Does Higher Pay Mean a Higher Number of Hours?

Q: As a second year law student, I am contemplating offers from several firms of various sizes. Associates at these firms start anywhere from $57,000 to $90,000. My question concerns time spent at the job. I'm getting married next August, and don't want to work in a sweatshop. Any idea on how much time a new associate spends at the office every week? Do the higher paying firms require a higher number of hours, and how many more hours does that mean? Thanks for any consideration.

A: Concerns about time spent on the job are very typical, and very real, for associates starting out. New associates typically spend long hours at the office, no matter what the size of the firm. To some extent this is desirable. By spending long hours at work you get to learn the ropes in your area of practice. Your commitment also helps earn you the respect of your co-workers. However, there are still significant differences between the expectations held by different firms. Although you will need to investigate the specific firms you hold offers for there are some generalizations about firm expectations that can help guide your inquiries.

You typically have a better chance of having good hours at a small firm, as larger firms have intense competition between junior staff and spending long hours in the office is one way for younger associates to demonstrate their commitment above and beyond that of their peers. Working late to get yourself noticed can be a practical necessity if you are planning a long career at a big firm. However, some small firm lawyers work very hard. Offices with fewer attorneys and less support staff may require long hours out of practical necessity. If you are out of a major metropolitan area, you may also have a better quality of life. The more intense competition and faster pace tends to be an urban practice characteristic. Firms outside of big cities likely have a pace that is closer to the local standards.

In any event, these generalizations may not be as useful as information you can acquire from current or former employees of the specific companies you are fielding offers from. Try to find an associate who is a graduate of your law school at any firms you are considering, and see if you can get the inside scoop. Bar association members, especially in the same area of practice may have some experience with the firm and opinions about the working environment and expectations within the company.

If not, you can always bite the bullet for a year or two to get some good experience at a firm and then move on. Government and in-house positions may be a good bet for you down the line if you find the hours of private practice are too much. The good news is that as a junior level associate, you can usually move around pretty easily, so if you don't like the firm, you will be able to move on soon.