More on work/life balance… Is it just a fad?

I’ve run across two interesting blog posts recently that cast work/life balance as a fad or misnomer rather than as something that’s important to lawyers.

First, a recent post (no longer available) on Bruce MacEwen’s Adam Smith, Esq. blog quotes a 10-year old McKinsey study that places “acceptable pace and stress” as an important contributor to job satisfaction for only 1% of executives.  Here are the full stats cited for important contributors:

* firm’s values and culture (58%)
* freedom and autonomy (56%)
* exciting challenges (51%)
* a well-managed firm (50%)
* career advancement and growth (39%)
* respect for lifestyle (14%)
* job security (8%)
* acceptable pace and stress (1%)

Relying on these statistics, MacEwen disputes the conclusion of a Legal Week article (no longer available) that calls for firms to “[e]xplor[e] more flexible career options, develop[] lawyers and their capabilities and help[] them find the best way to make a full contribution to the firm that is in line with their broader lifestyle aspirations,” arguing that “flexibility and lifestyle are almost below the horizon.”

And then I found a post on Tom Collins’ blog that argues that, “The Work/Life Balance Issue Continues to Damage the Legal Profession.” (no longer available) Collins’ post appears to have been triggered largely by the discussion resulting from blogger Denise Howell’s firing by Reed Shaw (for more on that story, see Howell’s post, Carolyn Elefant’s post, or any of the host of others that covered the firing that echoed around the blawg world) and thus seems to center on the need for a viable approach to “new mother issues” as opposed to questioning work/life balance more generally.  Without challenging any of Collins’ thoughts on the issues surrounding new mothers (notably, I must add, new mothers and not new parents, despite a comment that a lawyer who returns to practice after an absence cannot assume the seniority they would have had without the absence, regardless of gender), the following paragraphs struck me:

As it is at present, the “in” thing to do in media and among consultants, conference faculty, etc., is to portray the life of the attorney as an abandonment of family, friends, fun, and civic and religious obligations.  At the same time, we note and report the importance that all those facets of life have played for the successful professional in relationship building and rainmaking. 

The success of any “service” business or profession is measured by its service to others.  Client interest comes before self-interest.  That is why we call it a “service”.  The legal profession recognizes the service aspect in spades, charging you with the professional obligation to honor, at your own expense if necessary, the paramount interest of the client.

Successful service professionals, business executives, doctors, and investment bankers all find a way to have family, friends, and fun while also participating in civic and religious affairs.  Lawyering is no different from any of the above—lawyers do not carry a greater burden. Let’s stop pretending that they do.

Let’s turn this conversation around. On the one hand, let’s deal with the child raising years of lawyer-mothers; and on the other hand, let’s start celebrating the benefits of lawyering, including the satisfaction of service to others—of upholding “truth, justice and the American Way!”

It seems to me that when work/life balance is discussed, the conversation is very often preceded by an internal eye-rolling, a deep sigh, and the thought, “here we go again, another lawyer who isn’t willing to work hard and who just wants a free and easy ride to the good life.”  I think that attitude sells everyone short — the lawyers, the firms, and the clients.

Work/life balance, to my mind, is all about finding the balance that will work for each lawyer, finding (or creating) the firm or practice structure that will support that balance, and serving clients well and fully within the context of that balance.  “Balance” doesn’t necessarily mean that work takes on less importance or less time; it simply means that whereas one lawyer may be willing to work 80 hours a week, another is willing to work 60, and another is willing to work 40, and it’s necessary for those lawyers to speak up and find the practice setting that will support their aims.  That doesn’t mean they will work in the same firm, necessarily, nor does it mean they’ll have the same practices or the same financial rewards.  What it does mean is that the lawyer who is willing to work 40 hours shouldn’t put himself in a position that requires 80 hours — and vice versa.  And it also means that each of those lawyers needs to find a practice home that supports the hours he is willing to work.

We all make compromises daily.  Work/life balance calls for knowing and voluntary compromise, whether it’s choosing to be the lawyer who works 10+ hours every day of the week, choosing to set working hours as 5 AM to 4 PM and then 9 to 11 PM so that the hours between 4 and 9 are free for family, or choosing to practice law “part-time” — 35 or 40 hours a week — because other interests take higher priority.  Good lawyers, regardless of the hours they work, will always focus on client service and thus will put client needs ahead of their own when necessary, so long as the overall structure of their professional lives are suitable.  Client service need not, and must not, suffer because of work/life balance.

Nor should we regard work/life balance as being the ultimate measure of practice.  Of course other factors will matter.  But for lawyers, it has been, and perhaps still is, much more “politically correct” to desire those other factors — interesting work, advancing responsibility, increasing client contact, etc. — than to desire balance in the form of reduced or time-shifted working hours. The current attention to work/life balance makes the topic permissible to raise.

Bottom line… I do not think work/life balance is just a fad, nor do I think it signals a decline in lawyer commitment to practice or to client service.  I think it’s a call for more transparency in practice expectations on the part of both lawyers and their law firms, and a call for lawyers to pay closer attention to what they want in their careers and in their lives.

This quote sums it up, in my view — albeit in a most un-lawyerlike way:  “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘WOW, what a ride!'”  The question, then, is what kind of ride will make your life satisfying?  Figure out the answer, and then figure out a way to get it.  That’s work/life balance in a nutshell.

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