A Commentary On Law Firm Life

In The Female Lawyer Exodus, Marlisse Silver Sweeney shares her experiences inside a law firm.  Appearing in The Daily Beast on July 31, 2013, the article examines the legal industry’s lack of work-life balance and the exit of so many women (and men) from the law.

Addressing the exodus, Ms. Sweeney begins by recounting advice given to her as a law student by a female equity partner – one of only two female partners in their 80-lawyer firm:

[E]ven though she had a nanny, a cook, a husband with an opposite work schedule, parents and in-laws to help out—that it wasn’t until her children reached high school that she finally had time for a hobby. She said—in “can-do” tones—how exhausting it is to be a lawyer and a mother, but that it “can be done.” I started to panic.

But it was Ms. Sweeney’s detailing her average day for a typical law clerk/new attorney that caught our eye:

I was put on a large insurance defense lawsuit. My day would start at 6 a.m., as I groggily clawed for one of eight new suits in my closest (my new uniform), tied my hair in some sort of professional knot or bun, and grabbed anything I could find in my fridge for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—all would be eaten at the firm. . . .

By 8 a.m., I would be in front of my double-monitor computer, in my private office, pouring over the minutiae of case law, trying to decipher whether the agreement in one clause was akin to the wording of another, or whether the case tried by this court had been overturned by that court—constantly tracing and tracking and keeping it altogether in the road map of my mind.

Lunch would be spent huddled over my desk, by myself, or at a firm-wide training session where we’d watch a video about the intricacies of transferring titles to land and smiling at each other over firm-supplied tuna sandwiches, only to return immediately to my desk and continue. Redact. Analyze. Repeat.

The monotony of the day would be punctuated only by the “bing” of an e-mail asking me to take on another assignment, or the knock on my door, telling me to redo, rewrite, relearn—or worse—cancel my long-weekend plans. It was lonely. I wasn’t working in teams or for clients like I had envisioned my legal career. I was hunching alone at a desk for 10, 13, even 16 hours a day. It was equal parts boring and academic. Cooking, exercise, even time for doctors’ appointments became a luxury.

At first glance, the article seems directed at young women thinking about embarking on a legal career.  But Ms. Sweeney’s message should not be overlooked by law firm partners, male and female, who should take a long hard look at their firms, keeping in mind that while not all law firms suffer these ailments, many do, and some don’t even realize it.

And, legal consumers should take note as well.  This commentary pulls back the curtain on the cultures of so many law firms.  Ms. Sweeney’s portrayal of the relationship between partners and associates, where true, ultimately weighs on the quality of the firm’s work and the firm’s attitude toward clients and billing:

In private practice, lawyers bill clients for every minute of work, which promotes spending as much time as possible on one project. Time targets for associates create pressure and decrease efficiency. Under this model, a lawyer who takes four hours to draft a short contract could theoretically be favored over a lawyer who takes only two, even if the end product is equal.

LPR stresses that not all law firms are the sweatshops that Ms. Sweeney portrays.  But, they do exist.  For clients, associates, and partners of those firms – a cautionary tale – and an opportunity to do something about it.

You’ve got options.  The Center for Legal Practice Reform can help you navigate the attorney/client relationship and level the playing field.  Call LPR today for a free consultation – (301) 351-7970.

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