I'll go ahead and confirm what you said is true. I spoke with a bunch of lawyers on callbacks at different firms and generally they said sometimes they have nothing to do. They all said that when 5:30 rolls around, they go home though as their is no face time requirement. They also say that generally the hours are manageable (10-7 or Cool, but then you'll have 3-4 weeks of brutal hours where you're just at your office basically 24/7. It is cyclical.
Yea, that's pretty much what I am getting at. It is cyclical and, as a junior associate, it can be very unpredictable.
As for the I-Banking, the folks I know that are in NYC work 100 hours a week pretty much every week. The guys who do it in Chicago have more of a life, but still work most weekends.
Anyways, the point I am making is that, for 200K a year, the law firm owns you. If you get an e-mail Saturday morning on our Blackberry, you better respond immediately. If you had plans and are needed at the firm, those plans will be cancelled. So yes, there are times when you can go out with friends, go to the gym, enjoy life, etc. But you really do not know when those times will be interrupted and for how long. And if you go too long without having a hellish few months, you're screwed b/c it means the firm either has no new work coming in or your work isn't valued.
Are there big time advantages to going to a big firm? Of course. Do some people love it (my boss did it for 15 years)? Yes. But those of you trying to rationalize and break down an "average week" are kidding yourselves. You will have weeks and months where you'll work non-stop. You'll have some down time, but even then, you are owned by the firm. If you think otherwise, you're in for a rude awakening.