How Many Hours A Week Does A Lawyer Work?

"I have been seriously considering enrolling in law school in a couple of years, and while I am fascinated by law and drawn in by the idea of making a hefty salary (and I don’t have too many pleasant alternatives, as a history major), I am also intimidated by the prospect of becoming a lawyer. I mean, it’s a lot of work, isn’t it? Won’t I be working like 80 hour weeks or something? I don’t know if I can handle that or not. But I don’t know what else to do with this history degree. It’s not like there are a lot of jobs as a historian out there, and I also don’t want to teach. I gather that also entails a lot of overtime, but not the nice salary. And at least I like law."

asked by Aurelio from Mesa, AZ

I’m not going to tell you that becoming a lawyer won’t entail a lot of time and work, because it probably will—but there are some options and there is some flexibility here. It comes down to where you work and what you want in terms of salary and responsibilities. As an example, a survey was done which focused on the salaries of New York attorneys.

According to the results, there was an average of 2200 hours of work billed each year. That comes out to about 42 hours a week. Don’t get too excited though—because those are only the billed hours. When those lawyers threw in all the unbilled hours they worked each year and divided it out, that came out to about 66 hours per week (that’s with two weeks of vacation worked in).

So yes, I think most people would agree that’s a lot. Now, that’s an average, and it’s an average for a fast-paced city. Next you have to consider the different types of employers you can work for. There are large, small, and medium sized firms. There are also jobs in the government, like becoming a public defender.

There are benefits and drawbacks to each of these choices.

If you work at a large firm, you are more likely to end up working those 66 hour + weeks (remember, since that was an average, that means a lot of people work more than 66 hours per week). If you work at a medium sized firm on the other hand, you will probably work closer to 42-54 hours per week. The drawback though is that you may not make as much money at the medium sized firms as you can at the large firms, where even a starting lawyer can make around $150,000 per year.

If you make partner at one of these firms, you can keep the big salary (and get a pay raise), and cut back on your hours. If you fail to make partner, you usually have to switch to another firm and start over.

You also have the option of a government job. Here you will probably actually work just 40 hours a week. These jobs rarely require excessive unpaid overtime and extraneous obligations. But the salaries are lower. Federal government law jobs may pay you closer to $54,000, and state attorneys may make only $30,000 per year. Figure out what your priorities are, and take it from there.

Career Spotlight: Lawyer

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