Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from Mr. and Mrs. A|E, two Biglaw attorneys in their 30s who work remotely from Jackson Hole. Their blog, Attorney|Evolved offers strategies for rethinking work-life balance while working in Biglaw and highlights their adventures. Attorney|Evolved does not have a financial relationship with the site, and all guest posts have to meet editorial guidelines to be published. In this article, Mr. and Mrs. A|E talk about some strategies for optimizing work-life balance that have worked for them.
Living your ‘best life’ in Biglaw probably sounds like a joke to most attorneys. We get that. Biglaw attorneys are taught to believe that teetering on the edge of burnout is an indelible component of the Biglaw experience. Precious few would describe a career in BigLaw as compatible with a life of holistic and harmonious balance. Nor is the Biglaw environment typically characterized as fertile ground for the cultivation of deep personal fulfillment. Everyone already knows that. But what if it didn’t have to be that way?
Imagine, for a minute, that you wake up on Monday morning not with a knot in your stomach, but with excitement about the adventures that the coming days, weeks and months might bring. Imagine that the story-arc of your Biglaw career could unfold without the scripted periods of isolation and despair. Imagine when a friend asks you, ‘How’s life?’ you dive into a 10-minute monologue about the awesome things you’re up to, none of which have anything to do with work.
We don’t have it all figured out. Not by a long shot. Even with carefully constructed boundaries, stress remains a formidable adversary. But we also don’t have to dream of what a fulfilling life-work balance in Biglaw might look like because we are already living it. We have the flexibility to take a Friday off and go skiing or fly fishing, or to duck out early on a Wednesday to search for a fuzzy grizzly bear cub to photograph, or to paddle down the Snake River. As fully remote Biglaw attorneys in Jackson Hole, these activities are minutes from our front door. Weekends are typically reserved for full-day, high-alpine hiking challenges that push our bodies and minds to the absolute limit. For years we’ve spent a chunk of the winter working remotely from Hawaii, and are writing this post while on a 6-week road trip in the desert. We’ve never once let a vacation day go unused, and in not quite 10 years in Biglaw have visited over 70 international destinations and 46 states.
Our leisure pace is generally fast, but sometimes we slow it down too. Our work responsibilities are such that we retain the headspace to truly experience a Sedona sunset as it slowly progresses through the color spectrum, without having the climactic magenta moment ruined by to-do list worries or urgent emails. When we reflect back on our Biglaw careers to date, it is with smiling faces. We are immensely grateful for what Biglaw has given us, not resentful of what it has taken from us.
A necessary ingredient in our recipe for Biglaw satisfaction is agency. Biglaw makes most attorneys feel like their lives no longer really belong to them. And it’s very hard to feel satisfied when you know that you are not in control. For us, taking back control started by learning how to think and act radically differently from what we were seeing and hearing everywhere around us. This was not a skill that we started with, but over the years we’ve developed it, and we continue to develop it today. Life-work balance won’t come automatically or even easily: you have to claim and reclaim it constantly. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach for successful navigation of the Biglaw labyrinth, these are a few of the strategies that have worked for us.
1. Don’t listen to your colleagues
The popular ‘wisdom’ circulating in the halls of every Biglaw firm says that you’re going to work like a dog, including most nights and weekends. It says that you won’t have much time for hobbies anymore. It tells you that crippling stress is just part of the job. It says that you’ll often have to cancel your plans with friends or family, and that vacations will be regularly interrupted, if they happen at all. The ‘wisdom’ learned from your colleagues tells you that the things that once mattered to you are now going to have to take a backseat to your new, nearly singular focus: the creation of shareholder value through the zealous defense of your clients’ interests. It tells you that being realistic about the demands of the job requires these sacrifices, and many others. Biglaw wisdom tells you to give up or, at best, to dream small.
If you choose to adopt this Biglaw wisdom, then you are not going to live your best life. You’ll pour all your energy into the job and may even be anointed a Biglaw ‘rockstar’ as a result. But you are going to be tired, stressed, time-poor and possibly one dimensional. Look around you. Who among your Biglaw colleagues is absolutely crushing it with a jealousy-inducing quality of life? Who among them radiates happiness and contentment? If Biglaw wisdom isn’t working for them, is it wise to think it will work for you?
The good news is that Biglaw wisdom is nonsense. It’s a wisdom forged in the fires of fear. It has absolutely nothing to do with reality, unless you choose to make it your reality. It’s not that the stress isn’t real or that the pressure isn’t real. The stress is most certainly real and the pressure can be crushing. The nonsense lies in the pervasive ‘wisdom’ that as Biglaw attorneys we are powerless to do anything about it. Powerless to prevent the inevitable cancellations, intrusions and interruptions of all the things that truly matter to us. Powerless to control the course of our lives. Powerless to make our dreams our realities. ‘That’s just the job,’ we tell each other, and then we put our lives on hold for the duration of our Biglaw careers.
So the first step to living your best life in Biglaw is to stop listening to those who say that Biglaw is just not compatible with best-life living. Your colleagues say that uninterrupted vacations are impossible because they succumb to the pressure to interrupt their vacations, not because uninterrupted time away is actually impossible. They say that you’ll have to cancel your plans because they succumb to the pressure to cancel their plans, not because cancelling plans is actually written into the job description. Your colleagues are not malicious—just confused. They repeat to you what was once repeated to them. BigLaw wisdom is just a collection of limiting assumptions that are repeated so often that they start to sound like truth. But it doesn’t have to be your truth.
2. Don’t listen to generic financial advice
Biglaw attorneys struggle to set boundaries for many reasons, but a big one is that they often find themselves trapped in a snare of their own making. Biglaw attorneys typically start spending big money on Day 1, perhaps saving the ‘recommended’ 10-20%, and then they never really stop. Their spending typically increases with each automatic pay raise and, by the time they are senior associates, they have a million-dollar mortgage, a fancy whip in the garage, a closet full of designer goods, and no way out. Their spending habits lead them straight into the so-called ‘Working Rich’ class, i.e., those who are destined to keep working a high-income, high-stress job for many decades to come in order to sustain their lifestyle and social status. And all they did was exactly what the financial advisors told them.
The problem with generic financial advice—and particularly when applied to the Biglaw salary structure of huge starting pay and regular, automatic raises—is that it is not nearly aggressive enough when it comes to saving and investing. Generic financial advice tells you that you’re doing phenomenal if you save 20% of your take-home pay. This is not a financial strategy for living your best life, but a strategy to ensure that you are able to retire at precisely age 65 and not a moment earlier. Of course, 20% is much better than 0%, and also much better than what the vast majority of Americans who don’t earn Biglaw salaries are able to set aside. But a 20% savings rate means you have to spend 4 decades in the workforce. That’s just math. A 20% savings rate also means you are spending 80% of a Biglaw salary, which is a lot of money by any metric. At the end of the day, a 20% savings rate means that you need your Biglaw income quite badly, and that you’ll continue to need it for a very long time.
To live your best life in Biglaw, generic financial advice just won’t do. To regain control of your time, we recommend that you start by regaining control of your finances. This was our strategy when, as burnt-out junior associates, we reflected on the truth of the Golden Handcuffs. The key to unlocking them, it turns out, is to never put yourself in a position where you depend on your Biglaw paychecks. Take away your income addiction and you put yourself back in the driver’s seat. This may sound counter-intuitive, but you don’t live your best life in Biglaw by spending more money; you live it by spending less. After all, best-life living isn’t measured by the value of your possessions, but by your ability to allocate your time to the people and experiences that spark joy for you.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a millionaire to start regaining control of your time. When you aggressively save and invest, you will feel the crushing weight of the job slowly lift off your shoulders. Even a few years’ worth of living expenses sitting in investments has immediate and tangible benefits on your well-being in Biglaw. It brings the confidence to stand up for yourself, to say ‘no’ to an assignment due the day before your wedding, to actually book a vacation and not stress about work when you’re on it, and to not worry if you say something dumb. It’s easy to assume that savings are for the future and entirely underestimate the incredible, life-changing impact that savings will have on your life and on your job, right now.
Aggressive saving and investing as an associate in your 20s and early 30s leads to another surprising corollary: you may end up with a partner-level net worth without having to be a partner. Thanks to the Biglaw salary scale, you can reasonably accumulate a 7-figure investment portfolio before you’re even up for partner. Just keep that money invested and by the time you are in your 50s or 60s you may find yourself better off than many partners who have been in the Biglaw game for decades longer. That’s the time-value-of-money magic at play: start saving and investing early in your BigLaw career, and the stock market will do most of the work for you.
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3. Don’t listen to society
Once you’ve torn down the limiting assumptions standing in your way and felt the true power of savings, you will feel happier and more in control. We can almost guarantee that. But is it enough to live your best life? If you are like us, then you may still feel a nagging anxiety about whether living your best life comes at the expense of your professional success. You want to live your best life, but you also want to be and feel ‘successful.’ Are these goals compatible?
We all know what it means to be ‘successful’ in Biglaw. It means getting that coveted promotion. It means making junior partner and then equity partner. It means a summer house in a coveted location. It means hearing someone whisper ‘that’s the guy who won the Mega-Pharma case!’ as you arrive at a networking event. It means growing your stature in the industry through more deals and more clients. It means being important. It means that your time is so scarce and your insights so valuable that you are always in a hurry. It means being so busy and important that you don’t really have time for family, friends or other personal goals. Wait… is that what success means?
When we grappled with these questions—and we did grapple with them—we slowly came to understand that our version of success doesn’t map very well onto society’s version of it. In a profession filled with Type A overachievers, defining professional success as anything other than the most prestigious-sounding job title and top-dollar compensation isn’t easy. But if ‘success’ comes at the expense of your mental and physical health, your relationships, and your goals and values, then why adopt that definition of ‘success’? Wouldn’t a better formulation of ‘success’ be one that brings us closer to the things that truly matter: happiness, purpose and personal fulfillment?
Eventually, we came to understand that partnership is in fact fundamentally incompatible with how we would ultimately measure our own success. Professional success for us certainly means being respected by our peers and clients, and doing interesting and challenging work. But it also means having significant time to chase adventure and pursue endeavors that stretch far beyond the law. Having managed—after years of tinkering—to structure our work responsibilities in a way that allows us to pursue these goals as alternative-track attorneys on flexible arrangements, we can’t help but feel very successful.
Some do find happiness and fulfillment in the partnership ranks: more power to them! But for the rest of us, the point is simply this: real success isn’t about how society measures your life and work against traditional metrics, it’s about how you measure your life and work against your own value system. Redefining success is ultimately about knowing your values, goals, and purpose. When you are confident in the latter, you don’t worry about whether others will perceive you as successful: you simply feel successful. So find the time to meditate deeply on what truly sparks joy in your life, and then don’t be afraid to commit yourself to exactly that. That’s success worth pursuing.
Joshua Holt is a practicing private equity M&A lawyer and the creator of Biglaw Investor. Josh couldn’t find a place where lawyers were talking about money, so he created it himself. He convinces the student loan refinancing companies to give you cashback bonuses for refinancing your student loans and looks forward to you discovering how easy it is to track your net worth with a free tool like Personal Capital.