Balancing BigLaw Hours & the Holidays

Published: Dec 23, 2019

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I will never forget Christmas Eve when I was a first-year associate. I was as strategic as possible—knocking out all of my deadlines so that my holidays would be work free. As the minutes ticked down to holiday freedom, my office phone rang. Dread coursed through me when I saw the assigning partner's name on the caller ID. Of course, turning down an assignment—even if it was Christmas Eve—was not an option. So I swallowed my sadness and worked with more efficiency than I knew possible. Luckily for me, the assignment was discrete, and while I missed the beginning of my family's celebration, I made it for dinner.

My story is far from unique, and in the grand scheme of BigLaw, it doesn't even qualify as a footnote in the book of holiday work nightmares. But it could have been much worse if I had handled it differently.

So what should you do if you get saddled with work this holiday season? Here are some tips to help you balance your billables with your holiday merriment.

1. Take five minutes.

It's never fun to get a last-minute assignment, especially during the holidays. So give yourself five minutes to feel whatever feelings you have. Send some angsty texts, call your mom and complain, blare loud music in your headphones, eat a chocolate bar, take a quick walk—whatever will give you a quick outlet.

2. Now, deal with it.

Okay, I know this sounds harsh. But you knew what you were getting into when you joined the BigLaw ranks. (Or at least, if you read the thousands of associate reviews on Vault you did.) With the high-level experience and multi-zero paycheck comes a 24/7 expectation. I'm not saying you should rejoice if you get work over the holidays, but instead of letting it crush you, figure out the best way to tackle it so you can get it done, which leads me to No. 2 ...

3. Don't complain to friends.

The absolute best part of working in BigLaw was my group of friends. I met the most incredible people during my law firm days, who continue to be good friends. And believe me—we definitely had our share of whining to each other at times. But making the rounds to your friends office to grumble about your bad luck will only delay the work further. So instead, put your head down, and get to work.

4. Consider an alternative.

It isn't always possible to turn down work. But if the holidays are particularly sacred to you for religious reasons or just because you have important travel or family plans, don't be afraid to share your plans with the assigning partner. Be sure to acknowledge that you understand how important this work is to the firm and that you realize everyone likely has holiday plans. You can also offer to take the assignment if no one else is available. It is possible that the assigning partner just chose to call you first and that other people may have more flexible plans. Obviously you must be careful how you present yourself in turning down this assignment and be sure to step up next time the firm is in a bind.

5. Be efficient.

Sometimes the hardest part about an unexpected assignment—especially one over the holidays—is actually focusing and getting it done. You may instead find yourself wallowing and lamenting everything you'll miss. Instead, focus on the task and see how much you can get done before the festivities begin.

6. Determine exact due dates.

Going along with efficiency, find out from the partner on the matter the exact due dates. Perhaps they only need part of the work done on the actual holiday. Or maybe it is a "rush" assignment that needs to be done before close of business—which would get you out the door in time for the holidays. Partners are people too and want to be with their families as much as you do; as long as you approach them professionally and with an eye toward getting the assignment done, it is perfectly acceptable to ask for concrete deadlines so you can plan around your holiday events.

7. Get creative.

There are 24 hours in a day, and if your assignment isn't based on a strict deadline, it is possible to work around the holiday. Once you understand the deadlines and parameters of the assignment, you can figure out how to schedule your time.

8. Enjoy the time you have.

If you do end up working a ton over the holidays, try to focus on the time you do have with your friends and family. I realize that is easier said than done, but what is the alternative, really? Maximize your holiday time and try to take the view that next time a big assignment comes in, it will be someone else's turn to step up.