Question & Answer
The BigLaw Billables, Blow-Your-Mind Blues
July 17, 2012
Help! I'm a mid-level litigation associate at a BigLaw firm and am basically losing my mind.
While I knew exactly what to expect hours-wise when I got into this, I didn't expect that working these kinds of hours would reduce me to a constantly sick, cranky, mess with absolutely no social life.
There's nothing wrong with the firm I'm working for, per se. If anything everyone here is pretty nice. But I just don't think I'm cut out to be billing 2100 hours a year.
Are the hours really any more humane at smaller firms in the city? And how do you find these types of jobs anyway? I get constant calls from recruiters, but all the ones I've spoken to are talking up the same three jobs, all at smaller white-collar defense firms known for even worse hours than the firm I'm at already.
Any suggestions on how to go about finding a recruiter and that true "lifestyle" firm job? Thanks!
Oh boy, do I know a lot of people who would like to be in your position right now. Yes, 2100 hours is a healthy number of hours to be billing but I must say to you that it does sound as if your firm, or at least your department, is quite busy. On top of that, I would guess that you are a well-respected associate who is in good stead with the partners and when the assignments are handed out, you are at the top of the list. In this rough job market and economy, one where it isn't a surprise when a law firm suddenly shutters its doors, you seem to be in a very good position.
Now, that isn't to say that you don't have a reason to be losing your mind, as you put it, and to want a different kind of law practice. As you have told us, you don't feel that you are type of person who wants to deal with a practice that requires 2100 billable hours. A practice with 1800 billable hours would certainly give you a much more relaxed lifestyle, no question about it.
But with an 1800 hour practice comes some other realities that you need to be aware of, although I suspect you are already aware of this. The compensation probably will be less than what you are currently earning. My experience has been that the smaller "lifestyle" firms pay considerably less than the BigLaw firms where the associates are billing longer hours. This is something that you need to be prepared to accept.
Sometimes the partnership track is not as visible at the smaller firms. The partner ranks are far and few between and it is a long and lengthy track to make partner. But it does happen. BTW, it isn't so swell at the larger firms either so this really needn't be a major consideration. Just something to think about.
The most important thing to remember is that you are a litigator. You may join a firm is that is relaxed and doesn't expect you to work after 7 p.m. and never expects you to work on weekends but on the rare occasion when something doesn't settle and it does go to trial, things change and suddenly you might be expected to take on big firm hours. This is the life of a litigator.
I am not surprised that the calls you are receiving from recruiters are all about the same three white-collar defense firms. So, tell those folks at the beginning of the call that if they are recruiting you for that position, you are not interested and save yourself the five-minute pitch. But think about all of the headhunters you have spoken with over the years and pick out one that you felt you liked. Call him or her up and ask to have a meeting.
During that meeting explain that you are not actively on the market and under no circumstances do you want your resume to be submitted to firms without your express prior consent. However, you would like him/her to start doing some research on smaller practices with a full service litigation department (not white collar defense firms) that offer somewhat of a lifestyle change from what you are currently experiencing. Tell him/her that you are looking for a firm that requires around 1800 billable hours per year. That should help to put a good focus on where the headhunter begins his/her search for you.
If this recruiter starts calling you with firms that do not fit the type of opportunity you are seeking, tell him/her that you no longer want his/her services and go to the next search firm on your list. Soon you will find the right recruiter who will understand exactly what you are looking for and hopefully an opportunity will present itself in the near future.
In the meantime, hang in there. You are employed and well-respected at your firm. This is so important for when that great interview comes up at the right firm for you. The last thing you want to have happen is to be unemployed and going out to interview for a job that everyone else also wants.
I know you are going nuts working these long hours but believe it or not, your BigLaw firm is one of the humane ones! I know so many associates at BigLaw firms who are subjected to 2400, 2600 or more billable hours. It's rough right now for you but stay calm. Start your confidential search with a headhunter who you can trust and you will find what you are seeking. Best wishes!
Ann M. Israel