The balancing of a lifestyle law firm with – well, with “Lifestyle” -is something that attracts a lot of attention among some lawyers. The problem is that forming and sustaining a “lifestyle law firm” is a great deal more difficult than it may appear on the surface.
Among other things, lawyers are often workaholics or driven to work at all hours by the demands of their work, so how can a “lifestyle law firm” actually work successfully?
In a word, it cannot.
Directory of BCGSearch Harrison Barnes wrote about the issue recently and generated a great deal of interest with his suggestion that such firms cannot exist because once you’re a lawyer “you are part of the fabric of something much different than the rest of the world.”
After practicing law for so long, the insanity of it all is the only thing that makes any sense to many attorneys. They do not know anything different, so the real world becomes foreign and frightening to them.
It’s the “insanity” that leaves lawyers facing the stresses and tensions that makes the law one of the most challenging in mental health terms of any – anywhere.
As Harrison Barnes writes:
It should come as no surprise that many attorneys have issues in their home and social lives because of the stress of their jobs and the fact they bring home the craziness of what they do. Attorneys fight with opposing counsel, report to multiple clients and judges, are judged harshly by co-workers and superiors, and are (for the most part) solely evaluated by the amount of hours they bill.
These pressures build, and can make many attorneys quite paranoid and on edge. Attorneys bring their paranoia to family conversations at the dinner table. Some explode in ways that make no sense to the rest of the world.
All of which comes down again to the concept of the “lifestyle law firm” and whether such a creature can really exist in the pressure-ridden world of the lawyer. Is there something missing in the legal profession’s mix that leads to this insanity?
The typical “lifestyle firm” is generally started by some people who spin off from another law firm. These attorneys are generally one of a few types: (1) attorneys who want to make more money, (2) attorneys who want fewer “rules and management,” (3) attorneys who were not made partner in a larger law firm, or (4) attorneys who really believe they can run a lifestyle law firm. Here are the reasons there are really no lifestyle firms—and to the extent there are, you cannot have much stability working for them:
Lifestyle Firms Generally Never Stay Lifestyle Firms
Lifestyle firms almost never stay that way for two reasons. The first has to do with using the idea of “lifestyle” as a recruiting tool.
As a legal recruiter who has watched scores of law firms start over the years (and go away) I can tell you nothing is more common than a new firm hooking attorneys with the promise of a better lifestyle. If you want to hire a hard-charging, good attorney from a major law firm at a lower salary than they are currently making, you can certainly get their interest by throwing around words like “work-life balance.”
This works and attorneys will often jump at the chance to work at law firms that promise less hours, less pressure and so forth.
I’ve seen this more times than I can count. The lifestyle law firm generally never stays a lifestyle law firm.
The second fundamental problem with the whole idea of a “lifestyle” firm is it ignores the reality of practicing law. With the exception of a few practice areas (tax, patent prosecution and ERISA), most legal work requires periods where attorneys need to work extremely hard—and often for extended periods of time.
No detail is too insignificant in any transaction or litigation-related case. Attorneys need to be focused and committed at all times and this often means working long hours. Without a high level of commitment from its members law firms often have a difficult time surviving. If they are not completely focused on their clients’ matters and working hard at all times, they are likely to end up getting the short end of the stick for their clients and harming them.
To stay in business and remain competitive, law firms with a “lifestyle bent” generally get in a position where they need to become more “business-like” and less lifestyle-oriented. Some lifestyle law firms make this transition, become competitive and survive—but not all do. A high number of billable hours and other pressures are part of the typical law firm for a reason: It is necessary for attorneys to win matters for their clients.
The fantasy of a position with a “lifestyle firm” is certainly something that a lot of attorneys may aspire to, and it is a nice dream to have. Given the realities of the law firm world, though, it is generally not something that can work in the long term.
This is especially the case in large, competitive markets where many people are competing to do the best job possible for clients.
Clients are surrounded by attorneys competing for their business; these competing attorneys tell them their current attorney should be doing things differently. This sort of thing is less common in smaller towns, where there are fewer attorneys and relationships mean more. But in larger markets, it is very competitive and almost impossible for a law firm to remain a “lifestyle” law firm.
Lifestyle Firms Generally Never Stay in Business Very Long
When I was considering lateraling to a law firm early in my career, I interviewed with a genuine lifestyle law firm. The law firm was an offshoot of O’Melveny & Myers, and the partners and others I met told me how they really were trying to run a lifestyle law firm in Los Angeles. The law firm paid about half the salary of a “normal” law firm in Los Angeles at the time.
As I interviewed with the people in the firm, I was surprised when they said things like, “There is nothing that cannot wait until Monday and needs to take you away from your family on the weekend.”
Harrison Barnes’ comments are worthy of consideration by law firms seeking to embrace the “lifestyle” concept, particularly as legal delivery services and the like are altering and so too is the way the law is practised. In essence his thesis is that the “warrior” lawyer is one who cannot afford a “lifestyle” attitude because the field of combat does not permit such a creature to exist.
Is that correct, though? Or can a lawyer who also embraces a “lifestyle” approach to his or her work still operate as an effective “combatant” in the field of law?
LawFuel would love to know your thoughts.