4.55pm: “Yes, of course I have capacity this evening”
“About as balanced as a dead elephant on a skateboard.”
Goodwin Procter has the worst work/life balance in UK law, according to the huge RollOnFriday Best Law Firms to Work At 2023 survey.
“Double whammy, US law firm hours but shit work, it’s like a low value high volume sweat shop of shitty deals that make us such an embarrassment,” said a junior lawyer, “we win plenty of awards for private equity deal count, although embarrassingly we don’t even appear on the chart for aggregate deal values – because the deals are for values closer to the average Waitrose shop cost of £37.20”.
A partner fumed: “The quality of work is shocking, and the quantity of bad work is not good for the life balance, so shit all around.”
“The only thing worse than bad hours is bad hours doing crap work,” said a junior lawyer. Another said they “wouldn’t mind the hours as much” had they been give “decent work.”
Here’s a rundown, from worst to best, of the rest:
“Chargeable hours are high and so are the non-chargeables,” said a senior solicitor. “It’s the latter which grinds you down, dealing with WIP enquiries, bills, client data, training etc you end up doing lots of overtime for no pay. It used to be a steady 9-5 but it no longer is, it’s a slog.”
One lawyer opined that they have the “highest targets in the industry.” While another said: “Get 10% over chargeables and you’ll get salary rise, it doesn’t matter about case outcome”.
A paralegal summed up their experience: “A life? Ha ha ha ha ha ha.”
Many BCLP Business Services staff complained about the salary freeze at the end of last year. One said they “worked hard all year” only to be told “three weeks before Christmas there will be no salary reviews, during a cost of living crisis.”
Some lawyers noted a rise in work expectations. “My target hours increased from 1500 to 1600 at the beginning of this year,” said one, “it’s probably not unreasonable for the pay, but it’s not what I have signed up for.”
Squire Patton Boggs
A Squire Patton Boggs lawyer said they were “working long hours on BD and other wasteful events. I’d much rather just bill 2200 than bill 1750 with 300 on BD and firm marketing and internal regional office networking.”
“They make a big song and dance about work/life balance to plaster over the no money situation, but it’s a complete sweatshop so the obvious deceptive spiel is even more infuriating,” said a junior lawyer.
“I was at Skadden. I moved to get the work/life balance. I just haven’t seen it,” claimed a senior lawyer. “The work/life balance is better but not significantly so. It’s not worth a pay cut, never mind cutting my pay to a third of what it was, to work for tight-fisted arseholes.”
“70+ hours a week are the absolute norm,” said a lawyer, “Less than that and you acquire a reputation of not taking your career seriously”.
A business services staffer said there was “not enough people to do the work, so everyone is being asked to do more with fewer resources, big budget cuts and no pay off for the extra hard work being put in”.
Legal staff across firms opined on the remote working policies at their firms. “Presentism is back,” said a partner at Knights, because the firm feels it “loses control if people work from home. Like Tesco shelf stackers, we are in for 5 days each week.”
“Back in the office full time, 5 days,” said a senior lawyer. “There’s no thought for work/life balance or mental health.”
“100% attendance demanded,” said a partner. “We can’t be trusted not to spend our days at home watching re-runs of Dallas.”
Slater and Gordon
“7 hours chargeable target makes a work life balance much harder when you’ve also got a bunch of non chargeable meetings and demands as well,” said a junior lawyer at the PI firm.
“Often working at least 2 hours a day longer than I should,” said a paralegal, “no more pay or any sort of thank you for getting work done.”
“Work you like a bloody donkey on Blackpool beach,” bleated another member of staff.
A number of lawyers commented on the relationship between pay and work/life balance. “It was good. It isn’t now. I accept there isn’t a wonderful work life balance in law but I expect the pay to reflect that which it doesn’t,” said another lawyer.
“Considering I’m paid less than the market rate, I’m still doing silly hours,” said a senior lawyer.
Kirkland & Ellis
At the other end of the pay-scale, many Kirkland staff said they knew the “non-existent” work/life balance was what they were “signing up for.”
A partner noted: “Can’t expect this level of pay without some pain”.
One lawyer seemed to have drunk the office Kool-aid: “I love working”, they said.
Slaughter and May
Many associates blamed the partners for their poor work/life balance. A Slaughter and May solicitor said the “appallingly bad” work/life balance was “hardly surprising” as “partners are mostly workaholics and – explicitly or implicitly – expect the same of their associates”.
“I am no longer balancing anything, but rather have toppled into a never ending pool of work,” said a lawyer.
Business services staff also reported of “regular intrusions into staff’s personal lives”. Despite being paid “nowhere near what the lawyers earn, partners will treat you like an associate and expect you on call whenever they need you”.
There were gripes about non-chargeable work being heaped on lawyers at Eversheds “to cut costs in admin support,” despite “there are only so many hours in a day.” Another respondent also felt squeezed: “The hours can be brutal because matters are consistently under-resourced, all in order to maximise partner profits”.
Staff shortages were a regular theme, with a business services staffer claiming the firm is “struggling to retain senior level staff due to lack of flexibility in working hours / locations and lack of progression” which meant “those of us still here are expected to pick up more work with no extra reward”.
Allen & Overy
At the Magic Circle firm, one lawyer summed up the workaholic mindset of a colleague: “Hard to believe too much in the firm’s commitment to work/life balance when at least one partner has been known to boast of sleeping with his phone on his chest.”
“I make no evening plans and my weekends belong to the partners,” said a Freshfields lawyer. At the moment, I would probably have a better social life at Kirkland.” Another associate at the firm agreed: “When not on leave, let’s be realistic, I make mid-week evening plans maybe twice a year.” A senior lawyer said, “I can’t help but feel like I’m slacking off if I stop work at 9pm”.
A business services member of staff said they were “expected to be available at all hours, yet get zero thanks for it”.
Herbert Smith Freehills
“Since the start of the pandemic, work life balance has deteriorated,” is the impression from some lawyers at Herbies, which is “not helped by a desire by certain partners to take on extra work regardless of quality/margin/capacity.”
One believed that there is only “lip-service paid to work/life balance”.
“The job is the job,” said a Linklaters lawyer, “but it would be nice from time to time if a partner would push back on a client deadline or even offer (shock horror) to do some drafting themselves.”
Some staff at the Magic Circle firm felt undervalued: “I work 10 hour days as a business services member but with zero thanks and rare credit. The lawyers are unappreciative”.
“It is what is it. I work fewer weekends than other firms, but late nights are standard,” said an Ashurst trainee.
Some lawyers felt they weren’t getting a good deal: “Don’t get paid enough for the hours,” said one junior lawyer.
A business services staff summed up the highs and lows of work/life balance at DLA: “Sometimes it exists, sometimes you are a sad potato.”
At CC some staff felt that pressure was being placed on them without good reason. “Arbitrary deadlines sometimes make things very stressful,” said a business services member of staff. While a senior lawyer said that they experienced “often unnecessary…long hours, weekend and night work”.
A Kennedys senior lawyer highlighted double-standards when it came to remote working at the firm: “Long hours expected as well as a presence on the office almost every day, at the partners insistence and despite them staying at home most of the time”.
“If you let them, they will rinse you like a battery in transactional seats and pay you like a pauper,” claimed a Dentons trainee. “It is why many senior associates and juniors, including their best paralegals in the transactional departments have left. Those that want fair money for similar hours have gone to the SC, MC or US, while those seeking better work-life balance have gone in-house or to smaller shops”.
A business services member of staff said: “If the Partners/fee earners are your internal clients then expect to be contacted at all hours of the day. It is not uncommon to start work in the morning with an inbox full of emails from activity the night before.”
Charles Russell Speechlys
A Charles Russell Speechlys lawyer believed they “should have better balance considering we are a mid-sized firm that doesn’t pay well”, while at Clarke Willmott a lawyer said they were “expected to put in top hours for bottom pay…staff turnover is crazy because of this”.
“The firm is trying to represent itself as being a place for a good work life balance but also expects lawyers to deliver a huge amount of non billable work, alongside their chargeable targets,” said another. “This creates a large work load that is only partially recognised.”
“You’re expected to work 24/7 and discouraged to take leave,” said a senior solicitor at Weil. “Office activities and team drinks make the work/life balance worse”, groaned one grinch.
A number of staff weren’t happy with the firm’s remote working policy. “During Covid we were praised for working hard whilst working online away from the office but once the office reopened that was all forgotten,” said one respondent. “Having another day WFH would be beneficial, 4 days at work 1 at home is not balanced,” said another.
There was a mixed view at Gowling WLG. “It’s private practice. It’s shit,” said one junior lawyer. Although another junior was of the view: “Nearly £100k when I work 9.30-6.30. Brilliant.”
White & Case
“Generally satisfied, facetime isn’t really a thing in my team,” said a senior lawyer. “However a recent client project required horrific sacrifices of my free time. I don’t think I could pull those type of hours again without serious detriment to my health and personal life.”
Another commented that “hours can be hard and interruptions are to be expected at this level of firm, but it is not unmanageable,” and felt it “is appreciated and actually a pretty fair deal in the grand scheme when compared to peers at MC and smaller US shops”.
Latham & Watkins
Some lawyers at US firms acknowledged that they had entered a Faustian Pact due to their huge salaries. “They expect and get our souls for the money they pay us,” said a lawyer at Latham & Watkins.
Although one trainee was shocked: “Controversially, my work life balance has been incredible. I’ve only had to order 3 Deliveroos in 2 months (my metric of late nights). There’s been no weekend work unless it’s been my fault.” But noted: “However, I’ve only been working in my department for a couple of months and it’s been hit heavily by Conservative economics.”
Watson Farley & Williams
Staff at the firm said they weren’t “constantly beasted like MC or certainly US firms,” and that the partners “are pretty understanding (to a point) and there are a number of social opportunities to let off steam”.
The remote working policy was also praised: “We’re able to WFH most of the time as well – in reality with client meetings and team meetings etc you essentially have to be in at least a couple of days a week anyway – but it’s still nice to wake up Monday morning and know I don’t have to head into the office.
Norton Rose Fulbright
A NRF business services member of staff said that remote working meant that “switching off at the end of the day is now much harder and there is an expectation from the business that we are available at all hours to respond.”
Another respondent highlighted the reality of working at an international firm: “Working on a global team there is sometimes an expectation that you’re available across all timezones.”
Debevoise & Plimpton
“At this level, long hours come with the territory. However, different people have differing levels of respect for holidays,” said a junior.
Some secretaries voiced their annoyance at their time in the office. “During lockdown we efficiently worked from home,” said one, “so now we are back in the office we are currently only allowed one day a week WFH,” despite “fee earners being on a 60:40 WFH split, “but most do not come in on a Monday and Friday”.
“I have young children and work full time – Covid forced HFW to bring their WFH technology forward by at least 10 years and that was the silver lining as I would not have been able to do this job on a full-time basis otherwise,” said a senior lawyer. “As it is, I can now work with a high degree of flexibility and feel I am trusted by the firm to do so. This is important to me and really engenders loyalty”.
However a business services respondent felt that “Three days a week in the office is unnecessary” and was just “a tick box exercise”.
Clyde & Co
Lawyers at some firms felt the pay did not warrant the unsociable hours. “I am happy to work long hours but am currently doing so for Clydes level pay. I am a mug,” said a senior lawyer at the firm.
“The Clyde & Co model appears to be based on beasting people to hit their chargeable hours target,” said one lawyer. “The fact that you have other supervisory commitments seemingly does not matter. The token Wellbeing day for your ‘mental health’ is all well and good, but you have still got to make your hours up for it! It has even got to the point that lawyers are being told to email their hours on a daily basis to their manager to ensure that they have hit the required 6.5. Utterly demeaning.”
There were mixed views on flexible working at DWF. “I have found the changes to working from home since lockdown have benefitted me greatly as has the reduction in travel and the investment in technology,” said one respondent. Another agreed: “Working from home massively assists with this and 2 young children. The working hours should ideally be more flexible but it is much better than it was pre Covid.”
However, a colleague felt that “working from home…means I find it difficult to switch off”.
“Agile working is fine but constantly feel like you have to be grateful for it,” said one Macfarlanes respondent. While another felt: “It is very obvious that working from home is despised by some senior partners”.
At CMS it “can occasionally feel like you work Magic Circle hours without the pay,” said a lawyer. “However, the firm is very good at recognising when you have events outside of work – have never had an issue on holiday. Weekend work pretty rare.”
Another opined that “partners should do more to manage clients’ expectations and push back on unrealistic deadlines and demands when it’s the associates who bear the brunt.”
Ropes & Gray
“Work life balance is a dream,” said a Ropes & Gray lawyer, “you get emails on new deals at 10pm on a Friday night – this is just the reality of it.”
A partner noted: “At the rates we charge and the amounts we get paid, the encroachment on my leisure time is expected – and frankly the price I pay for being in a service industry with some of the most demanding clients.”
Womble Bond Dickinson
Some Wombles were happy to be wombling free with the flexible offering: “I do the school run, eat with the family regularly and get to enjoy my weekends” said one.
Although this was not universal across the firm: “I work like a dog whilst many of my peers waddle out of the office/their studies at 5.30. So, not very balanced at all basically.”
Firms that paid lip service to wellbeing were criticised. A Pinsent Masons lawyer said the messaging from partners “is that the ‘Mindful Business Charter’ is not to be seen as an ‘excuse to get a better work/life balance’… Being part of MBC has just become another buzzword to try and impress clients with”.
Although another respondent at the firm had a different view: “I am able to work mostly from home which is for me – in my current life situation with kids – a great benefit as I am able to balance work and life. Due to less commute I have less stress.
It gets plenty of criticism, but Plexus Law had a “good WFH policy in place”, said staff: “My peloton streak is 635 days. Says it all”, vouched one.
“Excellent. I worked harder at University!” said another respondent. A senior lawyer confessed their work/life balance was great as “I’ve decided I’m quietly quitting and only working 9-5 now”.
An Irwin Mitchell business services staffer said: “The firm has an amazing flexible by choice policy, in a nutshell, you can decide yourself what you want your hours to be each day, and you’re trusted to manage that yourself. As long as you’re getting your work done, no one will question it.” A colleague said the policy “lets me go to the shop / pick the kids up / gym etc. when it works for me.”
The Bristol firm was praised for offering “the flexibility to work around lifestyle commitments.”
“My work/life balance is excellent,” said a senior lawyer. “I work from home with hours that fit around childcare and other responsibilities. At the moment, there is no requirement to go into the office, but you can if you want to.”
A “hard-working environment, but none of the silly presenteeism bollocks you get elsewhere,” said a partner, “and ‘TLT World’ gives people genuine flexibility in terms of location and hours, rather than paying lip service to it. Really good that senior management ignored pressure from some dinosaurs for compulsory ‘in office’ attendance targets, fixed core hours, etc.”
“As with other city law firms, there are extremely busy periods but there is no face-time culture, once your work is done there is no pressure to stay longer than you have to,” said a lawyer. “Annual leave/holidays are respected and for the most part so are weekends (with exceptions).”
“Remote working has been a huge improvement to work/life balance (one thing to thank Covid for!)” commented a business services staffer.
Shearman & Sterling
“As a trainee I am encouraged, to leave before 6pm on quiet days,” said a grateful newbie at the US firm. “The flexible working policy allows working from home Monday and Friday, which is very helpful and widely adopted. It’s nice to know the entire team will be present during the core office days.”
“No presenteeism culture,” said a partner, “The teams are small enough that it is both acknowledged and appreciated when people put in long hours and partners keep an eye on whether work needs to be reallocated to make sure as far as possible that it is even across the team.”
It was also noted by several staff that “the full remote working during August went down very well” which was also “replicated over Christmas / New Year.”
A senior lawyer said: “The pay is below par but you’re not expected to work out of hours as a result. The partners seem to understand the trade off.”
A female partner confirmed that staff are “not expected to work to death.”
Mishcon de Reya
“Really supportive of working parents and family friendly,” said a senior lawyer. “My team would never dream of contacting another team member who was on annual leave unless absolutely necessary so that people actually get a proper break.”
“Great social life in most teams,” said another lawyer, “I’ve never been forced to cancel mid-week (let alone weekend) plans”.
“Flexible working/WFH during Covid has transformed the experience and everyone can achieve a much better balance,” said one lawyer, adding: “Saying that they are now mandating us back to the office 3 days a week which isn’t a popular move (especially when the firm had a great financial year last year and productivity was high, so rationale isn’t clear for more senior roles at least).”
“It’s the usual long hours and slog of a top City law firm but with the very distinct difference that you are doing the work with truly great people who genuinely care,” said one lawyer.
“I hate that the pandemic brought an ‘always on’ culture to otherwise sane and sensible mid-size law firms,” said a senior lawyer at Addleshaw Goddard.
“Compared to peers at other firms the work/life balance is much better, there definitely is no ‘face time’ culture and we are encouraged to log out when we do not have work to do so that when there is a genuine business need we all take that seriously enough to do the heavy lifting,” reported a trainee.
A Shoosmiths business services member of staff said the firm was “very flexible if you have children.” A colleague agreed: “The flexibility I am given to WFH a lot of the time allows me to manage certain things in my life. Now I have this I would struggle without it”.
A senior lawyer agreed: “Very flexible for things like childcare as long as the work gets done,” although “it is obviously all subject to client need.”
A senior lawyer at DAC Beachcroft said they used to “have a good work/life balance and the pay was lower than market rate because of that, but it was a good compromise for those who wanted a balance.” But said their hours had now increased significantly but the firm “still rolls out the line” that it has a “good work/life balance to justify the lower pay.”
However another member of staff felt that “a healthy work/life balance is definitely encouraged and the Mental Health First Aiders keep an eye on our mental wellbeing. Hybrid working as well as being able to ‘Glide’ our time, makes for a very healthy balance”.
“Encouraged to enjoy flexible working which is 21st rather than 19th century,” said one lawyer. While another agreed that the firm had a “very agile and flexible approach.”
Coming top for salary satisfaction, the US firm was also praised for its work/life balance.
“It’s hard to believe but flexible home office working and being treated like an adult has made my life easier than it was at my Magic Circle firm,” said one lawyer at the high-paying US firm.
“It’s incredibly reasonable, with remote working I have a life at home and even mid week evenings,” said a senior lawyer. While a junior lawyer said: “it’s just sensible, you do the work that needs to be done and on your terms. No face time. Flexible working has remained in place and it’s key to retaining the work life balance and why I’m staying.”
“Working from home is key, the London office has thrived with this pattern and it’s frankly changed the dynamics. No wonder Sidley did well in rankings since Covid – it’s the fact people can have it all now.
Mills & Reeve
“Officially we are supposed to do 50/50 in office at home,” said a Mills & Reeve business services member of staff, “but the firm is happy to be flexible if you need it.”
“I love coming into the office a couple of days a week, but I like working from home more,” said another respondent. “It is cheaper, more effective in terms of starting work earlier and finishing a little later, as you don’t have to build in travel time to your day.”
“Love hybrid working,” said one lawyer, “no set days, so can work around my priorities.”
Staff at the firm felt that “Flexibility and trust are the keys to success,” and that the firm has it “in spades.”
“Billable hours target is quite a bit lower than our competitor firms without sacrificing too much pay,” said a junior lawyer.
A delighted trainee said: “For the amount we get paid it is incredible. Especially in the more advisory seats, you’re pretty much guaranteed to leave the office before 6.”
A partner said: “I have young kids and feel that I’m able to spend time with them (tea time, bath time etc) that I wouldn’t be able to at other firms. I can flex my work around them. Weekend work is rare. And whilst I’m a partner, our approach is very non-hierarchical and I definitely don’t feel that my position is any different to that of anyone else.”
The firm was ranked highly, with staff praising its flexibility. “I am a senior lawyer working 4 days a week and 8am til 4pm,” said one respondent. “This means I can leave the office pretty close to 4 to get my son to his various sports clubs without feeling guilty and leaving the office at 4 simply is not even an issue”.
“I have always been able to maintain an excellent work life balance at RPC and it has never held me back in terms of career progression,” said a partner. “I generally finish at a very decent time and rarely work evenings and weekends.”
“I work from home most of the time and get to spend time I would otherwise have spent on the commute with my kids,” said a business services member of staff. “Additionally, I’m rarely called on to work overtime; whenever I do, it’s my choice and I am compensated for it. I try to work hard and show that working from home doesn’t affect my productivity so that I can continue.”
4th equal: Burges Salmon
“Burges Salmon feels like an industry loophole, allowing for big law and a work/life balance,” said one lawyer.
“Definitely BS’s strongest suit,” said a senior lawyer. “Post-pandemic the management has done the sensible thing and recognised that for lots of staff, flexible working is the way to retain us and there are no enforced rules about numbers of days in the office (though two days per week is encouraged). Partners apologise / say thank you when you’ve put in a late shift and weekend working is pretty rare. Holidays are sacrosanct.”
“Working very late or during your weekends/ holidays is very much the exception rather than the rule,” said a junior lawyer. “There is no facetime culture at the firm, and a large amount of flexibility and autonomy is given to employees as to when and how often they WFH, which assists with work life balance, especially for those with kids.”
Another senior lawyer praised the firm’s remote working policy. “The fact I’m not being hounded to work from one of our offices just for the sake of it has meant being able to secure a much better work life balance, removing the commute and still getting in the hours whilst also having time for a life outside of work”.
4th equal: Ince Gordon Dadds
Despite (or perhaps because) the firm is going through a tough time, Ince scored well for work/life balance. “Absolutely no complaints at all. Responsive partners who are painfully aware of the shite we’ve gone through and are determined to make it better,” said one respondent.
“Best thing about working here TBH,” reported a senior lawyer. “Days past a 1900 final whistle are unheard of,” said another.
“You could go home at 3 and no one would give a toss,” said one lawyer. “It’s pretty awesome. For all the shit the firm gets you can’t fault this aspect.”
3rd: Trowers & Hamlins
“Can read to my children every night”, said a partner.
“Doesn’t get any better than this. This is a major international law firm with a family feel to it; partners are always looking out for the wellbeing of staff outside of work,” said a trainee. “I often receive a call from my supervisor if I am online after 7pm asking me to log off if there isn’t anything urgent. There are many activities organised after work as well, ranging from sports to casual drinks. I’d say the average leaving time is around 6pm.”
“There is no expectation to stay late without good cause,” said a junior lawyer. “Weekend work is a rarity unless there is serious urgency, but in the same vein if things outside of work take priority during the week partners will trust you to get the work done in your own time.”
2nd: Bird & Bird
A Bird & Bird lawyer said “considering the quality of work and litigation I do, I’d say work/life balance for me is top notch”.
“The work/life balance is great for a private practice firm,” said a junior lawyer. “Late nights do happen but are certainly not the norm and evening plans are respected.”
“Work/life balance is fantastic at the firm and there is a good culture around presenteeism where if you are quiet and there is nothing to pick up leaving at 5:30 is acceptable,” said a trainee.
1st: Clarke Willmott
In top spot, is Clarke Willmott. A partner at the firm said: “Compared to the place I used to work, Clarke Willmott is like heaven. The firm has no culture of staying late just to be seen, and I’m actually treated like a real person who might have commitments outside of work (shock horror).”
“Busy enough to stay interested in the work, but not so busy that I am having to cancel social engagements,” said a paralegal. “Most are out of the office by 5:30pm. There is no expectation to stay late. I’ve never felt the need to log on during weekends.”
“Work where you work best – is the firm’s motto and most partners lead by example,” said a partner.
Management are happy to be flexible with working from home and do not expect extremely long hours as long as the work is carried out in good time,” confirmed a junior lawyer.