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The Oracle

Can I work in law and have a work/life balance?

updated on 04 March 2024

Dear Oracle

Is it possible for solicitors to have a good work/life balance? And if I start a family, are there part-time or term-time options? 

The Oracle replies

It’s possible to have a work/life balance as a lawyer, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution and what’s right for one lawyer may not be right for another.

Many of the solicitors we speak to describe their careers as a lifestyle choice – meaning that they accept that long hours come with the territory of a high-flying, well-paid and/or professionally fulfilling career that they love. Law is certainly a high-intensity profession and, generally speaking, the more a firm is paying you, the more it’ll expect in terms of your time. It stands to reason that if you're being paid an eye-popping high wage to train, you’ll be expected to put the hours in – all-nighters and non-existent lunch breaks included. If this doesn't appeal to you, you're best avoiding the magic circle and City giants.

But corporate firms aren't the only ones guilty of tipping the scales too far in favour of work; legal aid is an area to watch out for as budget cuts and increasing demand have led to increasing amounts of pressure on lawyers.

You’re more likely to find a good work/life balance at regional and high-street firms where the culture is built with slightly different priorities. It may also be advisable to try out the profession in a paralegal or legal secretarial role to see what it’s like to work in a law firm environment and decide whether it’s right for you.

The work/life balance debate did enter a new realm of discussion with the enforcement of remote working at the beginning of March 2020 as the UK went into lockdown, and the additional lockdowns thereafter. The notion of ‘flexible’ working is one that’s been on the cards for some time. While a number of law firms have already implemented flexible working hours, some still have a long way to go. Now that the pandemic is behind us, some firms have continued with their adoption of flexible working while others are demanding employees to return to the office full time.

That said, while in some ways offering greater flexibility, enforced remote working can easily blur the lines between work and home. So, while some lawyers continue to work remotely, maintaining a clear separation between work and personal life is an issue that firms must be aware of.

Part-time or term-time working are options that may well be open to you later in your career when you’ve built up a level of seniority and experience. However, this may be challenging to get employers to agree to without you already having good career experience. Some law firms are excellent at providing flexible and family-friendly working options; however, statistics show that many organisations in the legal profession still struggle to accommodate primary caregivers – this is borne out by the fact that more than half of all lawyers entering the profession are women, but there remains a significant drop off at more senior levels, which remain male-dominated.

It's increasingly accepted that the long-hours culture in the legal profession is very much biased against women’s careers, not to mention being bad for employees’ mental health.

However, with more women rightly calling for seats at the top table and flexible working arrangements for both women and men as part of a wider movement towards gender equality and away from workplace tyranny, we hope that the days of law firms expecting themselves to come before their employees’ children are numbered. That being said, some firms are more family-friendly than others.

For now, one way to get a hint of how much a firm values the work/life concept is to read its website, particularly any first-hand accounts from trainees (profiles of whom can also be found in the Meet the Lawyer section of LawCareers.Net). Although such profiles must be viewed through a prism of healthy cynicism, you’ll at least discover whether life outside the job is mentioned – or noticeable by its absence!