You won’t find that as a junior associate in a typical corporate law firm. Perhaps as a full associate and later as a senior associate, you will start finding it. In my firm, I know few people below senior associate level who are able to work normal hours. However, at senior associate level, some people are able to shut the door and say they are leaving, without repercussions. Partners generally seem to be workaholics.
However, this is a bit influenced by the pecularities of our local legal system - as much as corporate patterns are all American. For example, in the US, it doesn’t take long to become an attorney after finishing law school. Here, it takes at least four years. As a university graduate, you will be a junior associate. When you become an attorney, generally regardless of your age or years worked, you are a senior associate (senior associates aged 27 happen for this reason, while junior associates aged 26 are plenty and normal). “Full associate” who is not a senior one is one of the most elusive, unspoken and generally slippery thing in the corporate hierarchy. It is typically awarded to long-serving lawyers who are not yet allowed to practice as independent attorneys. Contacting the outside world, junior associates generally use the style of “associate” and the generic word to describe a lawyer who is not a partner (including senior associate, but not a counsel) is “associate”. Therefore, it’s hard to say who is actually a full (non-junior) associate. And it doesn’t matter that much.
As a rule, law firms are natural habitats for lawyers, but this relies on a couple of assumptions. Generally, I can tell you that it’s really hard to survive without exploding when you get ordered around by people who have simply worked longer for the firm, especially when they are not right. Conflicting orders happen. Sometimes you get conflicting orders from one and the same person, which includes getting told off for failing to carry out one set of orders. It is logically possible (though I prefer not to make such presumptions, and give people benefit of doubt), that ambiguous orders are sometimes given on purpose or at least for the sake of not being able to be kept to one’s word. It’s strange.
I’m only guessing that if you’ve had some career and if you’re older than everyone, taking orders from ambitious young people may be very costly emotionally. If you are ever in such a position as to seek employment with a law firm, do all you can to avoid the junior associate position on the basis of your previous career and experience. That or make them give you contractual provisions that you will not be taking orders from younger legal staff. Or at least some kind of strict and defined placing in the chain of command.
Note: I’ve seen economists and ex-civil-servants become full associates regardless of lack of previous experience in a law firm. I remember one economist and law graduate who was a partner regardless of not being an attorney (he’s currently working on it anyway). I even know one senior associate who is a law graduate but not an attorney (his stuff gets signed by a partner). This shows my concers are a bit exaggerated, but law firms aren’t really a great place.
And you may be way better off in a company than in a law firm. Generally, “counsel” is a default rank for in-house attorneys. They probably don’t have to deal with the whole “associate” thing. Generally, their previous experience probably counts more, since they participate in the company’s business-making and internal governance, rather than simply working on clients’ legal matters on a contractual basis.
Also, a Ph.D. in an academic field related to your current experience may be a much better investment.
I would also try to build up and develop on your current education and experience rather than changing. When changing, you sometimes lose your previous investments. You said you had a comfortable income - this means you have a well-appreciated job. That’s another reason not ever to become a junior associate or even a simple associate in a law firm. Just get some additional formal training which gives you a degree or two higher than you have, or some other professional title.
And only ever take on law if you are interested in it. Otherwise there is plenty of better paying, better rewarding, more comfortable and less stressful jobs.
Finally, if you are able to carry out your current job without ethical problems, you’re much better off than a lawyer. Lawyers have various clients. Lawyers often have bossess who… shall we say… do not always exactly do things the same Catholics do. I pray I won’t even have to work for a contraceptive manufacturer, or example, or legalise mobbing, or some such.