Careers, Study and Well-being with Katie Cowan / Dear Katie column / Life

Dear Katie column – Adjusting to Junior Work Hours

Dear Katie column – Adjusting to Junior Work Hours

"Did the time you dedicated to study at law school prepare you well for the hours you had to work as a junior lawyer?" - Jack, 19


In a word, no. In more words, no but it didn’t matter too much.

In my first job I was contracted to work 40 hours and would sometimes work more than that, especially when I was working on a matter that went to a substantive hearing. I was lucky that my hours in those first couple of years, while more than what I was paid for, were not the stuff of horror story junior lawyer legend.


It’s harder to say what hours I did at law school. There were the “on” hours, when I was definitely in lectures or tutorials or actively studying, but the nature of intense study is that hours spent not doing those things are often still taken up thinking about and processing those things. For me, any time between a paper starting and its final exam, even if I had no actual work due at the time, I felt guilt for not working. We call this a lack of boundaries and self care and I give you permission to nip it in the bud if you notice yourself doing it too. But still, it falls into the grey area category of hours spent preoccupied by study but re-watching Gilmore Girls instead of doing anything that could reasonably be called study.


So no, on an hour by hour comparison, the hours of law school cannot prepare you for full time work as a lawyer. Not unless you genuinely treat law school like its own full time job. But even then, hours spent working, in a new job, where you are trying to learn and be impressive, and you have to develop relationships with a whole lot of new people, is a whole different ballgame. The time spent may be the same, but so much more is going on in so many different domains that the comparison is not apt.


There are other differences between law school and a full time junior lawyer position that make me resistant to direct time-related comparisons. Both arise from an understanding of mental capacity, and the idea that one’s capacity to undertake a thing comes out of both the time and skill available, as everyone knows, but also your mental space for undertaking it. New things require more mental space; complex things like positive social interactions require more mental space; worrying about anything takes up mental space.


On that note, two points arise. The first is that law school is a beautiful shining sea of autonomy. Apart from lectures and tutorials, your schedule is your own. You can study as much or as little as you want, where you want, when you want. You may have other obligations like a part time job, but even then you are able to be flexible and smoosh all the bits of your life together in different ways as the need arises.


Work, obviously, is not like that. You have to be in one place. You have to be there all day, regardless of work levels. Sometimes you have to work longer than you are paid. And while I think most workplaces make room for you to do things like doctor’s appointments during the day, you generally have very little say over how your time is spent. (Obviously you get more say as you gain skills and experience and seniority).


That little paragraph sounds pretty dismal; please remember that in addition to an often uncomfortable transition from autonomy to the controlled environment of employment, you usually get interesting work, growth, new friends, status, and of course the autonomy in the bigger sense that comes from earning money. These are all delicious things, and definitely worth having. I am just flagging that this particular transition can be difficult (it was difficult for me). Your first several months as a junior lawyer are generally exhausting.


But the transition does not just bring with it much more hours to be present and engaged. It also, ironically, assuming you are not with a firm that makes its juniors answer emails outside work hours, gives you back your evenings and weekends. In that way it gives you back a level of capacity that may have been lacking while you felt omnipresent low-level guilt that you were not studying at all hours of the day. Your firm asked for your time and you gave it, and now you get to go surfing or eat festival burgers or whatever lights you up, guilt-free! This particular aspect of starting work was such a revelation to me as I hadn’t noticed the niggly “you should be doing something proper” voice when it was there, but ooh boy did I notice when it left. The experience of re-watching Gilmore Girls when I was a junior lawyer was, by contrast to earlier, like taking a luxurious queen-like bath.


Now. You asked me about my experience. My experience is just one experience. I started practice in a national firm in Wellington. My hours were pretty reasonable, given the worst cases you hear about. I was also excited to be there, so the extra hours often felt fun and like I was part of something. I know for others, who did not like their jobs or who were working those more extreme hours, the story was quite different. It does also depend of course on your approach to study at law school. If you’re an all or nothing type spending eight hours at the library every day, then the transition might feel easy. If you do the work as it comes up, but that doesn’t amount to more than a few hours a day, you might find it more of a shock.


But for my two cents, I would not worry too much if you think your study may not prepare you for the hours of legal practice. Humans are so beautifully adaptable. You will figure it out when the time comes. Do enough study to succeed at university, whatever level “success” is for you, and enjoy, if you can, the autonomy to do dumb stuff and be spontaneous and follow your curiosity about unrelated things. You can have faith that when the time comes, (and especially if you are kind to yourself and account for all the extra mental capacity starting a new career requires) you will probably be able to figure it out.



If you have a query, please email, with your first name (or a pen name) and your age – these details, as well as information provided as part of your query may be published. Submissions will go directly to Katie at Symphony Law, who will review and select queries for future posts. Please keep in mind that unfortunately, Katie cannot answer every question, correspond directly with readers, or give professional advice.


Katie Cowan is a former commercial litigator who now runs a legal consulting and coaching practice, as well as writing for the Law Society’s “Law Talk” magazine and presenting her own podcast, The New Lawyer, available at Check out her website for more details at: Katie’s recommendations and opinions are her own, do not represent the views of LexisNexis or its affiliates and are of a general nature. None of Katie, Symphony Law Limited or LexisNexis are responsible for any loss or damage suffered by a party as the result of following this advice, so please seek independent professional advice before relying on it. Please click here for full website terms and conditions.


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