Lifestyle in Bankruptcy Law
Published: Mar 10, 2009
Typical work hours
As discussed above, one's "quality of life" -- the euphemism for amount of time spent outside of work -- depends considerably on the nature of one's practice, type of clients, and geography. The most grueling practices are typically at large urban firms with complex Chapter 11 practices. At such firms, it is not atypical for an associate to bill upwards of fifty hours a week on average. If you add in hours for lunch, bathroom breaks, and pro bono and administrative work, this means at least sixty hours a week in the office, amounting to most workdays stretching from 9 :30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., plus most Sunday afternoons. During particularly busy times, such as the days preceding a bankruptcy filing, this can easily increase to eighty-hour workweeks. On the other end of the spectrum, smaller law firms or in the office of the U.S. Trustee, which generally follow a more traditional 9 to 5 or 6 schedule.
These are just gross generalizations, however, with considerable variance depending on geography and nature of the practice. Corporate representation is typically the most grueling, whereas individual creditor or consumer bankruptcy representation often affords a simpler lifestyle. Appropriately, a large firm attorney specializing in the representation of indenture trustees might have a more balanced lifestyle than a mid-sized firm attorney focusing on corporate debtors. As far as geography, New York is reputed to afford the most intense work schedule, followed by other major cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C.
The ebbs and flows of each case
Even within each of these practices, however, the workload varies considerably within each case. Each case follows a similar progression: An incredibly busy start; a gradual easing into the case; a long, steady middle, punctuated by emergencies; the slow, dull drawn-out portion; and, finally, the harried conclusion, as the plan of reorganization or major liquidation sales are negotiated and closed. Of course, each case has its own rhythm; some are short and fast-paced, others go on and on and on.
The beginning of each case is particularly intense, as attorneys are scrambling to get the first-day papers in place, negotiate financing, join the committee, respond to the first round of motions and get the case going. In other words, they are squeezing far too many tasks into far too little time. Bankruptcy cases are at their busiest at the beginning, and in particular during the week prior to the filing. Expect work to be all-consuming during this period, and your personal life will likely fall by the wayside, particularly if you are debtor's counsel. Don't fight it; just keep in mind that your schedule will return to some normalcy once the case moves into gear.
Pay and benefits
The range of pay and benefits within the bankruptcy world is as wide as the variety of bankruptcy law jobs. An associate for a small firm in a rural part of the Midwest might start out in the $30g's; their peers in the largest New York City law firms start out these days at $125,000.00, with a nice array of perks and benefits. Generally, the larger the firm, the bigger the pay check. Bonuses are often contingent on meeting billable hours targets, although this varies from firm to firm, with some firms giving uniform bonuses to all associates, regardless of one's annual hours.
Geography also affects salaries, with New York City and, more recently, San Francisco leading the way, followed by Boston, Washington D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles. But keep in mind, as the smaller markets like to remind prospective associates, that the cost of living is often much higher in such cities than in, say, Des Moines.
Government options -- the Office of the U.S. Trustee, judicial clerkships -- pay less than at large law firms, but of course generally afford a more balanced quality of life and stability than many firms. A sampling of different salary ranges and perks shows the range of compensation within the practice.
Travel opportunities and burdens depend considerably on the nature of your practice. A practice focusing on chapter 11's of sophisticated corporate debtors might be a boon to your frequent flier account, while a consumer practice might involve no more travel than a drive to your local bankruptcy court.
There are plenty of options for bankruptcy attorneys who like to convey their traveling to vacations. Most consumer practices sit on one end of the spectrum, rarely traveling outside of their hometowns. Many corporate bankruptcy practitioners fashion similarly low-key travel schedules for themselves, representing debtors and creditors only in bankruptcies filed in their local courts. Attorneys with the U.S. Trustee's office are also typically "homebound," with the substantial majority of their practice in a single courthouse and in the U.S. Trustee's office, which often sits in that same courthouse.But if you still have a bit of wanderlust in your system, you can also find your way in bankruptcy. Bankruptcy is a national practice, in federal courts according to federal cases, rules and codes. This allows practitioners to appear in any bankruptcy court (provided they are admitted pro hac vice, Latin for "for this occasion."
Many practitioners take advantage of this flexibility, working on large corporate cases in a variety of bankruptcy courts. Regular bankruptcy counsel for a particular bank, for instance, might represent that bank in any bankruptcy in which it is a creditor, whether it occurs in Chicago, Sam Jose or Newark. As a whole, though, a majority of bankruptcy travel consists of one or two-day hearings or meetings, and rarely involves the months of due diligence and document review, mainstays of certain other practices.International travel is less frequent in the bankruptcy practice than in, say, m&a work, given that bankruptcy is a creature of United States courts. Nonetheless, representation of larger debtors with foreign-based subsidiaries or assets might allow for some international travel. The rise of international and cross-border insolvency proceedings has created more opportunities for foreign travel, usually to participate in strategy meetings and negotiations (albeit not to practice in foreign courts). If you are interested in international travel, do not discount the bankruptcy process; simply focus on those firms with international practices, a sophisticated corporate client base, and experience in international insolvency work.
Many consider more bankruptcy more diverse than many other areas of the law, owing in large part to bankruptcy's history. Bankruptcy was traditionally a refuge for attorneys accorded a less than friendly welcome at "white-shoe" firms, especially Jewish attorneys, back before the 1978 Act, when bankruptcy was considered a legal backwater. Bankruptcy has lost its stigma, but many attorneys feel that this tradition of tolerance remains, making bankruptcy a welcoming world for women, persons of color and other traditionally underrepresented groups.
Leonora Long of the U.S. Trustee's Office believes that bankruptcy is a very welcoming place for women; she notes that a recent vacancy on the bankruptcy bench of the Eastern District of Missouri was filled by a black woman, one of three finalists -- all women -- for the position. "In a recent case, both my firm and our adversary firm had female name partners, which is rare in law," says Celine Guillou of Pachulski, Stang, Ziehl, Young, Jones & Weintraub. Guillou, who has legal experience outside of bankruptcy, finds that bankruptcy offers a far more comfortable atmosphere for women than the non-bankruptcy world. Gay and "minority" attorneys interviewed for this guide also voiced appreciation for bankruptcy's welcoming atmosphere. The consumer bankruptcy bar received particular praise by practitioners, with attorneys reportedly happy to provide counsel to new practitioners, regardless of gender or background.
Of course, not all is perfect, and some attorneys find that bankruptcy, like the rest of the profession, suffers from the same under-representation and subtle discrimination of the rest of the profession. One female bankruptcy attorney who has been practicing for nearly twenty years noted that "bankruptcy is still a surprisingly male-dominated and old-boys network." Nonetheless, the bankruptcy bar continues to grow more and more diverse, resting on a long tradition of inclusion.