Lawyering is brutal

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My brother is a self-employed small-town lawyer. He seems to have plenty of time for his family, and make the mortgage too. I think I like his solution.


I have a friend who graduated from Columbia and worked for several years at one of the big firms in NY. As is typical, he worked 100+ hours a week, with hardly a day off or a vacation. For him the final straw was on a rare morning when he was home with the family, his 6-year-old daughter gave him a hug and said “thanks for visiting, daddy!”

He quit his job and instead got a job as a corporate lawyer in Austin. He says he now works 40-50 hours a week, and due to the much lower cost of living in Austin, even with the pay cut he had to take he actually had a higher standard of living than he had living in NY.


Happens in IT consulting firms, too. Been there, done that. Got numerous coffee mugs.


And this is why I now work in-house. The hours and the expectations are much more reasonable and working on a weekend is a rare event. When it does happen, I receive much praise from my coworkers and bosses (as opposed to private practice, where working on a weekend was just what was expected).

Downsides are of course, pay (I figure I make somewhere around 75% what people in private practice doing similar work and with a similar number of years of experience make) and a slight loss of control. I’ll never “make partner” and there’s more paperwork and bureaucracy involved if I want to take a vacation or I need time off to go to the doctor. However, when I go out for dinner with friends in private practice and after dinner they go back to the office and I go home, those don’t seem like huge sacrifices at all.


It’s the same situation with architects; from the moment you start architecture school (at least in the UK) you’re expected to be seen working at 10pm and bonding with your colleagues over how many all-nighters you pull. Cult-like working practices are seen as a direct measure of ability; if two people produce equally good work, the one who works less than 60 hours a week will be considered a worse designer.

It’s totally stupid, but lots of “professional” fields are like this, because it’s the simplest way for competitive people to distinguish themselves. Employers shouldn’t let it happen because it’s unsustainable, and workers shouldn’t let it happen because it’s exploitative; but we’ve forgotten about the concept of labor rights, and your employer doesn’t give a shit if you burn out (or commit suicide) when they don’t expect you to be there for more than a couple of years anyway.


Why I dropped out of law school, got an internship at the start of the second year and saw how the sausage was made.


The employers don’t care, there is just another one outside they door they can hire after you burn out or die.


I just hope he’s the progressive, family-friendly To Kill a Mockingbird version of Atticus Finch rather than the segregation-supporting version from Go Set A Watchman.


Studies have shown that productivity actually decreases past a number of hours worked. All I can figure is that its popularity is due to it being a dumb, easy metric for people who can’t grasp the concept of properly doing more than one thing in their life.


Everybody in BigLaw is well aware that productivity reaches a point of diminishing returns.

The long hours are driven by two things:

  1. The complexity of the work that many BigLaw lawyers do (particularly once you get past the most junior levels) makes it hard to spread the work among multiple people. Couple that with tight deadlines imposed by courts on litigators and clients on transactional lawyers, and you get lawyers staying late or working weekends to finish their brief or contract on time. Lawyering is actually very similar to software development in this respect, as the brief/contract/code will be cleaner and more internally consistent if a single lawyer/developer oversees as many aspects of it as possible, even if the overall quality of that lawyer’s work may suffer a little due to the long hours.

  2. BigLaw firms mostly bill clients according to the number of hours worked by their lawyers. They therefore view their associates as units of production, where the costs are mostly fixed (salary, benefits, office space, secretarial support, etc.) but revenues (and therefore profitability) increase in direct proportion to the number of hours worked, even if the overall quality of the work might suffer a little.


Pity the corporate lawyers! It is hard to express how stricken, nay heartbroken I am, by the thought that this cruelty and crass exploitation continues, in this day and age!

I think your first point is not so much an explanation of why it happens, as one of the stages in how it’s perpetuated. I mean, if the industry as a whole took three days to do a given task, instead of two days, then that is how long courts and clients would expect it to take. It may not be the fault of any one firm, but it’s entirely the fault of firms collectively, and it wouldn’t happen if no one wanted it to happen.

So at root it’s more about your second point, namely the idea that if your employees are physically capable of doing more without dying, then you should demand it of them. It took centuries for the industrialised world to defeat this mentality, and then in a couple of decades we’ve almost totally flushed that progress down the toilet. Progress!


A totally valid point. But also the nature of just about any ultra-competitive field that doesn’t have some sort of constraint (like labor laws).

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