There’s no such thing as work/life balance

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There are a lot of reasons to dislike the term “work/life balance.” It’s grammatically absurd, for one thing, implying that work and life are two equal sides of a coin, which is a far more disturbing concept than any 2,500-hour billable target: work is part of life, not its opposite number. “Work/life balance” has also come to represent the great generational struggle between Boomer law firm partners and their Generation X/Y juniors, an oversimplification that reinforces labels and stereotypes when we need a better understanding of this far more complex dynamic.

But I think my primary difficulty with the term became clear to me after reading (with a hat tip to Legal Blog Watch for the link) this American Lawyer article by Denise Howell on work/life balance. There’s a lot of good stuff in the story, including the harsh reality behind producing even 1,800 billable hours a year (which at some firms these days is considered part-time work) and the gyrations large law firms now put themselves through to show their commitment to work/life balance (and the young lawyer attrition rates that demonstrate how these efforts continually fall short).

Denise also suggests that lawyers had work/life balance figured out pretty well in the 1970s, when a law firm lawyer could take an entire month off to go river-rafting with his family. My sense, though, is that law wasn’t the only line of work where saner hours prevailed nigh on 40 years ago.

It seems to me that North American business and industry in general led relatively uncomplicated lives back then in terms of pressure and competition, and so could proceed at what we now view as a somewhat leisurely pace. Right up until the early 1970s, North Americans could work about as hard they felt like and still rule the economic roost.

Then came oil shocks, Asian competition, the rise of the microcomputer, free-trade agreements, labour mobility, technology explosions, globalization, and the Internet. And within the space of a few decades, our work culture changed from moderate to frenetic.

Make no mistake, it’s been a net benefit: our society (or at least parts of it) is much wealthier than in the 1970s. But the price has been two generations of hard-working multi-taskers whose jobs have mastered them and defined their lives. Now, we work as hard as we possibly can in order to keep our businesses afloat or our jobs from being relocated to Tianjin.

Law has not been spared — in fact, handcuffed as lawyers are to our clients, the faster they sprint, the faster we have to gallop along to keep up. When you’re in a service industry, as lawyers are, you work at the same pace as your customers, or they’ll find other service suppliers who will — and since the legal industry has itself become much more competitive, find them they can.

That’s a big part of why I’ve stopped using the term “work/life balance” when it comes to the law — it suggests that long hours and hard work are simply symptoms of greedy law firm management or bullying clients, rather than part and parcel of a much tougher global business environment. Proponents of “work-life balance” essentially argue that lawyers are worked too hard by their employers and aren’t given enough time to attend to positive and necessary personal affairs. I’m sympathetic to that complaint, believe me — but the marketplace isn’t, and it gets the final word.

That’s not an especially pleasant reality, but there it is all the same. And I think that’s the major reason why working hours for a lot of lawyers have skyrocketed over the past 20-30 years — our clients face more demands in their personal and business lives, and we’ve had to adapt. Our problem is that we haven’t adapted well — we haven’t adopted the same workplace efficiencies as our clients have.

Lawyers cannot blame clients or the marketplace for the foolishness of 2,000+ billable-hour targets — they can blame themselves, and the law firms that still use these targets to assess, reward and promote their employees. Yes, clients are extremely demanding, but they’re not demanding billable hours — they’re demanding that their heavy workload gets done quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively. The ever-rising billable-hour target is lawyers’ unsophisticated and self-serving way of dealing with these demands — but it doesn’t deliver what clients are asking for.

Lawyers can do better — and in the near future, we will, because the same market forces that have driven client demands and lawyer efforts upwards will also, inevitably, reshape the business models by which lawyers provide and bill for their services.

Law firms are slowly, painfully coming to accept that their services can no longer be sold according to the amount of time it takes to complete their assigned tasks. They will have to come up with ways to calculate the value of the service they’ve offered and invoice an acceptable fee that will not vary according to time spent. If the job takes 100 hours to do, but the value to the client is only equal to 20 hours’ labour, then it’s the firm’s problem how to get the job done in 20.

And it’s at that point that lawyers will suddenly realize the tantalizing prospect before them: perform better client service in ways that actually reduce the number of hours they spend on a matter. And that will be a whole new, internal market force that is going to put the change process into overdrive.

So what we need to do is abandon all talk of “work/life balance,” and think more in terms of “alignment.” Is the way in which you perform your tasks aligned with your client’s interests? And is it aligned with the kind of life you want to lead? Your client’s interests aren’t usually malleable, and nor should the quality of your life be a variable dictated by others. The one thing you can change in that equation is how you work.

It’s the mark of the creative, intelligent professional to deliver services and solutions efficiently and effectively. Lawyers haven’t been doing that, and have been suffering the consequences as a result — long hours at the office and self-destructive pressures to reach annual hourly billing targets. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A lawyer who feels his “work/life balance” is out of control is obliged to align his approach, methods and work products with what he and his client both want. There’s no rule that says lawyers have to keep plugging away at their jobs the same way they did back in the 1970s.

The less we talk about “work/life balance,” and the more attention we pay to reshaping the way we work to align better with what clients want and what we need, the better off we’ll be.

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3 Responses to “There’s no such thing as work/life balance”

  1. Doug Cornelius

    Jordan –

    The other item to think about (beyond reducing long hours) in working more efficiently is the client’s need for the quick delivery of legal services.

    When I first began practicing, I knew I had until 8:00 to get the documents drafted. That was the FedEx deadline.

    Now, with email as the primary means of business communications, clients are expecting delivery the same day.

    Efficiency is also needed because the speed of business has increased. We attorneys need to be able to deliver better quality legal services, faster.

  2. iamnotalawyer

    Thank you for making explicit the difference between client requirements and billable requirements. Very few people I’ve seen discussing this have bothered making the distinction.

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