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From the February 18, 2005 print edition

All work and no play?
No way, say Gen Y law students

Law firm applicants seek balance between job and everyday life

Will Morton
Baltimore Business Journal

When she graduates from Boston College law school this spring, Emily Piendak will start her new job looking for what first-year associates have sought for decades: She craves satisfying work that uses her skills and education.

Different from many of her predecessors, though, Piendak also wants the normal life. The 27-year-old Baltimore native plans to have a family -- to eat dinner together and to attend soccer games when she has children.

During the interview process at Miles & Stockbridge, where she starts this fall, Piendak never asked directly about whether she can make partner and still have a normal life. But she is sure it can be done.

"It's not a requirement to put in those ridiculous hours to get where you want to be," Piendak said.

Every firm is looking for a hard worker, and today's applicants are not saying they plan to slack off. But they want balance -- a successful career in law coupled with enough time left in the day for softball games and backyard barbecues -- and they want it now.

A decade ago, quality of life issues didn't come up until a few years into the job. Now it comes up much earlier. During the interview process, applicants are asking subtle questions about office culture or diversity initiatives. Firms are answering by talking up flexible schedules, training programs or pro-bono work. The first question no longer is: When will I make partner?

"Unquestioning acceptance of 70-hour weeks is not as prevalent" as it was 15 years ago, said Karen Rae Hammer, associate dean for career services at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Work-life balance is important in today's job search, said Randi Lewis, director of diversity and professional development at Miles & Stockbridge. The Baltimore-based firm of nearly 200 lawyers ranked fifth in a national survey of best places to work for summer associates, according to American Lawyer magazine's student edition.

"Family friendliness is something that people have always been interested in, but it's more politically correct to express that now," Lewis said.

You're hired!

Hiring trends at law firms haven't changed much. Recruiting at law schools last fall saw little difference from a year earlier, when law firms nationwide hired an average of 10 summer associates, according to the National Association of Law Placement, a Washington-based group of law schools and law firms. Summer hires in 2003 landed full-time offers almost 90 percent of the time.

(Data for 2004 was not available.)

"There was no further constriction" this year, said James G. Leipold, the association's executive director.

A law student's work sensibility depends on falling into one of two camps, experts say. One group arrives with prior work experience, typically turning to law as a second or third career. They know what kind of hours it takes to move up in a new field, and they see a blessing in the opportunity.

"They're used to paying dues. They're used to getting the job done," said Dana Morris, assistant dean for career development at the University of Maryland School of Law.

Other students are children of baby boomers. As recent college graduates, they remember the toll it took on family life when both parents worked.

"They're willing to work hard, but they're not necessarily willing to work hard at the detriment of their quality of life," Morris said.

Working part-time ... fully

Compared with a decade ago, applicants are approaching the hiring process more cautiously, looking for a good long-term fit and taking more time to choose a job. Their questions to prospective employers are more circumspect.

Beyond checking minimum requirements, for example, an applicant might ask about average billable hours. What they're really asking is: How much do people really work there? Or has anybody at the firm made partner working part time?

At Venable LLP, for example, about 8 percent of the firm's more than 400 lawyers have some kind of part-time arrangement, said Geoff Garinther, chairman of the firm's legal personnel committee.

While many of today's new hires don't want their billable hours to define them as lawyers, some say such issues don't come up once applicants decide to interview with large firms.

"They've probably made those decisions already," Garinther said.

Piendak, the Boston College student who expects to graduate law school in May, decided where to work based on traditional factors, as well as so-called softer ones. She wanted to get responsibility for individual projects, but she wanted to enjoy the work.

"A lot of it was about having the right fit," she said.