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.

Renovating or tearing down?

I grew up in a small city of about 80,000 and went to law school in a similarly sized town, so my first experience of a major metropolitan center was when I began working in downtown Toronto. I remember being a little overwhelmed by the massive bank towers in the financial district — not a patch on New York, obviously, but still impressive to someone who’d not seen many buildings above eight floors high. But I also remember thinking — and this might give you some insight into the sometimes skewed and contrary way my mind works — “How are they ever going to get those buildings down?”

It seemed to me at the time (and still does now) that putting up a very tall building, while an arduous and lengthy task, is also a pretty straightforward and orderly one. While traffic might be rerouted and the noise pollution might be substantial, still it’s a planned, supervised, rational process with a fixed start and reasonably fixed end date. But if you ever need to take that building down, what do you do? I’ve never seen anyone erect a scaffolding superstructure around a skyscraper and deconstruct it floor by floor. Generally speaking, buildings aren’t dismantled gradually, their component parts carefully carried off to be reused and rearranged for new or better buildings; they come down all at once in a destructive collapse. Sometimes they videotape the implosion, to be replayed at the end of a half-hour news cycle.

This brings me, in a roundabout sort of way, to the billable hour — specifically, a recent wave of articles that suggests a serious challenge to its lengthy rule is underway. Famously, Cravath Swaine & Moore managing partner Evan Chesler published an article in the Jan. 12, 2009 issue of Forbes titled “Kill the billable hour,” in which he sets out clients’ (and lawyers’) unhappiness with and alternatives to the billable hour. As you might imagine, that got a lot of people’s immediate attention. The AmLaw Daily noted a number of resonant examples in the U.S. profession, while lawyers in London piped up that they’re already ahead of that particular curve, thanks.

Around the same time, The American Lawyer named as its Litigation Boutique of the Year the Chicago firm of Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott LLP, a crack litigation team remarkable in no small part for not billing by the hour and keeping few associates on hand. Based on all this and more, Legal OnRamp‘s Paul Lippe suggests we’re witnessing an actual, real-time change in the legal profession’s billing mindset. And Michael Grodhaus wonders if those who switch away from the billable hour during the recession will ever go back.

Me, I keep thinking back to those towers. Just as they took a long time to go up and won’t come down without a lot of noise and debris, so too the law firms inside them took many years to build, and if they ever need to be, um, re-purposed, it won’t be easy or painless. Buildings are demolished when their structural underpinnings become unstable or their basic design is rendered obsolete by new advances; occasionally you’ll see a retrofit, but most often you’ll see the wrecking ball, because something that big and rigid just can’t be reduced, reused or recycled. Continue Reading

The failure of billable-hour compensation

Two ugly stories from the mainstream legal media at least give us the opportunity to consider an under-publicized way in which the billable hour poisons the profession.

First is this National Law Journal article about how law firms are responding to the recession (short answer: myopically). Among other things, firms are laying off staff and paralegals in droves, perhaps in part because underutilized associates are keeping for themselves the work they normally delegate to these para-professionals:

“It’s a desperate move to keep their billables up,” said [Chere Estrin of paralegal training company Estrin LegalEd], noting that paralegals have told her that some associates are doing their own document reviews, deposition summaries and other research. “It’s gotten worse lately, and it’s not good for anyone.”

Not good for the paralegals, vulnerable employees placed at greater risk of layoffs in an economic storm. Not good for the associates, whose legal skills atrophy as they rediscover how many words they can type per minute. And not, by the way, so good for clients who wind up paying associate-level prices for staff-level work. Pretty good for the firm’s bottom line, though.

Difficult as it might seem to trump that story, this one manages it: “Down in the Data Mines,” an aptly titled article in December’s ABA Journal. It’s a first-person account of a contract lawyer labouring in a New York City basement doing document review for a large law firm (HT to Ron Friedmann). Here’s the most telling, and appalling, excerpt:

If I review 100 documents per hour (a very fast pace), I get paid the same hourly rate as if I review 30. More­over, each project consists of a finite number of documents; so the faster I work, the sooner I am out of a job and need to start hustling for the next project. “Don’t work us out of a job,” a veteran contract attorney once derided me in private after I reviewed too many documents on the first day of a new project. And the firm is usually OK with this attitude; in my experience, speed and accuracy have always taken backstage to billable hours.

We’ve pretty well established that the billable hour is harmful to the lawyer-client relationship, and these two articles provide evidence for that. But what we don’t talk about as often is that the billable hour is far more damaging — poisonous, actually — to the relationship between a law firm and its employees.

We need to start by emphasizing the two related but distinct ways in which “the billable hour” is used in the legal profession. In the lawyer-client relationship, it represents a method (or a regime) by which lawyers’ services are billed to the client — a construct for the terms of purchase and sale, nothing more. And there are situations where the billable hour is completely legitimate as a fee methodology. We most often cite examples like a complicated merger or a difficult divorce. But the billable hour would be appropriate in any transaction between a lawyer and client who know each other, trust each other, and have established transparency around the means by which the cost and value of the service is calculated.

The problem, of course, is that that kind of relationship is rare between lawyers and clients. More commonly, clients don’t trust lawyers to name a just fee for the work they did, and lawyers don’t trust clients not to take advantage of cost estimates and time parameters. In those situations (far more common in larger firms than in smaller or sole practices), the billable hour is rife with the potential for abuse by the lawyer, who holds the upper hand in an opaque, awkward relationship. But it’s important to recognize that the billable hour is essentiallya surrogate for trust between lawyer and client, one that could (and hopefully will) someday be replaced when the relationship becomes more mature, transparent, and equal. The billable hour is not really the fundamental problem — a relationship short on experience and bereft of trust is.

A lawyer and client look forward to the day when their relationship is sufficiently strong that the billable hour becomes irrelevant — it falls away from the relationship like a baby tooth replaced by an adult one. But there’s no similar hope for the other manifestation of the billable hour: a measure of lawyers’ productivity, compensation and advancement in most law firms. Every lawyer, from the rawest associate to the oldest partner, is scrutinized annually on the basis of the number of hours he or she has billed to clients. You never outgrow it and you never escape it – it’s a permanent, pernicious blot on the law firm landscape.

One of the oldest rules of economics is that people value that for which they are compensated. Compensate a lawyer on the basis of year-end client reviews, and that lawyer will move mountains to ensure satisfied clients. Compensate her on the basis of revenues actually brought in (rather than hours billed), and she’ll be a collections fiend, billing regularly and following up to make sure there’s no outstanding work lingering in the pipeline. But compensate a lawyer for the number of hours he invoices to clients, and that lawyer will lowball everything else — efficiency, timeliness, value, communication, even ethics — in order to maximize the amount of time he can take to address a client’s request. That’s the kind of lawyer our law firms have bred and unleashed on the marketplace for half a century.

Look at contract lawyers working slowly and inefficiently to bloat billable hour totals. Look at associates typing their own documents to sustain billable hour totals. Look at partners hoarding work from their associates in order to maintain billable hour totals. Fundamentally, instinctively even, lawyers know that how many hours they’ve managed to bill does not reflect how good they are at what they do. But under irresistible pressure, they twist their instincts and corrupt sensible business practices in order to conform to their employers’ business models and value systems. Organizations filled with people going about their business in ways that satisfy neither themselves nor the people they serve are going to be deeply unhappy places, and that’s what many law firms are.

Law firms have managed a feat you would have thought impossible: taken smart, dedicated, hard-working young men and women who are passionate, even geeky about the law, introduced them into one of the world’s finest and noblest professions, and within just a few years, made them hate it.

Here’s a question every law firm should have to answer: if you never billed another client by the hour, how would you compensate your lawyers? The fact is that few law firms would have the first clue what to do. They’d have to sit down and figure out how much value that lawyer delivered to clients and to the firm, a difficult exercise that requires a lot of research and judgment calls. They’d have to set multi-faceted performance expectations at the start of each year, mentor and follow up with the lawyer regularly to ensure those expectations are being met, and deliver an assessment at year’s end, all in the context of a employment relationship where each side respects the other more than they do now. Difficult, and a lot more work — but not impossible, and absolutely delivering a more accurate result.

Law firms assess and compensate lawyers by the hour for much the same reasons they charge clients by the hour: it’s convenient, and they can get away with it. The convenience will never go away — the billable hour is as lazy and facile a method of assessing employee value as you could ask for — but the tolerance level is finally starting to fade. We’ve seen a rising client revolt against the weakness of billable-hour pricing; I think we might be on the cusp of a rising lawyer revolt against the weakness of billable-hour compensation. Talk of a generational divide in law firms has faded with the onset of the recession, but it’s still there, and one of the ways it manifests itself is in very different ways of actualizing a person’s value. I don’t think Millennials are keen to be assessed and paid according to hours posted. I don’t think they’re going to buy that at all.

Billable selling and billable compensating are inextricably linked, and I doubt we’ll see one disappear entirely while the other thrives unaffected. Law firms, take note: every tiny step away from a billable-hour system for charging clients is also a tiny step towards the inevitable day when you’ll have to buckle down and actually figure out what your lawyers are worth to you and to your clients. You probably won’t enjoy that; but you’ll be a lot better off once you’ve done it.

Decoupling price from cost in legal services

Virtually all the talk these days in client circles is about the cost of legal services. It’s well established that institutional purchasers of these services are under great pressure to reduce costs by, for example, “taking bids, asking for discounts, shopping around for lower-cost options.” Patrick J. Lamb points out that many in-house lawyers don’t care what rates are charged, so long as they can bring back to corporate HQ the trophy of a 10% discount. One of the most popular discussions at Legal OnRamp right now is under the heading “Top Ten Ways for Clients to Save $” — and the list has grown well beyond ten.

What’s interesting is that most conversations about “reducing costs” are one-dimensional. They focus on the client getting the same kinds of services from the same kinds of law firms at a lower price; or, more concisely, the same-old same-old for less. They don’t envision rethinking the source of the services, or more importantly, the ways in which those services are produced. Ron Friedmann points out that when looking at ways to control costs, in-house counsel tend to focus on pricing elements — rate freezes, flat fees, discounts, alternative fees, and so forth — while ignoring the potential savings of reforming the process by which legal services are provided:

Where, for example, are efforts to require matter budgets, application of best practices, automation, risk analysis with decision trees, document assembly, and proper use of KM systems?… Real costs savings mean changing the process, focusing on how lawyers practice. The profession needs to overcome its “I am an artiste” attitude and develop better ways of working.

Both lawyers and clients have succumbed to the long-standing lawyer assumption that the price of legal services is directly connected to its cost. Lawyers produce work today pretty much the same way they produced it 60 years ago: through the individual-focused, time-insensitive application of principles and formulas to fact situations. Some time back, they figured out how much it costs them to do that, built in a percentage for profit, and arrived at a selling price for clients. And every year or so, to reflect both inflation and inflated earning expectations, they raised those prices. It’s an insulated, self-sustaining system in which price = cost + profit margin.

Here’s the really important thing that’s happening right now: the price of legal services is finally becoming uncoupled from the costs lawyers incur to produce it. Continue Reading

Never mind the billables

Steve Matthews of Stem Legal has a thoughtful post at Slaw that talks about The Economist‘s recent article on the demise of billable hours. As Steve points out, focusing on how a law firm bills its services obscures the more fundamental conversations around value and cost that are needed to frame the process of negotiating price. Hourly billing’s real damage is that its over-simplicity and ubiquity make it hard to have those conversations.

It’s becoming clear that “value to the client” and “cost to the lawyer” are the only two concepts that have any utility to the legal services pricing process. Clients are getting their act together when it comes to determining exactly what “value” means to them in the legal services context. As soon as the value assessment process becomes standardized and even routine in the client world (and it will), then lawyers will suddenly inhabit a much less flexible pricing environment, one in which their customers understand exactly what they need and what they’re willing to pay for.

For this reason, those lawyers who intimately understand their costs of operation and production have already opened a lead on their competition, a lead that will widen into a gap over the next few years. That’s why the single most important thing you can do for your law business, right now, is to know your costs inside out, down to the last dollar, pound or peso. And then, once you understand your costs, streamline them — through technology, knowledge management, automation, and creative use of legal talent (including contract and offshore lawyers).

Every time you reduce your costs, you create an equivalent opportunity in your profit column, because the amount you spend to render a service to your clients has no effect on the value of that service to the client. (It never has.) Your client doesn’t care how much profit you make for yourself; the client only cares that you delivered excellent value in a cost-effective (to the client) manner. How you bill your services is between you and your client; how much it costs you to deliver those services has to be your number-one business priority.

The goal should not be to stamp out the billable hour once and for all. The goal should be an open, rational legal services pricing system in which the question “How many hours did you bill?” — whether asked by a client of its law firm, or by a partner of an associate — is, for the most part, completely irrelevant.

Capped fees, limited innovation

To the well-known list of companies that have consolidated their roster of outside counsel to one firm (DuPont, Tyco, and Linde, most prominently), you can now add Pfizer, which Corporate Counsel magazine reports has given all its employment litigation work to Jackson Lewis and its 500 lawyers across the US. But this one comes with a twist: in exchange for its sole counsel designation, Jackson Lewis is capping all its fees to Pfizer, issuing one invoice a month containing one-twelfth of its annual fee and an accounting of its its time spent on Pfizer matters in the last 30 days.

There are three interesting points to take away from this story. The first is to note that when Pfizer’s GC was asked to list the reasons why Jackson Lewis won this ten-firm competition, the first thing she cited was trust: “We were putting all of our eggs in one basket. Before, we had a choice among ten firms. Making this decision meant that choice was gone.” Never mind the economics: you don’t win a contest like this unless the client has the utmost faith in your reliability and wisdom.

The second is to observe what happens in the absence of trust: tucked away in a sidebar at the bottom is an account of Pfizer’s frustration with fat, vague law firm invoices that didn’t comply with the department’s well-established billing guidelines. So the company hired a legal bill assessor called Legal Cost Control, which found that Pfizer’s outside counsel were billing for things like making copies, sleeping on airplanes and assembling budgets. Now Pfizer sends all outside counsel invoices to a billing review team — and it’s fair to assume that firms submitting questionable bills won’t be in that trusted inner circle, if they remain counsel at all.

But the third, and most significant, aspect of this story is that while Pfizer is combining two innovations here, convergence and capped fees (well, UK law departments wouldn’t call law firm panels exactly innovative), it missed an opportunity to add a third when it retained the right to recoup Jackson Lewis’s unspent fees at the end of the year. Continue Reading

The new brand landscape for law firms

I received a package the other day from a prominent law firm announcing a rebranding, which seemed to consist of a shorter name and a clever new logo. There didn’t seem to be anything otherwise new or different about the firm, so the brochure went straight into the blue box. But I was reminded of a remarkably similar mailing I received, something like eight years ago, from a big firm that, like this one, had shortened its name, come up with an abstract logo, and called it rebranding.

So it might be time to review what a brand is and is not. This is important, because right now, we’re on the verge of a major shift in the law firm brand landscape.

1. A new name and a new logo do not constitute a new brand. A brand is a promise — a guarantee of identity, reliability and/or quality. A brand is what your customers come to expect about your product’s or service’s performance and delivery.

2. Whether your brand is a good one or a bad one depends almost entirely on how well or how poorly you perform that function and delivery.

3. An effective brand is unique, or at least easily distinguishable and differentiable from the competition, and is aligned with your actual conduct. An ineffective brand is one that’s belied by what you actually do — a company that doesn’t follow through on its brand promise hollows out the brand’s effectiveness.

Now, law firms are, generally speaking, terrible at branding, for a couple of reasons. First, most firms don’t stand out from their competition in terms of the services they offer, the solutions they recommend, the rates they charge and the manner in which they bill. So it doesn’t matter how they brand themselves, they all act essentially the same way and are effectively indistinguishable from clients’ points of view.

Secondly, when law firms do make brand promises, they don’t keep them consistently, if at all. Partly this is because their promises are abstract and extravagant — how can every law firm have “top-tier practitioners” with “leading litigation and corporate abilities” who “provide the highest quality legal services” (quotes taken at random from law firm websites)? Here’s a fun exercise — read 50 law firm sites and count how many firms work for “many of the leading corporations and financial institutions in the world.”

And partly it’s because most law firms have no mechanisms to enforce follow-through on their brand. How can clients expect a consistent type of service when every partner is effectively autonomous, project management templates are rare or non-existent, and key talent leaves and enters the firm like a carousel? So most law firms suffer from the twin brand defects of not offering anything uniquely distinguishable from the competition, and not offering it in a reliable fashion.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: the range and types of brands available in the law are exploding as we speak. Continue Reading

You can’t charge for that anymore

There’s a process revolution underway in the legal marketplace, and yesterday brought two more reports of cannon fire. The ABA Journal published a primer (HT to Legal Blog Watch) by Boston lawyer Jay Shepherd on how to establish a flat-fee billing system. It’s not an airy, wouldn’t-it-be-nice piece; it’s a practical guide borne of his firm’s successful experience with abandoning hourly rates. The key step: reviewing eight years’ worth of bills to figure out exactly how much it costs the firm to complete various client tasks.

Meanwhile, Larry Bodine linked to a Forbes magazine story about FastCase, a Washington, D.C.-based company that provides access to an online, digital, searchable collection of U.S. case law at much lower costs than those charged by traditional publishing powerhouses West and Lexis. The article describes similar ventures launched by other organizations, without even getting into the Legal Information Institute collection and its offspring around the world.

So for those of you keeping score at home, here are two more things you won’t be able to build into your legal bill the way you used to:

–> the standard lawyer fuzziness around just how much it’s going to cost to do something the firm has done before; and

–> most commercial online legal research services, because the cheap or free alternatives are proliferating.

These two entries join a growing list of items law firms can no longer charge out at pricey associate rates, if they can charge them out at all: Continue Reading

The danger of discounted rates

At the risk of being mistaken for an Ayn Rand devotee, one of my favourite moments in The Incredibles comes when Helen (Elastigirl) is admonishing her son Dash, who’s upset because he’s not allowed to use the super-speed that makes him special. “Everyone’s special, Dash,” says Helen, to which Dash mutters under his breath: “That’s another way of saying no one is.”

I thought of that line when I read the results of a fees and pricing benchmark survey published by (HT to The Greatest American Lawyer via Legal Blog Watch). Headlining the uniformly interesting results was the observation that 78% of all firms discount their rates (a startling 89% of firms with ten lawyers or more) from what they’ve advertised or initially advised the client. The average discount is 9.9%.

When everyone is discounting their rates, then no one is.

When you hear “alternative billing” discussed by lawyers and clients today, what’s being talked about most frequently is rate discounts: the lawyer knocks X percentage or Y dollars off the “going rate” in order to satisfy a client demand. The client is happy because she feels she carries enough influence to force a fee break; if she’s in-house, she can report to her bosses that she haggled the lawyer down from the starting rate, thereby proving her negotiating acumen and hard-line position on costs.

The lawyer’s happy too, for a bunch of reasons. The rate is not nearly as important as the number of hours he can bill, which has a far greater impact on the final tally and is anyway the criteria that the partnership cares about most. Moreover, any halfway clever lawyer builds into his rate the distinct possibility of future discount, ensuring that the final actual rate doesn’t plunge too deeply below what he actually wants to make. And of course, the most important thing is to actually get the work and strengthen the relationship, to ensure more work in future. In this light, the rate is a card the lawyer can afford to play early and easily when negotiating the overall agreement to produce legal work.

This lovely scenario grows problematic, of course, when discounting becomes so ubiquitous that it loses its cachet as a real benefit to the client. Continue Reading

There’s no such thing as work/life balance

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. Continue Reading