations. The fact is, it's a huge problem. I think I said on this blog a while back that when we allowed associates to pick their salary based on number of hours (i.e., 1800 billable hour expectation gets you x dollars, whereas 2200 hours and you get that much more), more than half went for the quality of life choice. We're also facing an increasing problem of women who drop out altogether after having children because they don't see any viable options for making it work part-time. Certainly the number of role models are limited at this firm, and I know at other firms they don't even exist. BUT the good news is the times, they are a-changin'. I expect in 20 years that part-time schedules of all kinds will be much more acceptable than they are now. As I said, we're moving toward a complete pay-for-performance culture.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | January 28, 2008 11:28 AM

Also, Fred, give my best to Freida. Good to hear she's out of the hospital.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | January 28, 2008 11:36 AM


I am sorry you feel trapped - I think hubby does, too. It is one of those 'once you climb aboard, its really really hard to get off' cycles. I will admit - having the money has been very nice, but its not everything. And now, we have over-bought in terms of house and the mortgage is a real downer - it is a very complicated long story, but not a smart move by two over-educated people. . .hmm. I know we both wanted out of the house we were in, but we moved up too far. . .
I really want to have children, and as I am in my late 30s, I need to get going on that. I am afraid that hubby will feel even more pressure if it happens now, but biologically speaking, it has to happen now. I wonder how he would handle all of that.

Posted by: goodwater1 | January 28, 2008 11:41 AM


I am sorry you feel trapped - I think hubby does, too. It is one of those 'once you climb aboard, its really really hard to get off' cycles. I will admit - having the money has been very nice, but its not everything. And now, we have over-bought in terms of house and the mortgage is a real downer - it is a very complicated long story, but not a smart move by two over-educated people. . .hmm. I know we both wanted out of the house we were in, but we moved up too far. . .
I really want to have children, and as I am in my late 30s, I need to get going on that. I am afraid that hubby will feel even more pressure if it happens now, but biologically speaking, it has to happen now. I wonder how he would handle all of that.

oops- hit the submit button too soon. . .

It is all about choices - but the funny thing is - our friends who make much less money than what we do are the ones who do actually go on vacations and do fun stuff - we never seem to have the time to do it. Hubby is a little funny about vacations and it is something that we are working on.
It will take a lot of work, and a lot of time (until this real estate market turns around) to get out of this situation, but I know that we will. In the meantime, we are trying to do little things to get through - little getaways and I am trying to think of things that would help him to feel more fulfilled that won't take a lot of time.

Posted by: goodwater1 | January 28, 2008 11:45 AM

Anyone here have experience with public interest law and work-life balance? I am preparing for law school in the fall, and I am going specifically so that I can practice public interest law. I will not work for a law firm on a "partner" track, but I still wonder how the low income and work demands of being a lawyer will affect my family life. I want to have kids in the next couple of years (God willing).

Posted by: JEGS | January 28, 2008 11:48 AM

If you want to work in Big Law and make Big Money, you have to put in Big Time.

The demands of working for a very large lawfirm aren't a secret. The time and availability requirements aren't some well kept secret. Men and women alike are obsessed with the idea of working for a huge firm and making the big bucks. Legal work isn't a cushy job.

There are plenty of option for lawyers that are less all-consuming. I work as a litigator for a mid-sized regional firm. I earn a good wage (I live quite comfortably), though nothing near what the big firms pay. I rarely come into the office on weekends, only sometimes bring work home from me, and very rarely have to respond to anything on my blackberry immediately. My billable hours requirement is easily obtainable, and, gasp, I even take vacations!

It can be done, and you don't have to go to a government or non-profit job to have balance.

You just have to find the right kind of firms and stop being so romanced with the money!

Posted by: danilynn17 | January 28, 2008 11:54 AM

Goodwater1, Age is an issue for my wife and myself too. From my standpoint, I don't want to try and raise kids while I am in my 50s and 60s. And my wife turns 37 this year and worries whether she'll be able to have another child when we're ready. Plus we've got autism in our family and spent last night worry about that (I did not sleep well).

One last point: health is extra important here, when you decide to have a child in your late 30s. I needed the extra reserves of energy to help my wife through a tough pregancy and some difficult few months after our son came home. And last night feedings are murder. If I was in bad shape, we would not have made it. My advice is if your husband is getting worn down physically from his job, leave asap.

Posted by: bobh1967 | January 28, 2008 12:07 PM

what you say is true, danilynn17, that the hours, etc. are not a secret. Unfortunately for many (most?) who choose to go to top tier law schools, six figure loans are a reality. I would love to trade my biglaw job for something reasonable - but when my husband and I pay thousands each *month* to pay school loans, it is impossible to make that jump.

It is curious. Has the dilemma come to be choosing between a "better" (and often times significantly more expensive) education or having a life once you are a lawyer? It seems for many it is diffuclt to have both....

Posted by: teampbgf | January 28, 2008 12:11 PM

I'll leave the culture observations to mn, laura, and lizabean but billable hours business model = crazy hours from everything I can see. Perhaps if legal services were delivered up using a software development pricing model (x amount of hours to a project costs y) then things might be different. In that model there is pressure to do things more efficiently and return profit to the company.

Posted by: tntkate | January 28, 2008 09:05 AM

As an aside, the billable hours model at least means we bill, and collect (generally) for the work we actually do. Flat fee work works for certain limited practices, in certain firms interested in competing primarily on price. A fee cap based on estimated time it will take to provide X will always be low, though, unless you are in full control of your time. When client interactions are involved, and only one party is incentivized to be efficient, that profit margin goes out the window. So - the billable hours model actually encourage efficiency on both sides. Like the majority of my colleagues, I have plenty of work, and haven't the slightest desire or motivation to spend one more minute on a project than is necessary to deliver a high-quality product along with sound advice, and move on.

On topic: Leslie's column strikes me as outdated. After the first few years or so, most firms ARE focused on collections over billables. From a budgeting standpoint, though, billables are a proxy for collections because they tend, subject to a particular multiplier, to result in X collections. Most firms permit telecommuting, to an extent subject to client convenience. I am a little puzzled by those who claim there are not a range of choices in the law: in-house, small firm, large firm, regional firm, alternative work schedule, off-site project, association, boutique, public interest, etc. The only choice we don't have is: to work only as and when convenient, earn a big paycheck, have new friends say, "Wow," when they learn where we work, AND get all the most intellectually challenging and lucrative projects. Neither does anyone in any other industry have that option. Everything else is on the table, though. Like any other industry, your choices are more wide-ranging if you have a track record of extraordinary academic and professional performance. Even if you don't, though, you have a wide variety of options.

The law is a competitive business and, similar to other industries, certain practices are subject to the pressures of off-shore competitors. Staying competitive in a global marketplace is not a unique challenge to the practice of law. The need to compete on the basis of service, quality and, yes, price is not an industry-specific challenge. Those expectations are only a problem with those who refuse to set priorities and make choices for themselves.

Realize that the consultant Leslie quotes supports herself by saying the sky is falling and pushing part-time options at law firms. The more she says there's a problem, the more gigs she gets making lunchtime presentations on the wonder and beauty of flexible schedules. Not that she's wrong, but she has an obvious bias.

If I wasn't the primary support for my family, working for a good firm with great colleagues and great work, I could have taken my credentials in -house to a client, or non-client, or to a smaller firm after 3 years. Many here do just that. I don't buy into the powerless victim mentality of female lawyers. We need to own our choices.

Posted by: mn.188 | January 28, 2008 12:24 PM

I worked for a law firm and it wasn't just the attorney's that worked long hours, so did the legal secretaries.

Posted by: sharonw | January 28, 2008 12:30 PM

To me, one person making all the work sacrifices, and the other making all the family sacrifices, does not add up to "balance."
Posted by: leslie4 | January 28, 2008 10:19 AM

Not a surprise, again I strongly disagree with Leslie! How about a rephrase as this:
"Balance does not entail both partners (or either partner) making sacrifices that they feel are excessive."

MANY couples work things out so that one of them focuses on work and the other focuses on the household. As a team, they have achieved terrific balance! Each person has to consider not just him/herself but also his/her partner in determining which choices to make to achieve balance.

When we first moved here and my husband worked overtime to pay for our new house, I stayed home and renovated the house full-time. This arrangement led to FAR better balance than both of us working part-time while part-time renovating the house would have.

Balance is NOT about having 25% work, 25% household chores, 25% family time, 25% personal time. Balance is about juggling all the things in your life in a way that makes you feel somewhat-on-top-of-things and happy.

Posted by: newslinks1 | January 28, 2008 12:56 PM

teampbgf, I understand what you mean, but it's not like I don't have loans to pay off either. Thankfully, I had a scholarship to cover my undergrad loans, but my law school loans were around $70K (2005 graduate). And, btw, I went to a "top tier" law school.

Going to a "top tier" law school really has nothing to do with the amount of debt that you have. There are many schools that are lower in the rankings whose students have just as much, if not more, debt, so I'm not sure what being "top tier" has to do with it.

The whole "top tier" notion and who's school is higher ranked is part of this culture of obsession with making the big bucks, and in turn, often times leading a miserable life. There's this greedy, self-important notion of having to go to the "top tier" law school then get a job at a "top tier" firm.

The debt incurred in choosing to attend a private school with high tuition rates is just that- a choice. No one forces anyone to go to law school. No one forces anyone to go to the places that charge $35K a year for tuition. More students need to do a cost-benefit analysis for themselves and see if the choices they are thinking of a really feasible. And we're not talking about 18 year olds making these choices. People looking at law school are at minimum, 22 years old. Old enough to be able to make a rational decision.


Option 1: Go to a very expensive school because it is "top tier", incur a large amount of debt, be under the pressure to work for the biggest firms making the highest paycheck so that you can make ends meet. Join the big firm culture of billing 2400 hours a year. Never spend time with your family, be on call to your superiors 24-7, and generally be miserable. Have a heart attack at the age of 35 from all the stress.

Option 2: Save some money, apply for financial aid, scholarships, etc. Go to a less expensive school, graduate with less debt and just as good of an education (in most instances). Have some loans, but a reasonable amount. Get a decent paying job at a firm with a good environment and good work-life balance. Earn a decent wage, pay down your debts. Once you've paid some debt down and feel comfortable financially, then have kids, or buy the expensive car, house, etc.

There's a lot of different ways of doing things. While I do believe the cost of a law school education is out of control, people sometimes make irresponsible or short-sighted choices that affect them in the long run. They then turn around and try to blame it on having to pay their school loans, etc. etc. Of course, those can also tend to be people driving a Mercedes, carrying $3,000 purses and otherwise living well beyond their means.

Posted by: danilynn17 | January 28, 2008 12:57 PM

I see what you are saying, danilynn - if anything I think perhaps we are both painting with broad strokes (I have six figures in debt and work hard to earn a salary that pays those loans - but we share one car that is 6 years old that we plan on driving into the ground, havent "upgraded" our life beyond the occasional nice meal out, etc. My experience I admit is very much anectodal,as I have many friends from school who struggle with huge debts even though we lived frugally in school, saved before hand, etc., and feel very much confined by the debt they carry now.

I just think that in many cases it seems counterintuitive to have earned, through hard work and smarts, a "better" opportunity - a spot better ranked law school, in a more robust metropolitan area, that offers programs tailored to the particular area you are interested in, etc. - and to walk away from that to elect what through various data points is the "lesser" option. Of course it is a choice - I faced a similar dilemma in undergrad and opted for the school with more scholarship money (and less loans) over the "better" school because I didn't want to be saddled with debt.

I just think it becomes a harder thing to walk away from when it comes to professional degrees especially to know that you have busted your hump and achieved so that you can secure a degree from a good school and to turn that down for something 'less'.(again, not that rankings are everything - I could go on for days about how the most important part of your education is what YOU put into it...but the bottom line is that I could be just as smart and have just as good grades but if I went to Y school instead of X, many employers wouldn't even look at me twice. I've seen it happen countless times in the professional context with friends who did not go to the "best" school and subsequently struggled). I dont think its entirely accurate to say that people who take a big gulp and choose the better school and consequently take on debt are irresponsible or short sighted - some may be, but that can be true on the flip side. (an argument can be made that choosing a school that does not have instructors that are as top-notch, that does not have as high of placement rates in the desired area, does not have as strong of a reputation, etc. to incur a % less in debt is short-sighted and irresponsible if you find yourself in the position of still having loans but having greater difficulty securing a job, or being turned down for jobs with better salaries, or in the area you want to practice in, etc. because your 'pedigree' isnt as good. I hate the pedigree BS, but it is what it is, and I think it is possible to be shortsighted on either side- ultimately its a leap of faith regardless of your choice, but you can be left with unfortunate consequences regardless...

Posted by: teampbgf | January 28, 2008 1:28 PM

You people do realize that there are other professions (or even not professional) jobs out there, right? Now before anyone gets all upset, I do understand today's topic was specifically about top-tier law firms. But still, I browse this blog on a regular basis, and many of the participants seem to forget that most of the working world does NOT consist of lawyers.

And it's not like someone is changing the rules in the middle of the game, with respect to what you need to do to make partner in one of the prestigious law firms. Everyone knows this up front. Someone above said lawyers often marry other lawyers. Fair enough. But then the couple have no one else to blame but themselves--it is a marriage issue about who is going to back off on the career goals to raise a family. That's not the law firm's problem.

Do I enjoy the way such law firms make millions off the slave labor of associates? Of course not. I would like them to be more human friendly, let alone family friendly. But please, stop already with the cries for sympathy, woe is me, for your chosen lifestyle. As with most things, from running for president on done, everything has a cost.

One final plea, let's remember there's plenty of hourly employees who cannot even dream of the flexibility a professional might at times enjoy, when you lament being unable to attend dear child extracurricular school activities. Work from home? Fuggetabbowtit!

Posted by: sb | January 28, 2008 1:32 PM

I am against this FACTS program if it is the only allowable one. I am very much a feminist, but being a lawyer means committing to a lot of working hours. Law students going into law school already overwhelmingly recognize this fact, and I don't see anything wrong with it. Yes, law firms should allow for flexible schedules for working mothers, but overall, I see nothing wrong with the status quo for the rest of us. I'm becoming a lawyer because I not only love the law, but also thrive in an environment conducive to many hours of overtime work. Maybe I misunderstood how the FACTS program operates, but from the way I read it, this provides a benefit at the expense of others rather than finding a solution without taking away benefits from others in the firm.

Posted by: maaraj | January 28, 2008 2:01 PM

I've got to question some of the concerns about law school loans. I went to a top-10 private law school on 100% financial aid. My parents didn't pay a dime of tuition for law school or undergrad. I made a lot as a summer associate, so didn't have to borrow as much 2d and 3d year (you don't have to take everything they offer you), but still graduated with major debt. I went to Big Law firms for 3.5 years and managed to pay down a lot of my debt, buy a condo on my own, and then take a huge paycut to go to govt job I care about and that gives me flexibility. I paid off all my loans this year (6.5 years after law school graduation) without any major financial sacrifice -- just being smart and practical with money. My husband (whom I met several years after law school) and many of our friends did the same. If you are still drowning in law school debt when you're making a firm salary ($200K+) and are several years out of law school, you are doing something wrong.

Posted by: kackidee | January 28, 2008 2:02 PM

I am not a lawyer but I have a question. Suppose a person racks up 150,000 in debt going to law school. Given the person buys a modest town house or starter 3 bedroom home in DC, drives a modest car (Honda, Toyota, Mazdat etc...), how fast can they pay off the loans? 3-5 years, 5-8 years, 8-10 years, 11+ years? My point is if a person maintains their financial sanity, and pays off their loans in 5-8 years out of law school, then couldn't they afford to switch to a more reasonable job (like government, non profit, smaller firm etc...). I felt really bad for goodwater and booh. IT must suck to have all that education, high salary, and still feel trapped.

Posted by: foamgnome | January 28, 2008 2:02 PM

The amount of time it takes to pay off loans all depends on the person's career choices. I am 10 years out of law school and am still paying. I did also get an LL.M after law school (Master's Degree) that adds to the amount. But I have been working for the Federal Gov't, by choice, since I got out. I know my law school loans will take another 10 years or more until I finish them because I made a career choice to earn less. But in return, I work basic 40 hour weeks, get paid well, have time with my family and own my weekends and evenings.

Posted by: happydad | January 28, 2008 2:09 PM


I am not sure what to make of your post. Yes, hubby went to a top-tier law school by his own choice. He has about $100,000 in loans. We live in an area where it is VERY expensive to own a home - we did when we first moved here. The only wrong move we have made is that we decided to build a much larger home - school, firm, all of that, not the wrong choice at the time, but now, we want out of the rat race that is so unrewarding, and we are stuck until we can sell this house.
Yes, it is all about choices. I think you think I am complaining, I am not. What I am trying to say is that we are realizing the price a family pays for all of the work. The 2 million average partner salary isn't enough to make up for all of the time he would be away and tied to the blackberry and computer when he is at home or 'on vacation.' It is too draining on the soul - yes, some people can do it, and more power to them.
Yes, there is enough out there to let someone know what firm life is like if you want to be partner, but it is another thing altogether to actually go through it. A lot of people think they can do all of those soulless hours and that the money is enough of a reward. I know hubby was one of those people AT ONE TIME.
These firms are entrenched in the past - in my opinion, if the work gets done, it shouldn't really matter where you are, but the partners aren't of that mindset yet. I think it is brilliant that some firms are moving towards more flexible plans. They will be able to keep more of the top-notch talent with those plans - I know hubby would have taken the fewer hours/lower pay option - truth be told, it would still have been a lot of money. I think he might have avoided this burn-out after only 6 years if that had been available. (Firm does not pay nor is the bonus tied to billable, but 2000 hours minimum are still 'expected').
Yes, we 'knew' what we were getting into 6 years ago, but no one REALLY knows what it will be like until you actually experience something. I don't think that 78% would even start if they really KNEW what it would be like.
They say that only the ones who really want it work hard enough to make partner and stay long to do so, and that may be true, but that doesn't mean that they are the best of the bunch, and isn't that what the firms should be after?

Posted by: goodwater1 | January 28, 2008 2:10 PM

I meant how long if you work for these big named firms that people are talking about? I just figure if you could pay them off in 6 years or less, is it really so terrible to do it for 6 years and then switch to something more reasonable. Again, I am not a lawyer. So I am just guessing.

Posted by: foamgnome | January 28, 2008 2:12 PM

"And it's not like someone is changing the rules in the middle of the game, with respect to what you need to do to make partner in one of the prestigious law firms. Everyone knows this up front."

Yeah, that's true, but still.

I sometimes wonder if we (collectively) minimize or pooh-pooh the notion that as we grow older, most of us get more tired, more easily.

Working 60+ hours per week is one thing to know when you are 17 or 23 or whatever and aware of how hard you will be working. Actually doing it, and knowing that your work "counts" (tuition is just one of many bills you assume as an adult) must be a very different thing.

I mean, I'm pretty active, but I can't imagine working 10 p.m. - 5 a.m., then going home and doing chores, then going to college and getting there in time for an 8 a.m. genetics class and not getting done with classes and home until 5 p.m. Doing chores, eating, napping for three hours, going to work... But I did it, once upon a time.

Coulda had a V8 too.

Posted by: maryland_mother | January 28, 2008 2:18 PM


Until this past fall, hubby and I lived in a very modest house and drove old old cars. We still drive the old old cars - the house is new and big - IT WAS NOT A GOOD IDEA! We know that we are spending way too much on a big house that we don't need. But we thought we were going to stay here and at the time, we didn't feel the way we do now. BUT we are on the 30 year payment plan - yes, it is another mortgage.

We have dogs, want a large yard, so that is an expensive choice here.

We are doing our best to get out of the house, but it may be a while, considering. We will be leaving the area when that happens and going someplace a lot where we can have a yard and still make a relatively good income, but on a smaller scale. We can't buy a house with a yard in the DC area on a $100,000 gov't lawyer salary and that is about how high it goes (and that is a lot less than hubby's 1st year pay at firm - 6 years ago). How could we pay more than $1,000 a month in student loans on that and have a house with a yard and so forth?
Yes, it is all about choices, and we will both be the first to admit that we haven't made some good ones, so please do not think that we do not realize that. I think the point is is that if there was some more flexibility in this job, hubby would be a lot less burned out, and we could continue at the job, but there isn't any at all, for him.
We will get through this - we will - it will just a little - or a lot - of time - and an incredible amount of patience.

Posted by: goodwater1 | January 28, 2008 2:21 PM

Foamgnome, you can pay off $100,000 (and more) in debt in 6 years with the aid of a firm salary -- many of us have. It does mean not buying a huge house or Mercedes, but it doesn't mean living on mac & cheese -- a 5th Year associate at most any decent firm in DC should be making over $250k with bonus -- some are making a lot more.

Also govt legal salaries aren't capped at $100k -- many are GS-15 up to $149 -- but it is true that most first year associates make mroe than most govt lawyers.

Posted by: kackidee | January 28, 2008 2:26 PM

goodwater: That is all I wanted to know. It sounds like people can put about $1K/month to loans working at these firms. So that would take about 8.33 years to pay off 100K loan. A little long for me but not too terrible for some. Best of luck. I hope you can sell. The real estate market sucks now.

Posted by: foamgnome | January 28, 2008 2:27 PM


Yes, you are exactly right. We did do a lot wrong and are learning from that. But, that doesn't make us bad, either.

Hubby had no financial aid at a Top 10 private law school and that is a big difference over three years - at least $35,000, if not $40,000, per year (not counting living expenses). You cannot pay that off as a summer associate, nor save for the next year, not realistically, anyway. (He only had one summer as an associate - that makes it even harder.)
Zero help from parents, and an additional approx. $15,000 from undergrad. Plus my student loans from grad school, which are about $65,000 - I haven't been getting paid work because of the unpaid job I was doing while in the other house - it kept us sane. If I had had a 40 a week job, I am pretty sure we wouldn't have made it through those years.) Add that up, and we are close to $200,000 in debt just from school - and yes, we think about it, but not daily because it would drive us crazy. I could work now, but we have some responsibilities that limit that, too. I would like very much to get some freelance work.

No, I am not asking anyone to feel sorry for us or our choices. I am simply saying that we have learned the hard way that the big law firm job is not what it is all cracked up to be. Hubby thought partner was what he wanted - which would really take care of the debt - now he knows its not, so we need to figure out this debt and move on. The $110,000 debt (his only) will keep us in this type of job for a while, as well as the house that we thought was a smart thing at the time - but it wasn't.

Posted by: goodwater1 | January 28, 2008 2:42 PM

Goodwater, I'm sorry if I came off as nasty, I didn't mean to be. By "financial aid" I meant loans -- I graduated about $100k in debt. I didn't pay anything off with my summer associate salary, but it allowed me to take less loans the next year (for the non-lawyers, summer associates now make more than $2400/week). I was lucky not to have undergraduate debt. I understand other people have a rougher road, and you're right that law firm life is not easy. Good luck paying everything off and I hope you are able to sell the house. Hang in there.

Posted by: kackidee | January 28, 2008 3:02 PM

we have two cars, one 9 and one 10 or 11 years old - so we aren't driving anything very nice, either. We have been fully funding 401K.
The unfortunate thing is I know of at least one 5th year associate who has absolutely not one cent of savings, students loans, and everything under the sun. He owns a condo at least, but drives a leased, very expensive car. At least we doing pretty well in the 401K - well, I haven't looked lately, but you know what I mean!

Posted by: goodwater1 | January 28, 2008 3:03 PM

We have enough in the bank to pay off my student loans, if not hubby's (one or the other) from the sale of our other house, so things shouldn't be all that bad as far as debt. Hubby can't decide what to do with it, though. I am not sure, either. These days, its awfully nice to have to fall back on.

Posted by: goodwater1 | January 28, 2008 3:09 PM

from goodwater:
Plus my student loans from grad school, which are about $65,000 - I haven't been getting paid work because of the unpaid job I was doing while in the other house - it kept us sane. If I had had a 40 a week job, I am pretty sure we wouldn't have made it through those years.) Add that up, and we are close to $200,000 in debt just from school - and yes, we think about it, but not daily because it would drive us crazy. I could work now, but we have some responsibilities that limit that, too.

I'm just completely baffled by this. Don't you think with your advanced degree that cost you at least $65K, you should be working?! The odds are very good that whatever your responsibilities in the house, they could be outsourced to someone (whether a maid, a nurse, etc) for FAR cheaper.

Just really dumbfounded by this whole situation...Gee, I know my grad school cost alot...Gee, I know the house cost more than we could afford...Gee, I sure like staying home...
At what point does your burned-out husband get pissed off at you for not financially contributing at all, when your loans are such a large part of your shared debt?!

Posted by: newslinks1 | January 28, 2008 3:45 PM

i think that women have all the right as well it shouldn't be senority only it should be open to anyone that deserves it not because you've benn there longer

Posted by: whitneyc | January 28, 2008 3:52 PM

foamgnome: At the other end of the lawyer/law school debt spectrum is the prosecutor world -- I have a friend whose debt load is $800/month on about $55-60K salary in Miami area. She can't imagine doing any other kind of work but she knows her loans will be around a lot longer and has deferred home ownership.

Posted by: tntkate | January 28, 2008 3:55 PM


I posted this but it doesn't appear to have gone through.

In the past five years, we started his job. We bought a house that we lived in until about 6 months ago. MY JOB was renovating it. Yes, I scraped lead paint for months (never did get it all done). Yes, I, with one other person, put in two AC/heating systems. I did the kitchen from top to bottom, tore out a wall, wiring, tiling, drywall, insulation, paint, cabinets, everything. Same with a large pantry area. Tiled and painted and completely re-did two bathrooms. Dug a drainage ditch, put in the tubing, filled it up (with one person helping). I did this 5 days a week by myself, then on weekends with hubby. Fun. I also did all the cooking and cleaning and errand running - hubby has only been to the grocery store maybe 10 times in these 5 years, if that, and only if its been an emergency.
Maybe I didn't do it EVERY day, but almost.
This was our balance - in retrospect, I would rather have had a job that I could escape to from the house. I would rather have paid someone to do those things, but we thought we would make more money off the house if we did the work ourselves. Yes, I would rather have had a job. I would love to be the writer I think I could have been.

Yes, I am sure what people think about me not actually 'working.'

Posted by: goodwater1 | January 28, 2008 4:21 PM


ok, as a temporary thing, i totally get it. in fact, that's exactly what we did for the first 6 months on our house. (and i understand your feelings that perhaps the drudgery wasn't worth it!) (on the other hand, there's a certain satisfaction that comes from looking at a stunning finished room that was hideous when you started, that you personally gutted and slaved over...)

what i don't get is why you obtained an advanced degree that you seem to have no interest in using. i feel like a lot of my friends have gone to grad school with NO concrete plans for how to use their degrees. and i just don't get why taking out tens of thousands in student loans to obtain something that they will likely never get paid back for (through higher earnings) makes ANY sense.

if you want to be a SAHM, I completely applaud that. if you want to take time off to personally renovate your house, or go travelling, or indulge whatever dreams you have, i completely applaud that. if the house is done, though, and you aren't pregnant yet, i just don't get why you aren't working. it seems to me like a terrific waste of your shared resources (in this case, your human potential.)

Posted by: newslinks1 | January 28, 2008 5:11 PM


Well, sometimes it is hard to know what one wants to do after being away so long. Yes, I got those two Masters - maybe I didn't study the right thing, but they are useful, nonetheless. Well, things aren't as cut and dried as just spending six months renovating the house - it really was so much more than that - reading that post - well, it seems like it is just a snap of the finger and all of those things are done - no, that's not how it worked, really. (oh yea, I also sold the house myself - no agent. No, I do not want to do that!)
The last six months have flown by - I haven't been sitting still and hubby and I still need to decide what is going to happen. Hubby is being very patient while I (we) figure it out. Severely outdated skills don't really help, as well. Anyway- we will figure it out - I just need a little time.

Posted by: goodwater1 | January 28, 2008 5:41 PM

When out of college, my friends and I had difficult times getting jobs (graduated during a recession, others with more experience were willing to take entry level jobs, etc). We each worked a bit, then I waited tables, etc....

A friend of mine decided to go to law school - so she could get a job. I clearly don't know everything, but I think she felt helpless, and wanted a law degree cause she thought that then she would always be able to get a job.

She went to a private school, so graduated with tons of debt. And she couldn't find a job, either. She temped for a while, then eventually got a 'real' job. I guess making pretty good money *shrug*. Then she got married and had a kid (has two now). She wanted to stay at home with the kids. The thing is, she still had all these loans - as did her lawyer husband. The firm she was working for offered for her to work 3 days a week MAKING THE SAME SALARY - with no benefits. She couldn't bear to do it - so she turned them down (that would have been *my* dream - part time...). Her DH has since gone on his own, they are renting an apt for the two kids (they were in NYC, now in the suburbs).

It looks unlikely that they will buy a house any time soon, they still have two law school loans to pay off, but realistically one income (although I suspect she helps out somehow with his job). I see how tough things are for them.

It's definitely not easy. Of course, seeing 1st year associates making what seems to me a large salary is eye opening.

I sometimes look at my kids and what we hope to have saved up for their college - and think hey- would it be better to just 'give' them the money (over time, to help them out, etc), rather than borrowing what people do to go to college and grad school? I mean, I am all for education, don't get me wrong, but (and I think we've discussed this before...) - it's getting crazy out there. That everyone needs to go to college (which isn't necessarily the case) - that we all need to take the same path. Sometimes the path we sought is not the one we think it was.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | January 28, 2008 9:36 PM

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