Biglaw and Relationships

This piece was written by a TLS reader and 1L law student whose spouse is currently employed at a V25 firm in New York City. Many thanks to the author for this illuminating and personal portrait of "Biglaw" and relationships. Published July 2010, last updated September 2010.

Despite biglaw’s immense popularity as a career goal among pre-law and law students, there is widespread recognition within this group that such a career does come with pitfalls. Alongside alcoholism and burnout, one commonly cited risk of this lifestyle is the toll it might take on the attorney’s romantic and family life. This article, written from my perspective as biglaw attorney’s wife, deals with the challenges posed to junior biglaw associates and their significant others. For reference, my husband is a first-year associate at a V25 firm in New York. We went to high school together, began dating in college, and got married after he graduated from law school. After an aborted career in another field, I work two part-time jobs and will be attending law school in the fall. We are both 25.

I should note here that most of my advice will apply primarily to couples who are in a committed relationship, as casual dating would present a separate set of issues. Much of my advice also assumes that the non-biglaw partner, if employed, has a more standard career in terms of hours and salary. This could include teaching, retail, nine-to-five office jobs, etc.; excluded would be things like investment banking and medical residencies. I make this distinction because a relationship wherein both partners were highly paid and subject to 80-hour work weeks would face different challenges than one in which one partner has a “normal” job. Finally, as I am not a parent, I can make few suggestions regarding children, so most of my advice deals only with the romantic relationship. Below is my advice for anyone hoping to combine a successful career in biglaw with a successful relationship, organized into specific recommendations and illustrated with my own experiences.

Your partner must allow your schedule to be the dominant schedule.

There are few careers that rival biglaw in commitment of time. Even those professionals who tend to work equally long hours (doctors and airline pilots come to mind) are afforded firmer schedules and more inviolable off-time than are biglaw associates. So, for most couples, the non-biglaw partner will have working hours that are shorter and more flexible than those of the biglaw partner. If this is the case in your relationship, your partner must be prepared to conform to your schedule. You are the limiting factor in most plans, so recreation and social activities must be planned first and foremost around your schedule. It is essential for your partner to understand that this is a matter of logistical necessity and not a comment on who, or whose job, is more important.

Another consequence of your unequal working hours is that logic will likely dictate that your partner should do all of the housework. Obviously, you don’t have to do what logic dictates; splitting housework 50-50 is feasible, if not efficient. However, if you and your partner do decide that housework should be his/her responsibility, and if this isn’t ordinarily what your partner would choose, your volunteering for the occasional task can go a long way towards making the arrangement seem more fair. For me, doing 100% of the housework is disproportionately more depressing than doing 90% of it.

In return, keep your partner as informed as possible about your schedule.

Given that he is the most restricted element in any plan we make, it is irksome to me that my husband’s schedule is also so unpredictable. I know when he’ll leave for work, but there’s no way for either of us to know when he’ll be back, as he doesn't know how long his work will take or when someone will come by and give him more. This is obviously burdensome for him, but it is also inconvenient for me because I can't plan anything around him in advance. Dinner, housework, errands, and excursions all have to be coordinated in accordance with a completely amorphous schedule. However, he can avert much of the inconvenience by keeping me as updated as possible, generally online or through BlackBerry Messenger (BBM). If I get real-time updates on his availability (e.g., he just got assigned a ton of doc review, so I should go ahead and eat dinner without him; Saturday is looking bad, so that would be a good day for me to meet my friend for lunch), his erratic hours aren’t as much of a problem. To that end, I strongly recommend the use of a phone-based messaging service such as BBM, an unlimited text plan, etc. You need an immediate, portable, and non-disruptive way to keep in touch.

Your partner must have his/her own social life.

Since you will be spending so much of your evening and weekend time at work, it’s important that that your partner has a life outside of you. This is true of any couple, but it’s particularly essential when one partner has a job that intrudes as far as biglaw does into what for most people is leisure time. Your partner will often be without you on weekends, and if s/he doesn’t have somewhere else to be or someone else to be with, loneliness, depression, and resentment can build quickly. Particularly if you are relocating for work to somewhere where you don’t have many contacts, your partner must be prepared to build a new social network.

For couples who don't already live together, one way that is sometimes suggested to ensure that the non-biglaw partner does not come to rely solely on the biglaw partner for company is to live separately for the first couple of years of the biglaw partner’s career. I can understand the argument behind this: if I didn’t live with my husband, then on nights when he works until midnight, I wouldn't be home alone without him – I'd just be home. Living separately also encourages your partner to maintain all the aspects of his/her life that aren't connected to you. On balance, though, I think that for some couples living separately might cause more problems than it solves, especially in terms of how often they see each other. For example, when my husband comes home when I'm already asleep, I wake up and we can chat for a few minutes. If, on the other hand, I had my own apartment, I certainly wouldn't be waking up at 2:00 in the morning to call and ask how his day went. More commonly, he comes home at 9:00 or 10:00, and we have a couple of hours to hang out together. If we lived separately, however, we probably wouldn't have this time either, because neither of us would deem it “worth it” to leave home that late for the sake of spending one or two hours together. It is likely that we would end up seeing each other only on weekends – and only as much as work allowed, even on weekends – and with that little contact, there would be a realistic risk of growing apart.

Be prepared for possible interpersonal ramifications of your income discrepancies.

After taxes, my husband makes just over eleven times as much money as I do. He works much longer hours and has less control over when he works. And yet, we live in the same apartment, rely on the same health insurance, take the same vacations, and probably spend equal amounts of money at Starbucks. This is inarguably unfair, but it is also, to a large extent, unavoidable. Starbucks aside, I do shop in cheaper stores and eat cheaper food than my husband does, but factors like larger apartment size and safer neighborhood are like a public good: my consumption of them does not affect his access to them, so there's no reason for him to limit my consumption, and he cannot make them available to himself without also making them available to me. In short, I inevitably reap many of the benefits of my husband’s job without bearing most of the costs.

Of course, most people would argue that fairness should not be the dominant concern when allocating funds within a marriage, and I think this is generally the correct view. Traditionally, one of the distinguishing features of marriage or marriage-like partnerships is that money and resources are openly shared. However, the correct view is often not the view one takes when one is sleep-deprived, overworked, and frazzled with caffeine, and a biglaw attorney spends a lot of his/her time in that state. So, even though my husband and I both know that he doesn’t genuinely resent me for my comparatively easy life and paltry financial contributions, it is unavoidable that words like “ungrateful” should lurk on the sidelines during fights.

For some people, this will never be an issue. The extent to which people obsess over financial fairness as adults depends a lot on their childhood experiences – whether their families struggled financially, whether their parents fought about money in front of them, etc. However, until you know which type of person you are, keep an eye out for resentful feelings sneaking into your mind when you are worn down and vulnerable.

There are, of course, a multitude of other things you should also be careful not to say while stressed, as they cannot be unsaid once you are well-rested and rational. The reason income-based resentment receives special mention is that it is particularly poisonous. By voicing such resentment, you combine several factors that, on their own, are classic trouble-starters: you impugn your partner’s moral character and respect for you, you intertwine finances with emotion, and you insert a sense of hierarchy by pointing out the extent to which your partner depends on you in ways that you do not depend on him/her.

If, after even-keeled consideration, you feel that you really must address a financial issue – if your partner is spending money unwisely, or truly failing to pull his/her weight even to the extent that s/he is able – do so in a way that does not highlight your income disparity. Don’t couch it in terms of fairness, and don’t imply a connection between your partner’s treatment of money and his/her regard for you. In short, don’t make it about your relationship; make it about math.

Ensure that your partner knows not only what s/he can certainly expect, but also the less common occurrences s/he should be prepared for.

It's obvious that you should warn your partner about the typical challenges of biglaw: long, unpredictable hours, the stress of working with important clients and demanding partners, and so on. Make sure you're not speaking in generalities when you have this talk. "You know I'll have to work long hours" is much less persuasive and easier to dismiss than "last summer, my friend Tom had two straight weeks where he didn't get home before midnight."

However, your partner also needs to know about the things that aren't standard procedure but might happen. One thing that caught me by surprise was the ease and suddenness with which the firm could send my husband abroad. About a month after he started work, the firm tried to send him to Copenhagen* for at least a year and on only a few weeks’ notice. He was specifically invited to the assignment, partially on account of his fluency in Danish*, and when he voiced his view that he was not in the right place personally or professionally to volunteer for such an assignment (I had a non-deferrable scholarship to a New York law school in the fall, and he was worried about constricting the course of his career by spending the first year of it in a foreign office and working solely on one high-profile case), the firm pushed back. His practice group leader met with him personally to find out what was putting him off the assignment and what the firm could do to change that – a generous gesture, but also one that made my husband feel very pressured. Understanding that I was part of my husband’s decision, the practice group leader told him that the firm would do whatever was necessary to make the assignment logistically feasible, such as paying for him to keep his New York apartment, and my husband told me that the firm might even offer to fly me back and forth to Copenhagen – still not an ideal solution, as neither of us was planning for a long-distance relationship during his first year of work, my first year of law school, and our first year of marriage.

Fortunately, enough of my husband’s co-workers volunteered to go to Copenhagen that he never had to openly refuse a direct request for him to go. Unfortunately for these co-workers, it seemed that his practice group leader had painted a slightly inaccurate picture of the concessions the firm was willing to make to the uprooted attorneys. As it turned out, it wasn’t actually the New York office that was in charge of such things, but a smaller and notoriously stingy department called, in a piece of business-speak that surpasses satire, Global Repositioning. Global Repositioning had a very different idea of how unexpected, transnational moves should be facilitated. There was no more talk of the firm paying the transplanted attorneys' New York rent so that they didn't have to lose their apartments and start all over when Copenhagen was done with them; instead, Global Repositioning was offering to pay them $1500 each to break their leases. Breaking one's lease, however, usually involves a fee of at least one month's rent, and $1500, as my husband’s now-disgruntled co-workers hardly needed to point out, wasn’t going to cover anyone’s Manhattan rent. Hearing this news, I wondered what would have happened if my husband had agreed to go to Copenhagen with the understanding that I could remain in our apartment in New York. It is unlikely that we would have been literally forced to give up our home and to go Copenhagen, as at the end of the day, even a junior associate does have the power to refuse such an assignment and probably not get fired. Despite the extreme and unexpected inconvenience of losing their apartments, however, none of his co-workers did choose to refuse the assignment.

So, drawing up on your own experience and the wisdom of your co-workers and mentors, you must warn your partner of the various things that can happen, even if the odds are that they will not. (Last-minute cancellation of long-held vacation plans is a major example.) The reason it is so important for your partner to be educated on these matters is that, should the unlikely come to pass, it will mean a period of stress and frustration for both of you, and the very last thing you want is for your partner to feel blindsided or misled.

Your partner must take it on faith that you won’t have an affair.

If you’re in a monogamous relationship, evaluate your partner’s attitude towards fidelity. Some people simply trust that their partners won’t cheat on them, while others feel that faithfulness is something that must be enforced, policed for, and empirically confirmed. If your partner is of the suspicious mold, biglaw will drive him/her insane. My husband comes home at a different time every night, and he can rarely tell me when that will be. It is common for him to come home in the early hours of the morning. If he stays out all night and comes home the next evening in different clothes, I think nothing of it; he was up all night writing a brief, and in the morning he got sent to the courthouse, for which he put on the suit he is required to keep in his office. It would be virtually effortless for him to conceal an affair from me. If your partner does not fully trust you, it is imperative that s/he learn to do so, because your lifestyle cannot accommodate suspicion.

Your partner must accept that biglaw is not a typical job and that you cannot make typical demands of your employer.

Although we think of ourselves as workaholics, Americans have a strong cultural bias against people who are perceived to put work ahead of family. Movies and television are filled with lawyers, doctors and businesspeople who cancel plans at the last minute, stay at work while their dinners go cold, miss baseball games and dance recitals, and so on. Generally, they either change their ways or are punished for the poor choices they have made.

In biglaw, however, deserting personal obligations in favor of professional ones isn’t a choice – it’s part of the job, and it’s not something your partner can afford to be offended by. S/he must not take it as a personal insult if you go out to dinner but spend half the time on your BlackBerry and step out twice to make phone calls, or if you promise to spend the weekend together but end up spending it in the office instead. And, above all, s/he must understand that none of this is due to some personal failing on your part, and that it’s not a reflection of your priorities.

The rules of biglaw apply not only in everyday situations, but also in emergencies. For instance, when my father called me late one night in the midst of an alcohol-fueled suicide attempt, my husband couldn’t leave work to be with me. I called him on our house phone (my father had called my cell phone), and he stayed on the line with me, typing extra quietly, as I sobbed and begged my way through my father's goodbyes, the paramedics' arrival, and his increasingly slurred refusals to go with them. But after my father was removed from the house (still, as far as I could hear, conscious), my husband had to get back to work. When he and his co-workers are in the office that late at night, it’s not just because there’s a lot of work to do; it’s because there’s urgent work to do, work that can’t wait until morning. So, although the most basic social niceties would have compelled his superiors to let him leave had he explained the situation, it would have genuinely inconvenienced everyone else in the office. His fellow junior associates might have compensated for his ill-timed absence by staying later into the night or speeding up their work to a more fevered pace, or perhaps a partner or senior associate would have chosen to call in another junior associate from home to replace him. (This is a risk of living too close to the firm’s building.) The option to report a family emergency and leave work with no argument is available to him, as it would be in most other careers; however, it is an option he must use very judiciously, because, unlike in many other careers, it really could hurt his reputation.

Though I was dejected that my husband couldn't come home, I can at least say that I was not hurt or surprised, because I married him knowing what his job could entail. Had I been uninformed or incredulous about the culture of biglaw, I would doubtless have been wounded when he refused to come home. A fight would almost certainly have ensued, leaving both of us hurt and isolated in the midst of a crisis.

By contrast, when his grandmother – technically his great-grandmother, and his sole caregiver from birth – collapsed in JCPenney and had to be resuscitated by EMTs, we were in a rental car and on our way west to his extended family’s residence near Harrisburg, PA* within an hour. I drove while my husband sat under a heap of papers in the passenger seat, BlackBerry in hand and laptop balanced on his knee. He e-mailed the partner under whom he was currently working to say that he would be out of town due to a family emergency but would be back in the office by late Monday afternoon, and he soon received a short and very kind reply, beginning with the words, “family comes first” and encouraging him not to worry about the case they were working on. Several factors had allowed this situation to play out very differently than the last: it was a Saturday, the work my husband had been planning to do wasn’t due for a few days, and neither he nor the partner was already in the office.

When we left Harrisburg on Monday, my husband’s grandmother was alert and lucid, but her doctors were still stymied on what might have caused her to collapse. A couple of days later, they settled on the theory that a bone spur in her back had pressed on her spine and interfered with her nervous system. Unless she had back surgery to remove the spur, she would be wheelchair-bound lest it happen again. Her heart wasn’t strong enough at that moment for her to undergo surgery, but there was a good chance the doctors could strengthen her heart by adjusting her medications and identifying and clearing any blocked arteries, so surgery was likely at some point in the near future. This left my husband in a difficult position. He couldn’t stomach the idea of staying 200 miles away while his 88-year-old grandmother underwent such risky surgery. On the other hand, he wasn’t comfortable taking time off work for a family medical emergency twice within such a short space of time. As he said, he didn’t want to be seen as “that guy” who always seems to have some crisis, and in such a large firm, especially when he hadn’t been there for long enough to establish a real reputation, two family emergencies within that short time could easily leave this impression in a partner’s or senior associate’s mind.

Overall, your partner needs to understand that you won’t always be available in emergencies and that this is due to the nature of biglaw and not to indifference on your part, and s/he should also be aware of the reasons why biglaw can be so inflexible and the factors that affect its flexibility – urgency of assignment, number of other people on the case, etc. The more informed your partner is, and the deeper an understanding s/he has of the nature of your job, the less likely s/he is to react badly when it intrudes into your lives.

For your benefit, your partner also needs to understand that your firm isn’t somehow abusing you when you work all night, lose all your weekends, and so on. There are no lawyers in my or my husband’s family, so our relatives are continually shocked and indignant at these occurrences, no matter how many times he tells them that he signed up for this and is being paid handsomely for it. They declare that there must be some law against this, question why he can’t say something to his supervisor, and speculate that all this will surely die down after this or that case is over. All of this, though well-intentioned, grates on him, as it emphasizes his powerlessness and magnifies the otherwise manageable emotional impact of his schedule. Just as your partner must not be personally offended by your firm's demands, nor must s/he be too indignant on your behalf, because this quickly crosses the line from sympathy to insensitivity. Again, it is essential that your partner understand that these demands are normal for the line of work you have chosen.

Don’t assume that your partner isn’t interested in what you do.

No matter how good you are at separating work and home, it is inevitable, when you spend twelve hours a day in the office, that much of your mental and emotional landscape will be occupied by work. Family, sports, and the rest of your pre-biglaw life certainly don’t disappear, but a huge proportion of your energy will be consumed by the triumphs, defeats, and frustrations you experience at work. There are, of course, many things you can’t discuss with people outside the office, either for legal reasons or owing the firm’s policies. However, there will also likely be things it is common practice for the attorneys in your firm to share with their immediate families. A lot of your work, unlike that of a health professional, is public record.

Some people specifically prefer that their partners do not discuss work at home. Their reasoning is often that since their partners have already spent the whole day focusing on work, they should take full advantage of the opportunity to assume their home personas and focus on personal matters. My caution against this attitude is that, in a field as all-consuming as biglaw, by leaving work at the office you leave a lot of yourself at the office, too. If you can’t share with your partner the things you’re proud of, challenged by, fearing and looking forward to, you once again face the specter of growing apart.

As I can attest, your partner doesn’t need a legal education in order to follow along on at least a basic level; a rudimentary understanding of the case and assignment in question will suffice, supplemented by simplified explanations of legal terms as necessary (e.g., “a motion to dismiss says that even if everything the plaintiff alleges is true, we still haven’t done anything they can actually sue us for”). If your partner is bored to tears by your work stories and begs you to stop, you should heed his/her words rather than mine. My suggestion is simply that you do not assume that s/he isn’t interested in hearing you crow or vent; s/he is, after all, extremely interested in you.

*Place names have been changed to protect anonymity.