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2014 has seen a huge upturn in the legal market in the UK. The transactional market is buoyant and lawyers are gaining good quality work across the spectrum, from corporate and banking transactions to commercial property instructions which are keeping lawyers within the top tier to boutique practices busy. But for transactional lawyers there is a price to pay – long hours are now the norm for most lawyers, and achieving a work-life balance can be an uphill task at best. Lawyers at the Associate/Senior Associate level seem to be hit the most. They are responsible for large, complex transactions for demanding clients, often under unrealistic time constraints, whilst being dangled the carrot of potential Partnership – the raison d’etre of their legal career, which continues to drive their motivation. But keeping morale is tough, especially for top tier and magic circle firms where the demands can often be the most.
Unfortunately the work-life balance seems to be slipping away, but as lawyers are receiving quality corporate, finance and property work, time outside the office seems a distant memory. When reading the CV of a banking lawyer recently, I noticed the hobbies and interests section had been omitted – I asked how he spent his time outside the office, purely as a talking point, to build a rapport and understand the flavour and makeup of the candidate to a greater extent. His response was clear, his days of the weekly five-a-side football league and cinema visits were firmly behind him – when he isn’t in the office the laptop or blackberry becomes his hobby and friend, both late into the night and at weekends. The Blackberry is in fact a huge problem. What was once seen as a useful tool to communicate away from the desk has become a drain – the constant flashing red light alerting us to the fact we simply cannot, and should not, switch off.
So what should lawyers do? The answer is keep going. The pressure may be intense and stress par for the course, but while the market is good take hold of the amount and quality of work with open arms. Lawyers work in a distinct environment, unfortunately demanding and emotionally charged clients come as standard in the commercial world, and with ever present deadlines and increased competition for clients long hours in the national firms will often now be the norm. But thank goodness we are not in a recession! As long as corporate, banking and commercial property lawyers see this as a short term situation and do not the norm, opportunities are there. Lawyers at present have the ability to move to larger firms, gain pay rises and have a wider range of options than available ever before. Smaller firms can often offer better working hours and more flexibility, and for Associates and Senior Associates who do not aspire to reach Partnership they can make this move and still retain quality work, or move in-house for a role with more diversity and commercial edge.
My only advice is please, do not forget your hobbies and interests. Long hours may be necessary, but are not the marks of success or a badge of honour. Please keep them on your CV as a constant reminder and create time away from the flashing light of the Blackberry all you can. This may require further self awareness and a conscious effort to create time which doesn’t necessarily seem to exist, but it is achievable. Lawyers work in a tough environment, but often make it tougher on themselves when some self discipline can go a long way to protect from burnout.