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Bankruptcy Law Jobs: Salaries, Benefits, and Work/Life Balance

published January 01, 2013

By Harrison Barnes, CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 16 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
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Enough about the job. What about the work itself? What should you expect, what will your life be like, and how can you make the most of it?

Typical work hours


As discussed above, one's "quality of life" - a 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 50 hours a week on average. If you add in hours for lunch, bathroom breaks, and pro bono and administrative work, this means at least 60 hours a week in the office, stretching most workdays stretching from 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., with most Sunday afternoons thrown in for good measure. During particularly busy times, such as the days preceding a bankruptcy filing, the workweek can easily increase to 80 hours. On the other end of the spectrum, smaller law firms or the U.S. Trustee's office generally follow a more traditional 9-to-5 (OK, probably 9-to-6) schedule.

These are just gross generalizations, however, with considerable variance depending on geography and nature of the practice. Debtor representation is typically the most demanding type of work, whereas individual creditor or consumer 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 an attorney at a mid-sized firm focusing on corporate debtors. As far as geography, New York is reputed to demand the most intense work schedule, followed by other major cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Washington, DC.

The ebbs and flows of each case

For each of these practices, the workload varies considerably within the cycle of each case. Every bankruptcy proceeding follows a similar progression: an incredibly busy start, a gradual casing into the case, a long, steady middle punctuated by emergencies, the slow, dull drawn-out portion, and, finally, the harried conclusion. Of course, each case has its own rhythm; some are short and fast-paced, others go on and on.

The beginning of each proceeding is particularly intense, as attorneys scramble 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 squeeze far too many tasks into far too little time. Expect work to be all-consuming during this period and your personal life to 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 normal once the case moves into gear.

Interested in these kinds of jobs? Click here to find Bankruptcy jobs.

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 with a $30,000 annual salary; their peers in the largest New York City law firms begin at $125,000 (plus bonus), with a nice array of perks and benefits thrown in. 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 giving uniform bonuses to all associates regardless of one's annual billable hours.

Geography also affects salaries, with New York City and, more recently, San Francisco leading the way, followed by Boston, Washington DC, Chicago and Los Angeles. But keep in mind, as firms in 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 generally afford a more balanced quality of life and stability than many firms.

Travel

Travel opportunities and burdens depend considerably on the nature of your practice. A practice focusing on Chapter 11 proceedings for 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 restrict their traveling to vacations. Most consumer practitioners 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 limited to a single courthouse and the U.S. Trustee's Office, which often sits in that very courthouse.

But if you still have a bit of wanderlust in your system, you can find your way in bankruptcy. Bankruptcy is a national practice in federal courts, governed by federal rules, codes and case law. This allows practitioners to appear in any out-of-town bankruptcy court (provided they are admitted pro hac vice, Latin for "for this occasion," to that court).

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, San Jose or Newark. As a whole, though, a majority of bankruptcy travel consists of one-or two-day hearings or meetings and rarely involves 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, since 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.

Diversity


Many consider 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 given a less than friendly welcome at "white-shoe" firms back before the 1978 Act, when bankruptcy was considered a legal backwater. Bankruptcy has lost its stigma, but many attorneys feel 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. Some female practitioners spoken to for this guide felt 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 from 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 underrepresentation and subtle discrimination of the rest of the profession. One veteran female bankruptcy attorney noted that "bankruptcy is still a surprisingly male-dominated and old-boys' network." Nonetheless, the bankruptcy bar continues to grow more and more diverse, thanks to a long tradition of inclusion.

Interested in these kinds of jobs? Click here to find Bankruptcy jobs.

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Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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