Full Time Practice

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Let's Dialogue: Law Firm Stress v. Everything Else

We were impressed with the candor in Megan (Woodhouse) Needham's comment, below. Readers, please share your thoughts.

I am a second year associate at Kirkland & Ellis in New York, and there have been a few things I have really struggled with over the past year and a half. On one hand, I feel like I went into law school thinking that I was pursuing a career that would afford me significant opportunities and flexibility. On the other hand, the only job I could really get coming out of school was at a firm that expects everything out of its associates. In looking at what my "other options" are, I feel that I am not qualified to do much else than work at a law firm, and I feel like it is difficult to navigate important life events (like marriage and starting a family) when your "examples" within any geographical proximity seem to be women who have made the decision that career is an important part of their lives.

The reality is that each of us only has 24 hours each day, and if we choose to work, that is going to take most of our time. Women who try to do the part time thing can often find themselves working similarly crazy hours for reduced pay. I've tried to find some meaning in my disenchanted realization that perhaps the law is not quite so flexible as some people made it out to be, and at the same time, perhaps big law firm life doesn't have to mean complete surrender to the will of one's bosses.

Megan (Woodhouse) Needham is a 2010 graduate of Georgetown University Law Center and is an intellectual property associate at Kirkland & Ellis, NYC.


  1. I've been at a large law firm for about 3.5 years and I have a pretty good work/life balance (I just had my third child). Here's what has helped me:

    (1) I'm in San Diego, not New York, and I chose a firm that had good part-time policies AND where there were a number of women who were actually taking advantage of those policies and making it work. I do not know what your personal circumstances are, so perhaps a job change (whether to another city, a different firm that's more family-friendly, or a government or in-house position) is not an option right now, but may be down the road.

    (2) I am pretty good about setting limits. I do not assume that any assignment that I'm given needs to be done RIGHT NOW. Emergencies come up and that's the nature of our work, and I've had my fair share of weekends ruined and plans canceled. But I make sure that's only when there is really, truly an emergency. I do my best to communicate with the people I work with about their expectations and my own schedule, and work out deadlines and workloads that work for me. I am not the associate that is billing the most or who is available 24/7, but I have found that if I do quality work, people still want to work with me. And I avoid working for/with people who always demand everything right away by filling my plate with work for people who are reasonable. I am fortunate to be able to do that.

    (3) Things have gotten better as I have gotten more senior. It might still be crazy at times, but it is crazy with work that is generally a lot more interesting than what I did when I first started - and I get to delegate less-pleasant tasks to more junior associates.

    (4) You mentioned that you don't see anyone with a part-time schedule that seems to be making it work, but you could always try to be the first. I am so grateful for the women who came before me and showed the firm that they can work reduced schedules and still contribute to the firm.

    (5) When things get hard, I try to remember all of the good I have. I have a good, high-paying job in an economy filled with unemployment. My firm, like most large firms, has very generous maternity leave - so I have been able to spend a lot of time at home with my kids. I do interesting work and I like my co-workers. In some ways, I have quite a bit of flexibility; I do not have to be in the office at a specific time most days, which lets me do things like take my kid to preschool and attend events for them as long as I get my work done at some point.

    (6) I take advantage of my down-time. If I just worked a crazy few days and things slow down, I take some time off.

    (7) I don't overcommit outside of work.

    I agree with you that there seems to be less flexibility with a law degree that what we may have been told before law school. I try to be very clear with people who ask me for advice that they should think long and hard about law school if they don't actually think they want to practice law. At the same time, there ARE people who have gone on to do other things, you just have to look around and be creative. And probably take a big, huge pay cut :-).

    I hope more people chime in with thoughts and advice. I've had unusual luck at my firm, I think, and my personal circumstances are probably quite different from yours. Most of the women I graduated with had a hard time finding anything they could balance with families the way they wanted to and aren't practicing at all; I would love to hear what other people have done.

  2. Megan, thanks so much for your post. I appreciate your honesty, and what you had to say really resonated with me.

    I am a full-time patent agent in an IP firm in San Diego, and a 3L attending law school at night. My husband and I have been married for 7 years, and we have 3 kids, ages 4 years, 16 months, and 10 weeks.

    For me, I think that there is an important distinction to be made between “opportunities” and “flexibility”. And flexibility doesn’t always mean reduced working hours. I have found much flexibility once I began working in a professional capacity – flexibility in child care options, for one. I am able to afford a much more desirable child care situation. Our family has flexibility with regard to housing; a family-friendly area of town with a fantastic school system is not financially out of our reach. We have choices that we otherwise would not have, and that flexibility is valuable to us.

    It is also valuable for me to remember that different conditions will be present at different points in my career. As an entry-level patent agent or attorney, very little flexibility will be available to me, with regard to how much time I spend in the office. However, once I have been working for several years (and hopefully paid off the student loans!), a position in-house or with a small firm might be a better fit.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with this: “The reality is that each of us only has 24 hours each day, and if we choose to work, that is going to take most of our time.” I would venture to say that choice in the matter is not always a factor, though. If we work, that is going to take most of our time, whether it is chosen or required.

    Examples are a great thing to have. I was lucky to have the opportunity (in my younger days as a YSA) to work as a nanny for a wonderful LDS family in a large city. The mom was finishing up her final year of medical residency, and I was able to see how they made it work. It was fascinating. My husband & I have modeled a lot of our own habits after that particular family. For example, we have chosen not to delay having our children (NOT to disparage anyone else’s choices in this area – this is just our experience). I will forever be known as the woman who went through 2 pregnancies in law school, without taking time off. (To be clear, I took maternity leave from work, but continued taking classes.) We are tired, but we make it work. And Heavenly Father continues to bless our family.

    One of the most beautiful things about the gospel is the Plan of Salvation. Yes, we have come here to gain a physical body, but we are also here to be tested, to gain experience. There would be no test, and our experiences would hardly be of value to us if all of us were given the same circumstances and were expected to make the same choices. We play the hand we are dealt, which is *very* likely to be *very* different than that of many others. I believe that using our *unique* talents and gifts to bless the lives of others, including our own families, is worthwhile. Even if my unique talents include writing software and programming hardware, rather than scrapbooking or tying quilts with yarn. :)

    Thanks again for posting, Megan! I honestly thought that LDS, female IP attorneys might not exist. Somewhat like Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman. :)

  3. It is my professional opinion that you rock!

  4. Great comment. I'm a sixth-year associate at a big firm, and it hasn't gotten any easier. That said, my friends who have gone in-house or to nonprofits, courts, or academia largely have more control over their schedules than I do, and I hear rumors of lawyers with job sharing and part-time options. (I don't know these people personally, but I'm told they exist.) Big firm training is a great path to these other possibilities. And, as you point out, it is true that even as associates we have some control at the fringes. And, it's amazing how the Lord has blessed me with success at work when I've tried to hold together my family and church responsibilities. I can't keep it up forever, but for now it's OK.

  5. Michelle B: hate to thread-jack but we should talk sometime because (a) I'm in San Diego too (I'm at Cooley), (b) my three kids are the same age as yours, and (c) I'm a female LDS sometime-intellectual property associate (I don't exclusively do IP and I do not have a technical background but I've ended up doing quite a bit of IP work sort of accidentally). I'm sure you are BEYOND busy right now but email me sometime - eringoodsell at gmail dot com.

  6. I love these comments! Thank you. Erin, we talked during my senior year at BYU when you were in law school and I was headed off to your undergrad alma mater, Georgetown, for law school. And I grew up in Todd's ward. Good to hear from you again.

    A couple thoughts. I like the point Michelle made about not necessarily being able to choose whether or not we work. As much as I sometimes want to move to a different city or work for a smaller firm, ironically, big law has been my only option so far. So even beyond the choice (or non-choice) of whether or not to work, sometimes we don't get a choice about where we work or live.

    Someone also talked about looking on the bright side though and being grateful to have a well-paying job during a time of high unemployment. That certainly helps offset the stresses of long nights at the office, or even just the long every-day routine. Working in this field is certainly an opportunity to pay off loans, save for a home, and several other things that we would not be able to do otherwise.

    I appreciate the shout-out from Anonymous #1--I think that's my husband. And I often feel the way Anonymous #2 feels: "I can't keep it up forever, but for now it's okay." I like this dialogue. I wish we could hear from someone who has decided to stay home with kids. I don't think that perspective should overshadow the perspective of working lawyer moms, but I think it's a perspective we don't hear enough of.

  7. I hardly ever read this blog but this particular post caught my eye. As I was reading the comments I thought about all thee things I would say but didn't want to get "involved" since I opted out of working. Of course, when you said you wanted to hear from someone who has stayed home with kids, I realized I should.

    I thought law school would provide me with a lot of opportunities to work flexible part-time hours, or pick up work "on the side" while I was raising a family. I was single through law school but shortly after got married and had my first baby. I took a job at a mid-level firm (but the biggest in my city) because I had heard great things about the way they treat families and especially mothers. Plus, the pay was great. They were incredible through my pregnancy and maternity leave. When I went back to work they allowed me an 80% work schedule even though I was still only a 2nd year associate.

    I had such inner turmoil about working, even though my mother and sisters were watching my daughter. As I spoke with many of the women at my firm I realized that even though they were very happy with their situations, I was not. We had very different perspectives about what we thought about motherhood. For example, they were happy that they could take a few days off per month to go on field trips. I wanted to be at home during the day enjoying everything. They were happy to have day care close by when they needed to work late. I was appalled that my daughter couldn't count on me being home at the same time, every night. As I looked into the future I wondered how I was going to teach her to cook or sew or read. I had to accept the fact that I was different from the other women at the firm.

    My husband and I started saving every little penny. Shortly after, I quit working. We pull out of that savings every month to be able to meet the gap in our budget and pray that we will be able to make up the difference before the savings is gone. We now have three children. There are no dance lessons for the girls, no big vacations, no smart phone, etc., but I wouldn't trade my situation.

    What frustrates me a little is that I felt like after working at a firm, there are very few options for part-time work at home. I always wonder if I should have worked for a little boutique learning a specific, narrow part of the law in order to take those skills with me in a home-based practice. It would have been less money in the beginning but perhaps it could have yielded profit over time. Working on little parts of big deals at a law firm didn't translate very well into part-time work.

    Of course, I was very blessed in my situation. We all have different wants and needs. Lastly, if my post isn't very clear or coherent it's because I rushing to get my kids dressed or we'll be late for church........!

  8. This is an awesome discussion. I am a strong believer that she (the law) can be molded to be very accomodating to us (the other "she's" in the world). However, just as an earlier post once said, "we must chose our tears" I wish it could be said that we could find work/life balance or it be given to us and then once found it would stay balanced but it is an ongoing struggle. And there may be some days,months, and even years that seem untolerable. Good luck determining if that is a good thing or a sign that change is coming or that you need to make a change.

    My words of wisdom -- don't throw her away or give up on her (the law) just because at the moment she doesn't seem to be cooperating. She is stubborn and so are you (all of us) And that is a very, very good thing. Hang in there.

  9. When I was in law school, all of the tops students were encouraged to go biglaw. I already had one child and quickly realized that biglaw was not a workable option for me. As a government lawyer, I have been able to make a great balance between my responsibilities to my 3 children and my responsibilities to my clients. I wish that more women saw that as a legitimate option.