Associate on the brink of becoming partner questions work/life balance perils

Issue July/August 2007

Q. I am a seventh year associate at a local Massachusetts law firm, and I’m coming up for partner soon. I’ve worked hard the last seven years – late hours, long weekends and many missed family vacations, and I feel as though I missed seeing my kids in preschool. While I’ve looked forward for a long time to partnership, expecting that it would bring increased freedom, a reduced schedule and more family time, the young partners that I observe and talk to seem to be working even harder than ever. I’m afraid maybe I don’t want this after all. I feel that my wife would be devastated if she knew of my misgivings, but she also has not enjoyed my absence from home life. And maybe I’m wrong –maybe it’s not so bad. What should I do?

A. First, know that you are not alone – you face a reality confronted by that of many lawyers, often to their surprise. Many lawyers think that once they attain partnership, things will slow down and get easier. However, as you have observed, the realities of law practice today mean that partners frequently work as hard as associates – or even harder. As partner, you would typically face added pressures, compounding the familiar demands to bring in clients and generate billable hours. After years of grueling hours dedicated to the goal of attaining the status and rewards of partnership, many lawyers question whether what they thought they wanted is out of synch with who they really are and what they really value.

Do not be alarmed. You are doing a wise thing by examining your priorities. Career coaches, to whom we sometimes refer our clients, may administer exercises designed to take a fresh look at one’s genuine values, talents and sources of fulfillment. While some lawyers are surprised to find that their current jobs actually fit their individual needs quite well, others realize that they may have left their personal missions far behind. Often, a coach will seek to reconnect the client with the motives that originally inspired their interest in a career in the law. From the moment one enters law school and the culture of lawyers, it is easy (and in some ways useful) to board the career train that goes in a certain direction, embracing the aspiration to achieve partnership in a large firm. But that track may, in fact, lead toward a destination never consciously considered and chosen.

If, in fact, you decide that partnership is not for you, you may ultimately consider yourself lucky. Many of us spend too many years working too hard at a pursuit for which we have no passion. Given the increasing options available in the legal profession today, including part time, contract and even of counsel positions, you may well find something that better suits your needs. The trade-off, often a very difficult one, is that the alternative road may be much less remunerative. But scientific studies suggest that wealth is, at best, weakly correlated with happiness, and that, aside from those living in poverty, there may be no difference in life satisfaction between the wealthy and the rest of us.

If LCL can be of service to you and/or your wife (to help think these issues through, make a referral to a career coach, etc.), give us a call.

Questions quoted are either actual letters/e-mails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking assistance from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

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