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The Oracle

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

updated on 14 September 2021

Dear Oracle

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

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 has 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; however, the enforced remote working has seen many firms reconsider the way they work.

That said, while in some ways offering greater flexibility, enforced remote working can easily blur the lines between work and home. So, while many 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 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 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 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 towards 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!