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The Oracle

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

updated on 09 September 2019

Dear Oracle

Is it possible to be a solicitor and have a good work/life balance? And if I decide to start a family, are there part time or term-time working options?

The Oracle replies

It is possible to have a work-life balance as a lawyer, but there is no one size fits all solution and what is 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 will expect in terms of your time. It stands to reason that if you're being paid an eye-poppingly high wage to train, you will 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 the lawyers practising in the field.

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

Turning to part time or term-time working, these are options that may well be open to you later in your career when you have 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 care givers - this is borne out by the fact that over 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 is 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 toward gender equality and away from workplace tyranny, we hope that the days of law firms expecting themselves to come before their employees’ own children are numbered.   

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 will at least discover whether life outside the job is mentioned - or noticeable by its absence!