My path to founding Neugeboren O’Dowd required some personal trauma. And while my story in “Big Law” is my own, and might have some unique situational idiosyncrasies, the underlying plot is not out of the ordinary.

Attorneys have a very high rate of mental health, physical health, and substance abuse issues that stem from the demanding pressures of the industry. Increased national focus on mental health problems in the legal profession has brought some of the more traumatic stories to light, but the general theme persists.

My Story: Big Law, Big Problems

First, I don’t think Big Law firms are evil or inherently bad. My last firm was neither of these when I was there and isn’t now. My time there was filled with amazing and supportive mentors, unique opportunities, and an environment that was clearly designed to help me succeed. No one there was a jerk. I can’t think of anyone I wouldn’t want to work with again and that firm still supports me in my career today through friendships, referrals, and advice.

I was an engineer by training and then went to law school at night while I was still working. After my graduation from law school, I followed a fairly typical Big Law career path. I began working for a large IP-focused firm in California and then moved to an even larger general practice firm in Colorado. I had just turned 30, my family was growing, and I had a great job in a busy practice.

The law firm I was at had a typical Big Law environment — namely, high productivity requirements. I worked for great people and on a great team, and I was getting excellent experience and pay; honestly, I don’t think I would have ever been able to start my own practice without having that background.

But, it was a lot of work. It came to the point that I was burning the wick at both ends.

A turning point started with something small: a tiny cut on my elbow. Probably just banged it somewhere. But somewhere along the way, that little cut turned into a big problem.

I was in Phoenix at the time visiting family and it was literally 120 degrees in the shade, but one night I was shivering while under a heavy blanket. Something wasn’t right. I looked down at my elbow and it was swollen from shoulder to wrist like a balloon about to burst. A trip to the ER in Phoenix got me triaged enough to travel back to Colorado where I could get more focused treatment if needed.

But I had a trial approaching and there was work to do, including a deposition scheduled for the next day.

On Monday morning, things hadn’t improved. Before the deposition, I went to urgent care where they gave me IV antibiotics. They left the port in my arm while I went to the deposition so I could return to urgent care for more treatment.

When I returned later, the doctor’s expression let me know that something wasn’t right and my own body told me the same thing. Forty-five minutes later, I was in surgery to clean out the wound. I was on the verge of sepsis.

Following the operation, I was in the hospital for a week as the doctors worked to get the infection under control. But I had that trial approaching, so people were bringing me work while I sat in the hospital. I did deposition designations in my hospital bed, green highlighter streaks tailing off the page as I constantly drifted off.

Eventually, the infection was under control, but I was on an IV antibiotic drip four times a day for a month. I brought my IV bags to work with me, screwed a hook in the wall to hang them, and kept going. When one of the managing partners of the firm saw the situation, she was clearly horrified.

When I was back to a normal state of mind, I needed to ask opposing counsel for an extension so I could redo those deposition designations. Clearly not my best work. (If I didn’t say it to him then, I’ll say it now: Thanks, Paul.)

This was the beginning of the end. I finally realized that I was completely burnt out.

As much as I loved my job and the people that I worked with, my body was deteriorating, weak from all the work. I needed a different job.

A great in-house role gave me a more normal routine as well as some unique experience, but was cut short when the company was “merged” with another and our entire legal team was let go. Efforts to find another in-house role never panned out and I started my own firm.

But, it needed to be different.

How Neugeboren O’Dowd Is Different

Although I wouldn’t change my experience, I certainly set out to model my own firm based on the goal of keeping a lot of margin in life — whether that’s to do fun things, engage in community activities, or just to keep sane in the work environment.

That’s fairly easy to do that when it is just you in a basement office, but as our practice grew and we added more lawyers, we needed to be more deliberate about it.

#1: Time Is Valuable

Most Big Law firms require between 1,800 and 2,000 hours of billable time per year. If you take no time off, that requires 160 billable hours per month leaving 6–7 hours a month of non-billable time in order to keep a 40-hour workweek. To maintain that type of productivity level while also taking vacations, holidays, personal time, etc., most lawyers work 60 to 70 hours per week.

Our target is 100 billable hours per month with an attorney option to set higher benchmarks, which the firm rewards. This gives our professionals a lot of flexibility and leeway. Absent some emergency or someone’s preference to be a night owl, weekend and after-hours work is really not a thing.

And, our focus is on productivity, not necessarily on hours, so everyone’s efficiency is rewarded. Our employee manual states, “Busyness is not a virtue.”

#2: Work More or Less; It’s Your Choice

Neugeboren O’Dowd attorneys’ annual salaries are certainly lower than salaries offered at large law firms — we can’t compete on that metric. But, when you look at the production requirements, our effective “pay per hour of time billed” is actually higher than most firms. And, if an attorney wants to increase their workload to make more money, they have the ability to do so.

Everyone in the firm has families and they’ve been able to work more or less around events in their lives, whether they’re having a baby, saving up for a house, attending to a medical need, or whatever they need to do, without stressing out over it. The margin is already built in.

#3: Incentives All Around

Every lawyer has an incentive to develop their own practice. While there is plenty of room to make a career off of other’s work, all attorneys are eligible for a compensation/origination credit for developing and managing their own work. If you bring clients in, either new or clients from your prior firm, you receive extra compensation for the work associated with that client. Partners, associates, and counsel all enjoy this benefit.

Full-Time Doesn’t Have to Mean All the Time

We’re a small firm, and while we can’t offer some things in terms of prestige, fancy office space or Big Law starting salaries, we do give our attorneys a better work-life balance, the incentive to build their own practice, and the flexibility that real life requires.

We (partners included) sacrifice a wide variety of benefits (our own pay included) to make this work, but we also have that same margin in our lives.

A full-time schedule doesn’t have to mean all your time. It can mean a lot less, without giving up an attractive wage and meaningful work. If this interests you, reach out. We are growing and always looking for new professionals to join our team.