“Work-life balance nonsense”

JD Hull has a terrific blog called “What About Clients?(tm) ”  You can probably guess the focus, and I encourage you to check it out.

A recent post titled WAC?’s Usual ‘Muscle Boutique’ Rant Gains Currency? includes the following:

It’s time for lawyers with the right credentials . . . [to] chuck . . . your work-life balance nonsense (the first 8 to 10 years for associates, and lawyering done right after that, should be hard work even for the gifted) . . . .

Work/life balance isn’t the focus of Hull’s post, but I was struck by his comment because I think it typifies the negative view of work/life balance that I described here, in which “work/life balance” is taken to mean a desire to work less and still reap the rewards of working hard.

We all have some work/life balance.  By definition, whether it’s 50/50 or 90/10, there’s a “balance” even if the ratio is markedly uneven.  The question then becomes, what does each lawyer want his or her balance to be?  What are the lawyer’s priorities and values?  As I said in my previously-cited post, work/life balance can never outweigh the need to provide robust, excellent client service.  But it’s possible (and necessary) to adjust the balance in whatever direction is most desirable for a particular lawyer and still to provide excellent service.   Such an adjustment will lead to certain consequences, whether it’s rapid advancement in career, a deeply satisfying personal life, handsome or sub-optimal earnings, burnout or boredom, or most likely some shifting mix of these and other consequences.

And it’s important to recognize that work/life balance doesn’t necessarily mean working less.  Just as there are lawyers who want to work only a 40-hour week, there are lawyers who would hate such a restricted practice, a point that Stephanie West Allen makes vividly in her post Hot Worms and Workaholics: Let the Workers Be!  Work/life balance is all about finding what works for each lawyer, whether that’s working a “little” or working a “lot”.  The question is what makes for a satisfying life; practice is one component of that for lawyers, but how much of a component will vary from person to person.

I agree with Hull that good lawyering is hard work.  There’s no question that practicing law well is demanding.  It requires consistently excellent performance with very little margin for error, it’s intellectually rigorous, and it’s tough to keep up with the needs of multiple clients and to work effectively in what often feels like not enough time to do all that needs to be done.  And client needs are and must be paramount.  Even so, the suggestion to chuck “work/life balance nonsense” doesn’t ring true to me.  I’d say instead, chuck the fantasy that practicing law is easy.  Look for a way to have a satisfying career and a satisfying personal life, but don’t expect it to be an easy or static path, and don’t expect what works for one lawyer to work for another.

3 replies
  1. Ace Concierge
    Ace Concierge says:

    Work/life balance is a key issue in today’s 24/7 fast paced hectic society, knowing no gender boundaries or career choices. As a nation, we are continually challenged by our work/life balance issues, necessitated by the need for financial independence, and the drive for a personal life. Finding this delicate balance is paramount to emotional and physical well-being, without sacrificing either our personal or professional lives.

    Sometimes, delegation of our more mundane, every day chores/responsibilities will help to alleviate some of the daily stressors in our lives, leaving more time to focus on our careers and our families – getting in enough billable hours to satisfy ourselves and our partners.

    It is a trying task, but a necessary one. According to the majority of the studies on work/life balance, most Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs, and their employers lack of knowledge about key WLB issues. 65% of workers say balancing their home and family life is extremely difficult, and 87% of workers have sought employers who are cognizant of their WLB needs.

    No matter what your career choices, seeking a balance between your personal and professional lifestyle is extremely important.

    “It’s all about the quality of life and finding a happy balance between work and family and friends”. Philip Green

  2. Lori Herz
    Lori Herz says:

    Hi Julie,

    We’ve been posting on this topic for quite some time and it always seems to generate a good deal of debate and dialogue among our blog’s readers and others.

    Work-life synergy (as I refer to it) clearly isn’t a priority for some people – lawyers and nonlawyers alike. And , certainly, most of us entering the legal profession’s private sector do so with eyes wide open – fully knowing that firms typically reward those willing to sacrifice the personal to the professional.

    So, I can see why some people say “let the workers be” and tell the balance-inclined to “get out of the kitchen.”

    But, before dismissing the entire balance issue as nonsense, we need to take a step back and candidly look at the toll that this kind of work – however voluntary – is taking on practitioners throughout the ranks.

    So many lawyers admit that they’re depleted and discontent. The statistical profiles on lawyer depression, substance abuse, divorce and attrition aside; you just need to sit in a room full of practitioners and listen with an open heart and mind to glean the serious, real-world consequences of the rigorous lawyer-life.

    And there’s a direct correlation between this lawyer depletion-discontent and the decline in client service that begets client dissatisfaction and departure.

    While it may be easier to pronounce work-life synergy a nonissue in the law, I think this perspective runs contrary to the wellbeing of lawyers, law firms and the legal profession.

  3. Julie Fleming Brown
    Julie Fleming Brown says:

    Lori, thanks for your comment. I completely agree with your thoughts. Frankly, it stuns me that anyone would consider work/life nonsense (or, as a WAC? follow-up post calls it, “a dumb-ass idea”), but it is important to recognize that some lawyers have no patience for the idea and even express hostility to it.

    As I’ve said in a bunch of posts, it seems to me that the profession needs to encourage transparency, so that those who want a closer balance of work and personal time can get that in an environment that supports those goals and those who want to work and put very little into personal life can get that in an environment that’s supportive of those goals. Transparency would mean less bickering between the “lazy” and the “gung ho” about what balance is and why/whether it matters. Of course, transparency won’t solve situational needs for a different balance — i.e., a parent who needs to spend more time with a young or sick child, or someone who choose to throw himself/herself into work to get through a painful life event — but it would be a step in the right direction.

    I doubt we’ll see a profession-wide solution to this issue anytime soon, but everytime I discuss it, it seems that transparency increases in some way!

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