My experience has been that work/life balance is possible, but it can take a while to get there. And even when you do figure out where your balance lies, it's not this elegant, static balance where you achieve it once and then you're all set; it's a constant struggle to maintain it, and you often feel like you're letting people down on one front or another.
I went to a big firm out of law school, intending to stay there for no more than 3 years and then shift to something more sane. I was there for 7.5 years, left less than a year before I was up for junior partner, and only did so because I had to go see about a girl (now my wife) who was moving across the country to go to grad school. Then I spent 3+ years in-house; then helped start a small firm with my old boss from my old firm, who is now my partner. Work/life balance now is about as good as it has ever been, but I'm still at the mercy of clients all the time, and it's frightening to be the boss with nobody to pass the buck up to.
I worked hard at the big firm, though not nearly as hard as some. I trained pretty hard for tris at that time too - I enjoyed it and it was a necessary stress reliever. I didn't do much besides work and train though. I still train a fair bit, don't race much anymore, but that's a choice rather than a necessity.
Good stories of big firm work/life: I worked with extremely bright people, both within the firm and as clients. I had 2 outstanding mentors who took the time to teach me how to be an excellent lawyer but also a good person. People bash the Ivy Leagues/East Coast elites a lot in this forum, and sometimes with good reason, but I will say some that some of the smartest people I've ever met came out of Harvard and MIT - incandescently brilliant minds. I represented Nobel Prize winners and helped then do technology deals, then watched the Internet and medical technology change because of the transactions we did. I learned that even junior associates can make big impacts in the right circumstances. I pulled an all-nighter and then drank coffee with a billionaire and an ambassador while we watched the sun rise over Boston Harbor from 35 stories up in a Master of the Universe conference room, and at the end they clapped me on the shoulder and said 'good job'.
Bad stories of big firm work/life: I got dumped by 2 girlfriends in large part because work demands made me a ghost of a romantic partner, and I was stressed out and exhausted even when I was around. I got stress hives working monster deals with silly hours where I was terrified of fucking up transactions worth many millions of dollars because i didn't really know what I was doing sometimes. I have taken calls on Thanksgiving, Christmas and half an hour before the funeral of a good friend when I should have been comforting the friend's mother. I sat in that same Master of the Universe conference room noted above and listened to 6 lawyers argue for 45 minutes trying to find a way to structure an M&A deal in a way that would allow both buyer and seller to avoid having to provide health coverage for an employee with terminal cancer. I billed 15 hours the day of that conference call, woke up the next morning and had a vodka tonic in the shower before going to work because I was ashamed to be part of that transaction.
In-House and helping run my own firm: It's better and balance is easier to achieve (or at least get close to). Neither could have happened without doing the time in the big firm at the outset of my career.
Suggestions: If you manage to get a big firm job, don't get addicted to the money. If you get a small firm job, don't let them work you to death for short money. Regardless of what job you get, don't let your job define who you are. My experience has been that a stint at a big firm can be a good education and build a valuable professional network, but unless you absolutely live and breathe the job, you should leave before it consumes you (drinking vodka during your morning shower is a bad sign). The happiest lawyers I know are either in-house or have gone to smaller firms after a stint in the majors, but in both of those cases, you usually have to have done some time in the trenches first. And keep exercising no matter what - it will keep you sane, your waistline reasonable, and help you sleep at night.
I just wanted to re-up this.
Years after your post, I have to thank you for your time and sincerity.
I ended up doing "well." (That's subjective.) Ended up summering at a big-ish regional firm in the southeast. I've never worked so hard. Granted in was only ten weeks, but I was at the office seven days a week for the first six weeks of my time there. As a summer, I "billed" over 12 overs a few days and routinely was the first one in the office and by far the last to leave.
I was certain that my diligence and dedication would land me the coveted offer at the end of summer.
Well, fast forward to October when I received word that the firm was downsizing and completely blew their anticipated need for new associates. (Fun fact: they no longer participate in summer associate programs.) So I was left out to dry, after what I thought was a sure thing. What did I do?
I packed up my belongings and drove 1,800 miles to Colorado to spend my last semester at a county attorney's office. I liked it so much out here, I took (and passed) the Colorado bar and scored a clerking position in a felony trial court with three judges. (They're fantastic people, but I've realized that I much prefer doing deals/transactional work than litigating.)
I'm now presented with whether I should try and do the impossible: hustle and network my way into a bigger firm or find a small real estate law firm that would be a little more low key (which isn't a sure-thing at all)
. I'm finally seeing that getting no-offered was probably the best thing that has ever happened to me, as it provided justification to move to Colorado, but that "need" to do my stint in the big leagues still remains.
Nevertheless, I've remembered your post after these few years and your few anecdotes are incredible. So, thanks.
Instagram | floathammerholdon