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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

June 8, 2017

My husband and I are new attorneys with young kids. He works long hours so I need a predictable job in order to take care of our family. How can I achieve this and still enjoy career success?

Julie Q. Brush

Practicing law is not a cushy job. Especially when an attorney is just beginning his/her career. Long hours, stress and a strong aim to please are typical fare for the legal newbie – and are virtually a prerequisite for career success. But what if personal circumstances prohibit an attorney from entering this kind of legal rat race? Can success still be achieved? Do roles exist that can provide fulfillment and happiness?

In your situation, both you and your husband are just entering the field of law as practicing attorneys. And while he is taking the more traditional route of Big Law associate, you need something kinder and gentler so you can allocate more time to your kids. So what are your options? Below are a few recommendations and pieces of advice:

Choose Your Expertise Now.

Before you dive into your first legal job, it is important to determine which substantive areas interest you and which you’d like to pursue now. Accepting the first job that comes your way just because “it’s better than nothing” or “the only thing I could get” is not wise – and this kind of reactivity can create lasting challenges throughout your career. You are new in your career, so select a practice area that is in high demand and can preserve future marketability. Such practices include: privacy, data security, product, employment and commercial/tech transactions. Because of the high demand and scarcity of candidates with such expertise, employers are more flexible on the background and history of attorneys when they do find these profiles.

Explore in house opportunities.

The traditional path for new lawyers is that of law firm associate. It’s the most natural transition from law school with the most options and sets an associate up nicely for training and development. But the trade off is often killer hours and lack of flexibility. As the profession has evolved, entry-level employment options are not limited to the law firm. There are an increasing number of corporate employers opening their doors to new lawyers. These opportunities can be an excellent option in that they do not require billable hours; they can offer more schedule flexibility and provide good substantive experience. You would have to go in in an entry-level role and pay will be lower, but the pros of this move could certainly outweigh the cons in your situation.

Apply to smaller law firms.

Not every law firm is a meat grinder. The smaller firms tend to require lower billable hours and offer a better “work-life balance” for its associates. You won’t often find the opportunity for a flexible schedule like you will in an in house legal department, but this is an option worth exploring if you are set on a law firm. Smaller firms don’t typically to use recruiters to fill open positions so do your research and apply directly to the firms that appeal to you.

Part time/Project Based Work.

Another option is to start your legal career on a part-time/project basis. There are many agencies that specialize in such work for both law firm and corporate clients so exploring this path is a good one. It is likely you’ll find more entry-level opportunities with law firms, but it’s possible that corporate legal departments may have a need. So research the firms in your area and make an appointment to explore the possibilities.

Non-attorney role.

There are some roles in the workplace that sit outside Legal and offer better hours, but are still closely tethered with Legal like contracts manager and compliance professional. If you are willing to set aside an “attorney” designation, these are opportunities that can allow you to transition back to Legal once you’re ready – as it isn’t unusual for attorneys to populate these positions. In addition, other areas like HR and sales can provide opportunities with better hours and more control over your time. So if you’re open to this direction, you have more areas with which to cast a wider employment net.

Pursue More Education.

If you have the financial means, pursuing another degree is another route for you at this stage of your life and career. Just make sure that it is in a substantive area that can provide you with relevant skills and marketability as you re-enter the profession. For example: an LLM in Tax or Intellectual property, an MBA or a technical undergraduate or advanced degree like computer science or electrical engineering. All of these academic pursuits will enhance your JD and provide you with relevant skills that can be useful throughout your career. There are many academic institutions that offer part-time/executive programs to accommodate your scheduling needs. So if this course appeals to you, check out your local universities for classes.

Stay home with your kids until they are in school.

If finances permit, pressing pause on your career until the kids are in school (or you are ready, whichever comes first) is another fine option. You have the rest of your life to work so this kind of delay won’t dash your career dreams. Employers today are socialized to all kinds of work gaps, breaks and breathers. So if you want to table your start, go right ahead. But manage your expectations that you will have to explain your situation and start at the bottom when you are ready to jump into the employment pool.

It isn’t easy to balance family and a successful career. Something always has to give at one time or another in order to make it all work. As a newly minted lawyer, predictability is a necessity to care for your family given your husband’s demanding work schedule. But that does not mean that you cannot develop professionally and find career satisfaction. Paths exist to help you achieve your immediate goals. And if you opt to wait until the kids are in school, the market will hear what you have to say when you’re ready. So think about what you want and…choose wisely.

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