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The Fantasy of the Lifestyle Firm
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Summary: There is no such thing as a lifestyle law firm–at least not for long.

  
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Imagine walking through the halls of a law firm late at night. You hear the clicking of a keyboard and see light spilling out from an open door. As you round the corner you see an attorney. Her heels are kicked off under the desk and she looks tired, but she’s still going.

You follow that same attorney through her week. She drags herself out of bed each morning after only a few hours of sleep. Her day is a blur of conference calls, redlined changes, and client emails, and the highlight of her evening is eating sushi at her desk while she scrolls through an important document on her computer screen. If she’s lucky, she makes an obligatory showing at her niece’s birthday party on Saturday morning–but spends most of the gathering in the corner, marking up representations and warranties in a contract.

Sadly this picture is pretty typical for a lawyer. Attorneys work all the time; many of them even become addicted to it. After awhile, the insanity becomes normal and work is the only place they feel “safe.” The real world can become frightening and foreign. Perhaps this is why so many lawyers have problems in their home and social lives.

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In his recent article, “Why There Are No Lifestyle Law Firms,” recruiter Harrison Barnes says many overworked lawyers call him because they’re ready to make a change and join a “lifestyle firm.” While there are some lifestyle firms out there, he says they generally don’t stick around for long. When they do, they usually transform into something different.

According to Barnes, lifestyle firms have two fundamental problems. First, the best attorneys end up working long hours for less compensation, which leads to an exodus of the best talent. Second, the practice of law is inherently competitive, and clients rely on dedicated, hard-working attorneys who put their interests first. As soon as lawyers start cutting out early, the client suffers. Pretty soon the client takes its business elsewhere.

Lifestyle as a Recruiting Tool

Barnes says lifestyle firms use work-balance as a recruiting tool, which almost always backfires. According to the seasoned recruiter, if you want to hire an attorney from a major law firm at a lower salary, you can certainly get his or her interest by throwing around words like “work-life balance.” Attorneys jump at the promise of less hours and less pressure, and will accept substantially less money for this tradeoff.

Of course there is still plenty of work to go around, and the best attorneys are still given a lot of work at these lifestyle firms. Things get really busy and suddenly the attorneys who are working for less money get upset. They tell the partners they joined the firm because they thought it was a lifestyle place. The management generally ignores them, and then the undercompensated attorneys start leaving. When the attorneys start leaving, the law firm realizes it needs to raise salaries but now it is going to need “minimum” billable hour requirements. With these minimums in place, the law firm is no longer a “lifestyle firm.”

Law Firms Require Hard Work, Period

Lifestyle firms also run into trouble because they fail to understand law is extremely competitive. In most transactions and in litigation, there are winners and losers; the quality of the legal work usually dictates who comes out on top. For a company, the stakes can often be in the billions of dollars.

When a firm’s lawyers cut out early or take off every weekend, clients fail to get good results. In extreme cases, lawyers can even mess up, leading to multi-million-dollar malpractice suits and the implosion of the firm. Other times, competing law firms wait in the wings, telling the client how their current law firm is making mistakes.

When the lifestyle firm doesn’t work as hard as the “normal” firm on the other side, they inevitably lose. In the long run, the lifestyle firm begins to have problems attracting business, holding onto clients, paying salaries and keeping up with expenses. This is why many lifestyle firms go under. The ones that manage to stay in business are forced to change their strategy and push their attorneys harder.

Conclusion

While lifestyle firms are more tenable in smaller legal markets with little competition, they don’t last long in the bigger, more competitive markets. For a business to survive in the midst of competition, it must provide exceptional service and do good work.

Because the success of every law firm depends on everyone working hard and generating money, it’s almost impossible to run a business that perpetuates a “lifestyle” of not working hard. Ultimately the practice of law requires dedication. Any law firm that wants to make it must go the extra mile for its clients.

You can read more about lifestyle firms and work-life balance for attorneys here: “Why There Are No Lifestyle Law Firms.”

 

Photo credit: AZ Attorney



 

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