Which practice areas offer the best work-life balance?

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By Legal Cheek on


Readers’ insights required

In the latest instalment in our Career Conundrums series, an aspiring solicitor is keen to find out more about the varying degrees of work-life balance across commercial practice areas.

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“Hello team. I have been going through your new Firms Most List and particularly your LC Views, and I can see work-life balance seems to vary considerably between practice areas. I am preparing my first round of applications for commercial law firms in London and I wondered if your readers could offer any insights. And before your readers say it – I know I am going to be working hard irrespective of where I end up! 🙂 Thank you.”

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MC Junior Associate

It is an *incredibly* bad idea to pick your practice area based on assumptions about work-life balance. Your practice area will constitute your career, potentially until you retire. You should think extremely carefully about what your strengths are, what you want your career to look like, and what you find interesting, when picking an area to qualify into.

Otherwise you end up in a position where you’re spending every day doing something you don’t understand and don’t enjoy, and whilst ostensibly there’s a good WLB, it takes so long to try and understand the work you’re doing that you’re working horrible hours anyway, and are always unhappy and anxious because you don’t really grasp anything and are constantly making mistakes.

And in any case, WLB gets equally bad the more senior you become. Trainees often get a very misleading impression because some departments don’t really let their trainees *do* anything, due to the inherent complexity of the work (tax being a classic example). But the flipside of that is that associates work largely without trainee help, and are often as busy as anyone else in commercial law. There is no way – in any department – you can get away without working hard, unfortunately.



I wouldn’t take advice pertaining to work/life balance from anyone who has chosen to work at an MC firm..


That one there was a violation.. facts though. US, SC firms > MC firms


Is it a good idea to consider WBL for firms or do the same issues apply?


Excellent comment. To build on the points made, the entire notion of “work-life balance” is misconceived. It suggests that your career and your life are two separate things.

For some people, that may well be true. But in my experience, those are the very people who – on the whole – gain very little from their careers.

Merge your life and work to get ahead. Is that the message??!

And this is precisely the attitude that leads to blurring of lines between work time, personal down time, and the always on culture defining some firms..

And the ones who ignore the reality and importance of telling the difference between working time and personal life time – are the ones who are sadly going to be earning quite well but burning out by age 29 and wondering how it all happened..


You have to reconcile yourself with the fact that a decent chunk of the people working in this job do actually enjoy it, though!


You’re taking work-life balance a little too literally. Everyone recognises work is a big part of their life. The issue is when it doesn’t allow time for other valuable parts if your life like your partner, family, friends and health, not to mention hobbies and interests that make you a well-rounded, interesting and happy person.


Peter, that is possibly the worst piece of advice I’ve ever seen given on this forum.

Bloody hell.


Every area provides work life balance. You just need to make clear decisions on firms, areas, priorities, saying no, etc.

Senior Associate - Comm Lit

As intimated above, work life balance usually is determined by the firm, not the practice area. Some departments are consistently busy, and therefore more demanding, others have peaks and troughs or are cyclical.

Civil litigation, for example, could consist of many smaller cases that will likely keep the solicitor constantly busy. On the other hand, commercial litigation comes with relatively calm periods, and then a month (or more or less) of significant work.

Choose by passion.


Practice areas also vary massively depending on the size of firm you are at and which departments are biggest. Some firms will treat property as an offshoot of corporate and you’ll only really be busy when you are doing corporate due diligence /support – reviewing leases, title etc for a company/share purchase.

Other firms will treat property as one of their main departments and you’ll be a lot busier as it’s the engine room of the firm.

A firm I worked at had a tiny Banking team who just did little bits of borrower work to help corporate deals run smoothly. That would give you a massively misleading view of what working in Banking is like in general.

Well Travelled SC Associate

Whilst I generally agree with the comments above, I do think there are some areas which appear to have slightly better hours from discussions with my colleagues in various departments. Transactional areas generally work solidly long hours. Advisory areas tend to work more manageable hours.


Finally someone with a decent answer. SC = 🐐


What counts as advisory areas?

Hans wildorf

competition, tax, employment etc but these can easily be counted as corporate/transactional support (and as a result hours vary)


I would be careful w/ competition in particular, S&M competition works worse hours than their corporate teams do currently.


Same at CC.

Comp Assoc

Competition teams at big firms work long hours, and not only because of corporate support work, but because big competitive investigations are massively resource intensive with huge document reviews, RFIs with very short deadlines, etc. They also tend to be consistently busy with less peaks and troughs than corporate teams.

MC Tax

Tax is not an advisory job in any big London practice, the bulk of your time will be spent doing transactional work of some degree and so (as you’d expect) it comes with its peaks and troughs.


All I know is corporate = long hours. Don’t matter which firm.


Agree with all the above about choosing practice areas you enjoy, because ultimately 8 hours a day is a lot of time to spend bored rigid.

It’s also important to consider long term work/life balance.

For example, advisory lawyers (tax, competition, pensions etc) generally enjoy a better work life balance within big law firms than transactional lawyers (corporate/banking).

But the flip side is advisory lawyers are, with occasional exceptions, pretty much stuck in private practice in large law firms for the duration of their career. Transactions lawyers on the other hand have much more scope to move in house or to a smaller firm, where generally the work life balance is better.

Obviously work life balance is always quite important, but when it really matters for most people is in your 30s and 40s.

If you have to cancel drinks with your mates sometimes in your 20s, it’s crap but you can make it up to them.

But in your 30s you can’t just cancel picking your kids up from nursery, you’ve got to be there. Similarly, the consequences of neglecting to spend quality time with your spouse are generally more serious than neglecting your mates; your mates can’t decide your behaviour warrants taking your house and restricting access to your children.

So whilst it’s important to consider WLB and the WLB you want, that should be across a time span of your whole career, not just as a junior associate.


What about junior associates who are in their 30s?..not every junior is in their early 20s you know.


If a junior associate in their 30s doesn’t know what work-life balance they would like in their 30s I’m not sure some online advice is going to help them.


The general rule of thumb is that transactional and contentious areas will go in cycles of being slammed for a while then quiet for a while. Advisory/niche practice areas will be more steadily busy. Each will suit a different personality type. Try both and see what fits you.


Work life balance? Expect none. Be grateful for any.
That’s how it is either some or all of the time.
You don’t get paid a lot of money for having a work life balance.


Is it really a lot of money in this economy these days?

Harry Christopher

Spot on. As a mentor once said to me, “You’ll make a good salary at the Bar or at a law firm; but never capital”.

MC Junior Associate

Setting aside inherited wealth, capital generation is directly correlated with risk. High-risk ventures (starting a band, setting up a fintech, working in S&T at a bank) provide a small chance of generating a huge amount of wealth but a high risk of losing the shirt on your back.

By contrast, law is extremely low-risk – short of pulling an Axiom you will never lose anything substantive yourself, as all you do is advise other people. The flipside of that is that the capital generation potential is substantially lower. But this is, needless to say, a tradeoff which people are aware of when they decide what they’d like to do with their lives.


I used to think along the lines of that simple rubric (i.e., law gives you a good income but never serious capital wealth) but I’m changing my mind the longer I’ve worked and seen how different careers develop.

Partners at MC firms make £1m-5m per year. That is already meaningful capital in just one year, but it is also a vast steady income stream that if you invest it in any number of moderate risk investments across your career you can conceivably reach £50m+ in capital in your mid 50s. If you’re lucky with a few big bets, getting to £100m+ is possible and in fact much, much easier than starting your own business that grows big enough to make you that kind of money.

There aren’t many jobs, even super high risk entrepreneurial ones, which will ever make you that rich in the UK.

I suppose the main risk you take in law is that you may never be a partner, as there is a lot of luck and timing involved and burning out/destroying your health/relationships often takes people out of the mix before they get there.


What areas would suit an introvert, ambivert or extrovert then?

A non-knee mousse

Mythology, chakra interpretation and palm reading.


Work in good but not huge firm. Transactional (Com Property is my area) where you can make contacts / own clients. Then jump to consultancy firm where you take 70/75% of your fees and you can work from the Bahamas !! Not in the Bahamas, but definitely have the work / life balance !!

Kirkland NQ

As I sit in my lounger on the deck of my super yacht, sipping on a glass of vintage Krug watching the sun go down over the Med and finishing my last call of the day smashing a PE deal, I think my balance is pretty good.


How are you still an NQ? Has being held back from progression for this many years in a row not become a bit nauseating by now?


What’s this consultancy then?


I would echo those above, do what you enjoy. That’s ultimately what will give you the best career.

One thing I did find as a trainee was that the pattern of work in transactional vs disputes work differed. Transactional was full of highs and lows – I was sometimes very very busy and working long hours, but then I also had troughs with literally nothing to do but relax. Contentious work was more steady, still longish hours but more predictable and consistent. I hugely preferred contentious work for various reasons, but that was a big one for me.


I don’t disagree, but would add that in certain stages of contentious work (ie hearings, filing deadlines) it can become very long hours – though somewhat predictable as these deadlines don’t come out of nowhere or get moved that much.

White Shoe Wannabe

Work life balance is a construct.


The worst practice area in terms of work life balance would be tax or restructuring. Everything is urgent and no one is happy with anything.

M&A now in-house (don’t do M&A)

Corporate/M&A is always busy but it is fun if you like it. Having said that, I’d rather do something that is a bit less fun if it is also less busy 🙂

Over the years, too much work does take its toll in most people as you’ll look back and see how much life you missed during those years working until late all days – think of keeping a hobby, a healthy life style, being close to family, friends etc.

But…working hard is also probably the best way of learning as you’ll spend thousands of hours learning a topic and this will make you very confident as a professional over time as you’ll have mastered something.

What I think is complicated nowadays is the perspective of working hard your whole life – my impression is that the reward of working less once you become more senior or a partner is no longer there so you’re signing up to a life of hard work not just a decade or so.

I’ve once seen a partner (about to retire) cry when I asked him if he played any sports in his life and he answered no to sports and added that he also didn’t see his kids growing as he was always busy (his career was rather successful).

There must be more in life than earning lots of money…your kids will value much more the time you spent with them than the money they will inherit (I hope..). Even if they don’t tell you that, being present will make them much better persons later in life (therapy can help a bit with the impact of not having one of your parents but it won’t fill the gap).

The above is how I think nowadays where I’m approaching 40s, have a young kid and having spent some 12 years in private practice and the last 4 years in-house, but I respect that others may just value the money (or the law firm life or some other thing) more than anything else so we are all good and the engine will keep going..


WLB? In law? haha! Try again… that’s one thing nobody tells you – there is no such thing as WLB in the legal profession.
Most comments above outline the same point – it all highly depends on the firm and what your aspirations are. Having said that, if you want to progress in your career you’ll have to aim for those high billing hours and more complex cases regardless of the area or firm.
I think a lot of new starters will find it very difficult to get the real picture of the profession. Work doesn’t end when you leave the office, you just take your laptop home and continue working.
WLB can probably only be achieved in some small local firms, anything above that will want your life for the little they’ll offer to pay – you’ve been warned.

A decade in...

Do work you like, with people you like.

Being a lawyer, regardless of practice area, sometimes requires you to make compromises in your life outside of work. However, if you enjoy what you are doing, it is so much less painful.

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