The legacy of work-life balance

I think we’ll soon be closing the book on one of the legal profession’s most-used and least-understood phrases of the last decade: “work-life balance.” It was still all the rage just a couple of years ago — new lawyers invoked it as a mantra, talent recruiters bandied it about, and many legal publications (including those I’m responsible for) frequently referenced it. But even before the economy fell off a cliff, you could see the pushback growing — and not just from cranky corner-office partners who felt the youngsters hadn’t paid their dues. The pushback came from a growing sense that “work-life balance” (WLB) was a meaningless phrase that obfuscated some real issues lawyers needed to grapple with.

Essentially, WLB was shorthand for the widespread sense that the demands of a legal career had outstripped the personal benefits it conferred — or, as my father used to say, “There’s not much point in earning a living if you can’t live the living you’re earning.” WLB was applied most frequently within the context of large law firms, where even jaded observers would admit that billable-hour targets had escaped any rational trajectory. Across all firm sizes, though, people looked at the law and saw a career where effort and satisfaction were headed in opposite directions. It was not irrational to think that this could stand some improvement.

(It’s important to recognize, by the way, that WLB was not exclusively a Millennial issue. Lawyers of all ages reported dissatisfaction with the perceived effort/reward ratio of their careers, especially in larger firms — though Gen Y was the most willing to talk about it, at length. Remember that WLB was also often used to describe the plight of older small-firm lawyers whose clients had come to demand legal services far more quickly and cheaply than before, catching the lawyer in a vise between ever more work and ever less time. Wherever legal work seemed to grow beyond the boundaries of “worth it,” we heard about WLB.)

Most lawyers seeking WLB were really seeking an answer to the question: “Does a legal career have to be all-consuming and exhausting?” As to that, I’ve written before that lawyers now work long hours thanks to a competitive economy and our own inefficiency, and that we’ll always have to run fast enough to keep up with our clients. But during the economic bubble, lawyers who asked that question often perceived that the answer was “no.” The demand for legal services sufficiently outstripped the supply of lawyers, such that lawyers could start to dictate the terms of their availability to employers and sometimes even to clients. The whole thing got wrapped up too often in buzzwords like “personal fulfillment,” “family time,” and WLB, but what it really came down to was lawyers’ rational response to market conditions. They had a chance to get more rewards for their time and effort — unfortunately, many of them chose those rewards in $160,000 annual packages.

Now, of course, the market has changed just a little. After 10,000 lawyer and staff layoffs at large US and UK firms, even the most active WLB boosters have toned down talk that might earn them the dreaded “entitlement” label. Articles and posts that reference the term “work-life balance” now do so in an environment of cold pragmatism: Ashby Jones at the WSJ Law Blog and Dawn Wagenaar at The Complete Lawyer provide good recent examples. Realist observers like Dan Hull and Scott Greenfield have gained the upper hand in the WLB discussion — check out this slam-bang debate at Legal OnRamp about “work-life balance” generational expectations.

Where proponents of “work-life balance” went off-track, to my mind, was that they argued the duty to ensure a satisfactory proportion between a lawyer’s work and the rest of her life was an institutional responsibility — that it was up to the law firm, basically. The  firms disagreed, and all they had to do was wait for the marketplace to turn their way to make that clear.

Law firms aren’t going to unilaterally change their business models for the sake of WLB. No law firm ever budged an inch on its billable quotas or offered associates more money and perks because its partners genuinely felt they should be nicer employers — appeals to conscience at partners’ meetings don’t have a roaring record of success. Firms change their working conditions as the talent market dictates. In a seller’s market like the one we’ve just had, they play nice; in a buyer’s market like this, they don’t. If almost every potential legal recruit said, “I’m not going to work at that firm — the demands are ridiculous and the benefits to my career aren’t nearly worth it,” and did so for several consecutive years, then you’d see the firm think about changing its business model. That didn’t even happen during the boom, and I doubt it’s going to happen now.

The thing is, “work-life balance” is a lawyer’s personal choice and responsibility. If money and “prestige” are that important to you, you’ll sign up to work 3,000 hours a year at a law firm, and you can reap the rewards and suffer the personal consequences accordingly. If keeping your work hours within a predictable box is important to you, you’ll be seeking out public-sector jobs or setting up a practice with just enough reasonable clients to pay the mortgage — and you’ll always have one eye on your bank statements. When we talk about “balance” in lawyers’ lives, we’re really talking about the tradeoff everyone has to make between compensation and lifestyle. If WLB stood for anything, it was for the fact that we all have the right and the obligation to make that tradeoff on the terms we want.

But here’s the caveat, and here’s where “work-life balance” proponents were right —  most lawyers in their first several years of practice don’t really have that choice. There are two institutional flaws in our system that hurt our newest colleagues. First, there’s the unspoken symbiosis between law schools and law firms — the former charge students huge amounts of money and provide little practical lawyer training, allowing the latter to hire low-skilled and heavily indebted graduates to fill virtually the only positions lucrative enough to pay off their loans. And secondly, billable-hour targets for associates at more than a few firms simply can’t be achieved without damage to one’s health or ethics, or both. These problems are neither natural nor inevitable — they result from our neglect of the system, and they annually damage our profession’s standards and morale.

In the heyday of WLB, we were at least starting to talk about these things, and the whole debate should have shined a light directly on them. What we were groping towards, under the banner of WLB, was the gnawing sense that most everyone starts their legal career behind the eight-ball for no particularly good reason. Now that the moment has passed, I worry that WLB will be relegated to the status of a mere generational quarrel during a freak economy. We need to do better than that. There are still some serious institutional problems for our profession to resolve — dealing with them openly and effectively would be the kind of legacy “work-life balance” deserves.


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