To All the Law Students Who I have Loved (or Just Liked a Bit)

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By Murray Gottheil | June 11, 2024

I write a lot about work/life balance, mental health, and the pursuit of things other than money in the legal profession.

My wife (and lawyer) Maureen McKay has laughed at me about this (among other things). “Murray, if any of the young people whom you counsel to pursue a balanced lifestyle were to have applied to your firm back when you were hiring associates and talked about working reasonable hours and reserving evenings and weekends for their families, you would not have hired them,” she has said.

She’s right. But, in my defense, it’s complicated.

The foundation of the problem is that lawyers do not learn how to practice law in law school or through the bar admission process, which means that those who are headed for private practice must learn their craft on the job. Someone has to pay to train them. That someone may be them.  

A great deal of the time spent by a new lawyer who is lucky enough to work for a firm that takes mentoring and training seriously cannot be billed to a client. In order for them to earn their salary, they must work more hours.

A lawyer who is unfortunate and finds employment with a firm that releases them on the unsuspecting public without proper training and mentoring will have to spend all the more time teaching themselves how to practice law while also running the risk of becoming a crummy lawyer.

Those who choose to start their own practices will have to work even more hours to support themselves, since in addition to client work, they will also have to do administrative tasks, market their businesses, and are unlikely to be able to attract the type of work that generates high fees.

So, into this morass marches the newcomer who wants to work regular hours and have their evenings and weekends free to preserve their mental and physical health and work on their relationships. I applaud their goals, but I have yet to figure out how they can do it within their first five to seven years of practice and also become a competent lawyer.           

Let’s take an example:

Assume that a young lawyer named Sam wants to work from 9 to 5 with an hour off for lunch and weekends and evenings free. That gives him a 7-hour day. There are about 251 working days a year in Ontario (excluding weekends and statutory holidays). Let’s subtract 10 more for a two-week vacation to get to 241. Sam wants to earn $100,000. Law firms typically say that you have to bill three times your salary, so if we assume an hourly rate of $300.00, Sam has to bill 1,000 hours.

If we multiply 241 days by 7 hours, we get 1,687 hours. So what’s the problem?

There is no problem at all if Sam never says hello to his colleagues, gets up to stretch his legs, takes a sick day, goes to the dentist, speaks to his children or spouse during the day, or goes to the bathroom. More likely, Sam is going to lose an average of at least two hours a day (482 hours a year), which takes his total hours for the year down from 1,687 to 1,205.

Now, remember that Sam is a newbie.  He is learning on the  job.  His firm cannot bill a huge chunk of his time. Let’s assume the firm writers off 30% of his time in the first year. Sam has now billed only 844 hours. He needs to work more hours to pay his way.

None of this accounts for the fact that new lawyers are notoriously poor at recording all of their time, or that Sam will have all sorts of non-billable hours to invest in the course of learning his craft and administering his practice, or that there will be write-offs for non-collectible accounts receivable.

So when Sam comes to my firm and says that he wants to work from 9 to 5 without weekends or evenings, I am thinking that he is going to cost me a lot of money. I may just pass him over for someone who wants to work way too hard for a few years.

Now there is a way out of this for Sam. After five to seven years, if he has become a competent lawyer and developed a solid client base, he can do whatever he wants, including working reasonable  hours, provided that he is prepared to accept the more modest financial rewards that come with a somewhat relaxed lifestyle.

My  name is Murray and I have authorized this message. If you don’t like it, don’t blame me. Blame capitalism.

Murray is a happily retired lawyer who lives in the country, drives a pick-up truck, writes, teaches and mentors. You can reach him at [email protected] or see what he is up to at lawanddisorderinc.com.

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