In general, most lawyers will occasionally work during the weekend. As a lawyer in the professional services industry, you serve your clients’ needs. Attorneys face deadlines that will not always conform with their personal plans. They are being paid to be available to diligently pursue their clients’ matters.
The amount of time spent working during the weekend really depends on what kind of lawyer you are. For instance, if you work in a large firm (Big Law), you can expect to come into the office or work from home during many weekends to meet deadlines.
On the other hand, if you work as an in-house legal counsel, you may not be required to work most weekends during the year.
Do lawyers work long hours?
Most lawyers work more than 40 hours per week. Below, I’ll provide a more complete picture of the work-life balance of different types of lawyers.
Big Law Attorneys
Lawyers working for Big Law firms frequently bill more than 2200 hours per year. Some have even billed up to 3000 hours in certain years. This comes out to about 50-70 hour work weeks. These prestigious private firms pay a premium for their lawyers’ availability, which essentially means that they are always on-call.
However, within these large firms, attorneys from different practice areas experience different levels of predictability in their work hours. For instance, lawyers in a litigation group may find their work schedules more predictable since the timeline and deadlines for a trial are spelled out clearly in the law or according to court schedules.
In litigation, clients won’t usually call you unexpectedly with questions or demands since lawyers have more autonomy to decide the means of achieving the client’s goals in court.
Nevertheless, there are emergency situations where firm partners need all hands on deck because their client’s case suddenly blew up. Sometimes your opposing counsel may throw you a curve ball in court and you may have to spend the weekend drafting a response to meet the court deadline.
On the other hand, lawyers from corporate mergers & acquisition (M&A) groups may experience less predictability in their work schedule.
M&A is an agreement between two companies, a buyer and a seller, where one company acquires or merges with the other. As an M&A lawyer on the deal, your team is essentially trying to arrive at an agreed upon document that both parties can sign. Once that document is signed, the lawyers then start moving toward closing the deal (i.e., making sure the seller gets paid and the buyer gets the company). The ultimate goal is to complete this process as fast as possible – clients don’t like to wait around.
Throughout this process, you need to hit a series of short deadlines to get the deal done as soon as possible. The deal will be constantly changing. Clients may call you frequently to research their deal structure or to look into a set of contracts just in case the terms of the contract change as the business-side negotiates with each other.
Smaller Firm Attorneys
Litigation attorneys in smaller firms may experience a similar work schedule since they too are subject to the deadlines of the court.
Other types of lawyers such as immigration attorneys may work from 9-7 PM each day. Here’s a typical day in the life of an immigration lawyer as described on Top Law School Forums (TLS):
- 9:00 – Check my email and other messages
- 9:30 – Look at my client list [and] make sure…no deadlines are coming up
- 10:30 – Work on an affidavit – drafting affidavits is a huge part of immigration practice
- 12:30 – Grab lunch
- 1:30 – Continue preparing affidavit or draft [court] motions (motion to change venue, motion to advance, etc).
- 3:30 – Meeting with the boss to discuss case strategy
- 4:30 – Miscellaneous work (draft motion, draft affidavit, draft pre-hearing brief)
- 7:00 – Go home
In-house lawyers work in the legal departments of banks and corporations. They work with purchasing agreements, non-disclosure agreements, intellectual licensing deals, and more. Many Big Law attorneys will exit into an in-house position due to a lighter workload and better work-life balance. In-house lawyers don’t usually work weekends.
An in-house lawyer on TLS describes her typical day in the legal department of a Fortune 100 technology company:
- 8 – 9AM: Misc[ellaneous] contract management projects and emails.
- 9 – 10AM: Internal meetings to determine negotiation positions with various stakeholders
- 10 – 10:30AM: Redlines for negotiations [i.e., reviewing and revising contract drafts during negotiations]
- 10:30 – 11AM: Business process improvement meeting
- 11 – 11:30AM: Internal meeting to discuss new legal escalation or negotiation
- 11:30 – 12PM: Projects/drafting/negotiating/meetings
- 12 – 1PM: Lunch
- 1 – 1:30PM: Projects/drafting/negotiating/meetings
- 1:30 – 2:30PM: Negotiation with external party and their counsel
- 2:30 – 3PM: Any items from the negotiation
- 3 – 3:30PM: Business unit meeting/team meetings
- 3:30 – 4PM: Legal research for negotiation or request from attorney
- 4 -5PM: Projects/drafting/negotiating/meetings
- 5+PM: Go home, maybe work if pressing deal/deadline
This schedule may contrast from the life of a lawyer in the legal department of a big bank or other financial institution where the hours are similar to Big Law.
Prosecutors and Public Defenders
Prosecutors and public defenders are public interest attorneys, meaning they represent clients in cases considered within the public interest. The public interest can include the government or for non-profit organizations that represent people from marginalized communities for economic or social reasons.
Prosecutors institute legal proceedings on behalf of the government against someone for violations of the law. They are usually able to get off work anywhere between 5-6:30PM, and they don’t usually work during weekends. Here’s a look into the day in the life of a prosecutor as described on TLS:
- 7:45-9:00: Arrive at work. Shoot the shit with my co-workers, prepare coffee, prep for the morning and afternoon calendar
- 9:00-9:30/10:00: Morning calendar (usually arraignments and bail hearings)
- 10:00-12:00: Prep charging documents, prepare cases, respond to motions, i.e. paperwork.
- 12:00 – 1:00: Lunch. Usually something I prepare, although there is good Thai food across the street that tempts me sometimes.
- 1:00-1:30: Prep for afternoon calendar (if there is one)
- 1:30-2 or 2:30: Afternoon calendar (usually case management conferences and some bail hearings as well.)
- 2:00/2:30-4:30: Prep for upcoming trials, meet with police officers to discuss case files, meet with witnesses/victims, work on pleas, meet with defense attorneys etc.
- 4:30-5:15: Prep for tomorrows morning calendar, shoot the shit with my co-workers, check e-mail.
- 5:30: Home.
A public defender is a lawyer appointed to represent defendants who cannot otherwise afford a lawyer to defend themselves in a criminal trial. Public defenders usually have routine schedules and work similar hours as prosecutors. They also don’t usually work during weekends. Here’s an example of the daily life of a public defender:
- 8:15am – Walk into my office and review the docket to see if anyone is likely to need a public defender
- 8:30am – Walk to the courtroom and give the PD speech to the unrepresented clients.
- 8:45am-3pm – Sit in court and play on my phone or read the statute because court is long and boring. If I have clients present I try to get them in and out. If someone wants to sign up for the public defenders I try to tell them not to if the offer is a withhold and court cost.
- 3:15pm -6:30pm – Office work. Writing motions. Returning calls. Prepare for a calendar call.
Legal Aid Attorney
Another example of a public interest attorney is a civil Legal Aid attorney. They represent clients from marginalized groups in society to provide equal access to justice for all.
A normal day in the life of a Legal Aid attorney can vary. Sometimes, they may leave by 6 PM each day, and at other times, they may need to pull off 12-hour work days. Their days are filled with meetings with clients, administrative work, preparing for trial, and occasionally attending community outreach events.
Federal Government Agency Attorney
Lawyers working at an independent federal agency such as the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) or the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). These lawyers usually work 9-6PM and they don’t normally work during the weekends.
Here’s a very detailed day in the life of a federal agency attorney described on TLS:
- 9:00: Start checking and responding to emails on my blackberry as I commute to work. Many at the office get in (and then leave) earlier than me, so there’s usually a bunch of emails to get through.
- 9:30-10:00: Get into the office and respond to more emails. Log on to our case management system to look at the status of my cases and see whether the finance people have added their analysis. Read the news clips compiled by Bloomberg that relate our agency and the field we regulate. Also read the NYTimes…both for things that relate to the agency and just general news.
- 10:00-12:00: Work on legal research or writing memos and decision letters relating to my cases. Email finance people about why they haven’t yet completed their analysis when the deadline is coming up at the end of the week (this is basically a daily occurrence).
- 12-12:30: Eat lunch either out or in my office.
- 12:30-12:45: Read random blogs and check personal email or grab Starbucks.
- 12:45-1: Prepare for meetings that will begin at 1
- 1:00-2:00: Interdepartmental meeting to review a purchase by a private equity fund of a company that is within our regulatory field. Discuss legal aspects with the finance people and decide next steps. Other days this time can be used to catch up on the status of cases with my team and supervisor.
- 2:00-3:00: Continue doing legal research or writing memos/decision letters regarding my cases.
- 3:00-4:00: Provide legal support to internal client on a conference call with an entity that we regulate and would like to see change its behavior.
- 4:00-5:00: Do client management and make phone calls to counsel representing the regulated entities to request additional info.
- 5:00-6:00: Review and edit memo from finance people (usually heavy editing required) or other attorneys on my team (minor editing required).
- 6:00-6:30: Work on my cases…
- 6:30: Go home and answer emails as they come in until around 9 at which point there is no expectation to answer until the next morning. About once or twice a month when there is a big transaction I will have to work from 6:30-midnight either at home or in the office on writing memos or providing legal support to the finance team…Around once every two months or so I will need to work on a weekend in order to meet some crazy deadline, and then I usually get a whole vacation day… My agency also pays overtime (benefit of being self-funded)…
Overall, lawyers work hard, but some will certainly work more than others. Generally, attorneys working in public interest or smaller firms will have a better work-life balance than lawyers at Big Law firms. A Big Law lawyer is more likely to work weekends than other types of lawyers. However, the salary paid to Big Law lawyers (starting at $190K per year without bonuses) greatly exceeds that of a public interest attorney, and the hours worked may be a reflection of that.
If you want to learn more about the daily schedule for a law student, you can read more about that here.