Work/life balance: the partners’ perspective

The May 2006 ABA Journal is full of interesting articles.  The most fascinating to me is titled “The Great Divide: Partners and Associates Are at Odds over Opposing Approaches to Work, Play and the Practice of Law.”  Unfortunately, the article is not (yet?) available online.  Get to your closest law library, if you aren’t an ABA member, and read this article.

Its thesis is that many partners believe there’s a generational conflict between themselves and young associates — Gen Y.  An unnamed partner at a New York-based national firm says that few young associates remain in the office after 5 PM, that few are motivated to work hard, that associates don’t appreciate the training and opportunities (not to mention high salaries) that firms shower on them.  Karen Turner McWilliams, of Reston, Virginia, is quoted as saying, “When I was coming up, associates did anything and everything they could to appease the partners.  That is no longer the case. . . . They really have bought into this work-life balance phenomenon that is pervading all industries.  So they are not willing to work as late, be on call, work weekends.  That is the mentality . . . It’s really not a bad thing.  I honestly can see both sides of the argument.”

Wow.  (I have to add that those comments don’t in any way reflect my experience.)

On the flip side, the article also describes young associates’ observation that unflagging enthusiasm for work is too often rewarded with layoffs or early retirement.  Accordingly, associates want to have a rounded life rather than being willing to work all hours for a higher profit-per-partner ratio, particularly now that partnership is a less certain reward and of less certain value than in the past.  Peter Ellis, an associate in the Chicago office of a large, international firm, argues that his peers do work hard in the office and that they carry work with them via BlackBerry, cell phone, and laptop when they’re away from the office.

What’s most striking to me in this story is the disconnect in viewpoints.  Of course, absent that schism, there would be no story.  But there must be at least a grain of truth to the descriptions — and they do in fact ring true.

In considering the merits of the two positions, I’m left with a quandry: is practice an either/or?  Is it a choice between being a 24/7 drone or being a work/life balance spoutin’ slacker?  And how do we measure this stuff, anyway?  Money, generally produced by billables, is the traditional measurement, but that seems to predetermine the conclusion since anything that reduces the number of hours that could otherwise be realized is detrimental under that scheme.

Perhaps there’s a tipping point between hefty-but-healthy hours and income and the hefty-but-unhealthy path to burnout.  Perhaps that’s where we’re headed.  In 1994, then-Chief Justice Rehnquist said that average billables in the 1960s were about 1450 per year as compared with an average of 2000 annual billable hours in the 1990s.  As always, the devil is in the details.  Is the tipping point 2050 average annual billable hours?  (Evidently not!)  Is it 2400?  Who gets to decide?

I’d submit that each group of lawyers, i.e. each firm, as well as each individual lawyer gets to decide and that in fact, we’re all deciding right now.  (And for the purposes of this discussion, my comments are limited to lawyers in private practice.)  If a lawyer is deciding between Firm A, which pays a high salary and has a mandatory minimum of 2000 billables, and Firm B, which pays an exhorbitant salary and has an unwritten goal of 2500 billables — doesn’t the lawyer get to decide?  She won’t be forced to either firm, though of course the weight of her law school debt may exert substantial pressure.  She has the ability to decide what she wants her work/life balance to look like, and as long as the hours in the work part of the equation is at least as high as the partners of her chosen firm expect, it’ll work.  (And if they are higher than expected, higher than her colleagues, the system will adapt or she will choose to leave for a firm with a commensurately higher pay scale or better opportunity in some other way.)

So then, isn’t the answer to have a completely open legal market, in which sweatshops admit to being sweatshops?  In which other firms establish their goals and identify which goals are truly aspirational and which are required?  In which candidates for employment say upfront that they’re unwilling to work weekends or to bring work home?  Ideally, I think that’s a part of the answer.  But the world doesn’t work that way.  And so we’re left with unstated expectations, the more senior lawyers’ sense of having stretched themselves in ways that the new crowd is unwilling to do — they don’t make ’em like they used to, you know — and younger lawyers torn between the siren song of more money, more more more, and the quieter but (at least for some) more fulfilling vision of a life.

And of course the intangibles remain: what value do younger lawyers place on training?  Mentoring?  An apprentice-style start to their career?  What value do more senior lawyers place on these same aspects?  And what’s the financial bottom line?  Not to mention the role of technology, though I do hope the article is dead wrong in reporting observations that senior lawyers don’t believe it’s possible to be working without being physically present in the office.

More answers than questions.  But the one answer that emerges crystal clear: it is incumbent upon each lawyer to know why he’s decided to practice law.  If it’s money, that’ll dictate one branch on the career path.  If it’s social justice, that’ll be another.  If it’s to help people, refinement is necessary to crystallize exactly what that means.  But without these markers, the young associate stands all too high a chance of ending up in a practice setting that can’t and won’t meet his vision for his career.  And then, the least damaging result will be a disconnect between his perspective and his senior partner’s.

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