Finance

Confessions of Big Law’s burned-out associates: 5 current and former lawyers from firms like Cleary, Davis Polk, and Goodwin detail their nonstop daily work schedules

  • Big Law firms have been giving associates special bonuses up to $64,000.
  • The payouts are an effort to increase retention after a year of non-stop work.
  • 5 current Big Law associates told Insider about their daily schedules and how they feel trapped in their current jobs.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

With work booming across practices, Big Law associates are feeling burned out, wishing they could leave their top-ranking, white-shoe firms in search of better work-life balance.

The pandemic has exacerbated lawyers’ workloads, which were notoriously strenuous to begin with. A growing list of firms, including Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton and Simpson Thacher, have offered associates special bonuses of up to $64,000, which recruiters and other industry experts say are an effort to keep young lawyers from leaving.

One mid-level associate at a New York firm said she and her fellow associates are waiting anxiously to see if their firm will match the special bonuses. Not getting bonuses, she said, is “bad for everyone, because junior associates who can go to other firms will leave, leaving mid-level associates in the lurch. And then mid-levels will leave. It affects the firm’s ability to recruit new associates.”

But even leaving doesn’t offer young associates much solace. Several associates told Insider that burnout is an industry-wide problem. Even if they were to switch firms, they would still face the underlying work culture and expectations of racking up billable hours at law firms. Finding a job outside of Big Law during a pandemic is nearly impossible, some said.

Insider spoke with five associates about how work has changed in the past year. The associates have asked to remain anonymous out of fear of jeopardizing their careers, but their identities are known and verified by Insider.

Here is a selection of their comments, which have been edited for length and clarity.

‘Stretched beyond capacity’

“Everyone is stretched beyond capacity. Any semblance of separation between work and personal life has been obliterated.”

“We have a lot of meetings where partners give lip service to recognizing how hard we are working and how tough this is — it feels like they’re really panicking.”

“I don’t think any of this is necessarily Goodwin specific. It feels like a ton of corporate associates are just shuffling around to other firms that tell them it will be better — and then it’s not.”

— A corporate associate at Goodwin

‘Why do they pay us so much money? It’s for availability.’

“Quarantine Big Law has been particularly difficult because there is no off switch at all. You’re expected to start answering emails anywhere from 6am to 7am, and my current deals go well into the night. I had a call on Friday night from 10pm until midnight. Why do they pay us so much money and why do they give us these huge bonuses? It’s for availability.”

“The hardest part about this job isn’t necessarily the long hours, it’s the unpredictability of the long hours. What looked like a free weekend or free night can quickly turn into an all-nighter. You quarantine for two weeks so you can see your parents, and, as much notice as you give, as much as you prepare for it, the realities of what you’re being paid for is that that can blow up at any moment.”

“If anything, this job seems way more unnecessary now. My family has always been like, ‘This is a crazy job, why are you doing this?’ For a lot of people [the pandemic] has revealed that you don’t need as much money, you don’t need to live in the city, you don’t need to pay an insane amount for an apartment you’re never going to be in. Why not go somewhere more affordable or find a different job that allows you to enjoy the things around you?”

“I had no intention of staying in Big Law, and [the pandemic] has just affirmed this is somewhere I don’t want to stay. I think [the pandemic] is keeping a bunch of people in Big Law who may have left already. It would be very easy to move to the exact same thing under a different name, but to make a more interesting career jump, people are finding it to be a slower process.”

— A current mid-level associate at a Big Law firm in New York

‘I don’t know how to describe when I know to stop working for the day.’

“I don’t know how to describe when I know to stop working for the day. Usually there’s a lull, when everyone else is taking a breather. Pre-pandemic, I would often take a break for dinner around seven or eight and then get back to it. At least in my practice, I was able to avoid weekend work for most weekends — I would probably work one out of every four weekends. But usually it was a 9 a.m.-to-midnight job.”

“Every day was a negotiation of, can I really take a break for 10 minutes … or do I have to be glued to my computer in case someone needs something?”

“At Cleary, the fire drills can last two months or more. Some people live in a constant state of fire drill. My longest was maybe two months where I was working nine to midnight or later on weekdays. At [my current firm], the fire drills typically last a week or two at most. Most weeks, I’ll find time for every meal and then be done by seven, and maybe have a half-hour or an hour of work after that.”

“There’s just a different level of demand — whether it’s the work culture or just the nature of the work — it’s just on another level.”

“[With] the billable hour model, there’s only so many hours in a day, and in terms of a firm’s interests, to the extent that it’s the kind of matter where there’s no client sensitivity to the fee or how long you spend on it, just get it done well — there’s a real culture of endless work.”

— A former Cleary Gottlieb associate in New York who now works at another Big Law firm

“You wake up, you go to work, you wake up, you go to work”

“In the legal profession, especially Big Law, it’s not uncommon for people to feel burned out. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a junior associate, midlevel, senior associate, even partners.”

“My second year at Davis Polk, I was really burnt out. I then went on a secondment. It really allowed me to evaluate my priorities and also my life. [Then I had] a nine-to-five, whereas earlier I was working whenever I was needed.”

“Being burnt out has so many mental and emotional ramifications. It’s hard to do anything. It’s hard to enjoy life, even, except for work, and it just feels like a dredge. You wake up, you go to work, you wake up, you go to work.”

“My friends who are currently burned out, I can see it. I can see their stress. They’re not sleeping. They don’t feel healthy…. They want to leave because of the burnout, but the irony is, they’re so tired because of the burnout that even if they do want to leave…they don’t have time to work on a resume.”

“It breaks my heart to hear they’re in that space, but it’s there. If it’s not going to happen now, it’s going to happen soon. I just don’t know when.”

— A former associate at Davis Polk

‘Feeling like you’re just way in over your head is hard to feel all the time.’

“It’s been quite busy in the past month. There’s a lot of SPAC activity and other things going on. I think the bonuses were in part driven by how busy everything has been. It’s a lot of different work streams.”

“I’ll wake up at 7:30 or 8 and then check my phone immediately. Lately I’ve been working until 1 or 2. And my weekends have been pretty busy.”

“Sometimes I have three hours of calls, which makes it harder to do the work that you actually have to do.”

“[Pre-pandemic,] I think people wouldn’t be checking their emails so early, or at least people wouldn’t be expected to do things or review things so early. But because everyone’s at home, people are just like, okay, I’ll just ask them now I can expect maybe something a little earlier than I would otherwise.”

“Every day’s a challenge when you’re a new associate. People are expecting you to know how to do things. I think being a first-year associate is pretty hard. Just the mental pressure of not knowing how to do things and feeling like you’re just way in over your head is hard to feel all the time.”

— A junior associate at a Big Law firm in New York

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