Analysis

The law firms with the best work/life balance — 2018 edition

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Good money plus good hours is a winning combination

Law is not the career for someone who hopes to saunter into the office at lunchtime and be back home in time to catch the end of Tipping Point. But as society becomes more understanding of mental health problems and the impact of stress on these, the macho mentality of working until you drop — perhaps literally — is being challenged.

In November, Legal Cheek released eye-opening data on the average hours worked at the country’s top 60 firms, based on data from the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2017-18. The more than 2,000 trainees and junior lawyers surveyed were also asked, separately, to rate firms’ work/life balance out of a possible score of ten. These rankings broadly correlate to the average hours data.

Interestingly, there are a number of firms with (comparatively) low average working hours that don’t appear on the best work/life balance list, for example: Browne Jacobson, DAC Beachcroft and Charles Russell Speechlys.

In alphabetical order, the firms that scooped A* grades for work/life balance in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2017-18 are…

Bird & Bird

Work/life balance at 28-office firm Bird & Bird is described by one of its young lawyers as “the best amongst all other firms I’ve heard of”. Lawyers at the outfit work, Legal Cheek research says, just shy of 10 hours a day. Perhaps that doesn’t sound a small amount to sleep-happy law students, as one Bird & Birder says:

“The balance is good — for a law firm. But that isn’t really the appropriate comparator.”

The firm’s strong work/life balance score may well have been helped along by Bird & Bird’s popular outside-work events. The legendary mini World Cup football tournament the outfit organises is a great way to “meet international colleagues over a weekend of partying”, for example. Or is it the firm’s tech focus that is helping its lawyers on the hours front? In the early days of the internet, the firm was one of the first to establish its own website. Though it has since then built out into corporate and finance work, its core remains telecommunications, media and technology (TMT).

Read Bird & Bird full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

Bristows

With its lawyers usually out the door before 7pm, it’s no surprise one Bristows lawyer said of the firm’s work/life balance: “Mostly it’s been amazing.” Though we’re sure clients including Google, The Guardian and the BBC aren’t the easiest bunch to please, the helping-hand culture means extreme late nights in the office are “very much the exception”.

If you fancy spending a bit more time with your Bristows colleagues even when you’re not at work, the social scene at the firm is also positively pumping. There’s drinks on the last Friday of every month, a “glitzy dinner dance” in the spring and an autumn party. There’s also plenty of sporting and charity events for lawyers who fancy making friends with colleagues in a less alcohol-heavy environment.

One survey respondent also complimented the firm for its supportive attitude towards staff who want to continue their education. Doing a diploma at a London university while working at a City firm could have been a nightmare for one associate, but: “Bristows was good about giving us time to study.”

Read Bristows’ full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

DWF

With an office in London’s Walkie Talkie, the same building that holds the very Instagram-able SkyGarden, you might forgive DWF’s lawyers for never wanting to go home.

But for those aspiring lawyers wondering how they’ll cope at the firm once the architectural novelty wears off, fear not. Its lawyers gave DWF a thumbs up when asked to rank their work/life balance out of a possible top score of ten; one equates to: “I’ve sub-let my flat as I haven’t been there for months,” and ten is: “I’ve never had to cancel a dinner reservation”.

The positive ranking for DWF isn’t surprising: solicitors and trainees at the firm work among the shortest hours in the City, arriving in the office at about 9am every day and shooting off at just after 6pm.

Its billable hours target is comparatively low too; of those firms that set target hours, DWF’s 1,300 seems a world away from the 2,000+ demanded at other firms. Its successful embrace of technology in the form of a £12 million investment in the firm’s IT has surely saved hours faffing with paper files too.

Though DWF isn’t a super-high payer, its lawyers are remunerated at City levels. Working regional-ish hours for London pay seems the perfect trade-off to us.

Read DWF’s full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

Fieldfisher

A series of successive mergers has seen turnover and profit per equity partner at Fieldfisher skyrocket — but Legal Cheek survey data shows it’s not the trainees and junior lawyers pedalling this change.

Fieldfisher staff tend to be out the office and on their way home (or to the pub!) on average at 6:36pm. And the firm seems okay with this: “They do not expect people to work late or weekends and encourage outside interests,” we are told. Another said that while there are busy times, “usually it’s really manageable and people respect solid plans”.

Work/life balance is one of many categories Fieldfisher scored particularly well in, though Legal Cheek can’t help thinking hours would be even shorter if the firm upped its tech game. We’ve been told the outfit, which offers 18 training contracts a year, adopts a time recording system that is “appallingly slow”. Or, maybe it’s just the case that “when busy it is busy”, as one rookie told us.

Read Fieldfisher’s full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

Forsters

Unlike the corporate-focused firms on this list, Forsters is a private client and real estate outfit with a very different vibe. How does this reflect in its lawyers’ work/life balance? Well, pretty well.

A small intake of just nine trainees a year certainly doesn’t leave them scrambling to finish corporate-crazy workloads — hours worked at the Mayfair outfit tend not to reach 10 a day. Annual target hours for trainees is a measly 975, the lowest of all target-setting firms that Legal Cheek holds data on. Even with annual leave (24 days) factored in, that’s about four hours a day. Small wonder, then, one survey respondent said:

“I would have given a 10 [for work/life balance] but had to cancel a couple of dinners (in three years, so that’s still a good percentage!)”

Before you ask, the firm does pay its newly qualified lawyers in line with City law firms. Salaries for new lawyers sit at £61,000, not bad for less than 1,000 (billable) hours’ work.

Read Forsters’ full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

Irwin Mitchell

A firm best known among the public for its TV adverts and among aspiring lawyers its mix of corporate and high-end personal injury work, the number of hours worked at Irwin Mitchell isn’t something the firm really raves about.

But maybe it should. Irwin Mitchell lawyers are home the earliest of any top 60 firm, our data showing an average leave-the-office time of an unheard-of 6:05pm — the joint earliest of all the firms we surveyed. This leaves plenty of scope for trainee-organised socials like Friday drinks at local pubs.

Despite the compelling figures, work/life balance does vary across the firm, reflecting its broad range of practice areas. Reports one insider:

“In some departments and for some supervisors your life outside work is at the bottom of the priorities list, for others, you get told to go home if you are there too late.”

Read Irwin Mitchell’s full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

Mills & Reeve

Aspiring Mills & Reeve lawyers will be thrilled to know: “The hours are a dream,” as one respondent tells us. They add:

“People work hard and stay as long as needed, with no facetime culture. My personal life and commitments are respected.”

Legal Cheek research into average hours worked backs up this finding. Ambling into the office at about 8:40am, Mills & Reeve’s lot tend to be out by 6:18pm. While there, the firm’s 18 trainees spend time on work that is “varied and interesting”, and the training often involves a “good level of responsibility and interesting tasks”. Though the firm’s £41,000 lawyer salaries are low compared with other corporate outfits, an Insider Scorecard of all As and A*s show Mills & Reeve has some very happy trainees and lawyers.

Even so, it doesn’t mean the firm’s rookies clock off early enough to watch The One Show every day. Work/life balance “varies week by week and also on the personality of the individual”, one lawyer told us.

Read Mills & Reeve’s full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

Osborne Clarke

Not only has 19-office outfit Osborne Clarke been described as “possibly the nicest and most down to earth law firm ever”, its trainees and lawyers rate its work/life balance as “fantastic” too.

Working at Osborne Clarke is a triple-win: 6:35pm home times, comparatively low annual hours target of 1,350, and 26 days’ annual leave. “Even in a busy seat the work life balance at OC is pretty good, and is something the firm really cares about,” one survey respondent gushes. He or she is also happy to report the firm encourages its workers to get involved in sporting and social events, others stating that the trainees “regularly hang out outside of work” and another commenting: “Always plenty of events.” With such great praise come only a few words of warning: there is variation between teams.

But rest assured: “There’s no heavy hours culture, on the whole.”

Read Osborne Clarke’s full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

TLT

If you are someone who prefers the “life” bit of the work/life balance, consider applying for one of the 15 training contracts TLT offers every year. Legal Cheek research plonks TLT near the bottom of the ‘which firm works the longest hours?’ table, lawyers racking up an average of only 9.06 hours a day.

Comments flowing from TLT’s A* score include observations that “workloads are generally manageable without the need to flog yourself”; “seldom staying later than 5:30 and lots of social events”; and “there’s no pressure to stay late if you don’t have anything urgent”.

Not all survey respondents were so impressed, though, again making clear the hours are “seat dependent”. The firm isn’t “a pushover”, and some lawyers will find themselves enduring some late nights. Thankfully, one says:

“[These aren’t] to photocopy, it’s to finish substantial bits of work.”

When these “bits of work” are finished up, TLT trainees enjoy “regular socials”, including an office summer event and a Christmas do. But you’ll probably have to make your own fun most of the time you’re away from your desks; other commenters said the firm’s social life “could be better”.

Read TLT’s full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

Trowers & Hamlins

An average leave-the-office time of 6:31pm coupled with a salary of £62,000 may well explain Trowers & Hamlins‘ very impressive Insider Scorecard. An A* for its work/life balance sits proudly alongside four other A*s and four As, positive comments including:

“I am generally out of the office at a reasonable time and have rarely had to cancel plans. There is no ‘face-time’ culture here – when you are done with your work you are able to go. I’ve only stayed late when it has been vital or we are working to a tight deadline.”

The ‘it depends on the department’ bell was rung by a few survey respondents — one even said “in my current seat I don’t think anyone ever goes home” — but contrast that with one insider who reported that they’ve “never had an issue getting away for anything”. Respondents flagged up the outfit’s outside-work events: there are “plenty of opportunities to get involved in” and “you will always find someone to have a drink with”.

Read Trowers & Hamlins’ full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

Outside the top ten firms for work/life balance, 20 scored an A, 20 a B, 7 got a C and four a D.

For all the key info about the leading firms, including their Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey Scorecards, check out the Firms Most List.

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7 Comments

NQ

Forsters is a really great firm, but the juniors in Commercial Property and the small Corporate team do work pretty long hours – mainly because the senior associates who have joined from city firms (and accepted a pay cut to do so) are out of the door at 6pm, leaving the juniors to deal with the bulk of the work!

(9)(0)

Anonymous

Good work/life balance but the downside is you have to work at a sub-par firm like Trowers & Hamlins

(8)(6)

Anonymous

Seeing some of these target hours I literally don’t understand what people at some of these firms do all day. You could easily achieve some of these target hours if you left at 4pm everyday at my firm!

(1)(1)

Anonymous

What about MC/US firms though?

(3)(0)

Nick Leeson

CMS?

(4)(0)

Addleshaws are ace

Problem with DWF is that you REALLY ARE billing for the partners, it is such a top heavy firm.

That pyramid would put the Pyramids of Giza to shame.

(10)(0)

High Street 9-5 (10-4 if in Court) Bod

It makes me laugh when City types sneer at High Street but are working twice the hours for twice the pay.

(9)(6)

Comments are closed.

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