Beyond work/life balance

Seth Godin, whom you’ll see linked fairly often in this space, writes about the new workaholic, the person who’s motivated not by fear but by passion: “The passionate worker doesn’t show up because she’s afraid of getting in trouble, she shows up because it’s a hobby that pays. …[T]he new face of work, at least for some people, opens up the possibility that work is the thing (much of the time) that you’d most like to do.”

I read that and thought of the survey of law firm associates that Hildebrandt issued a little while ago. Its findings caused something of a stir by flouting the conventional wisdom that associates, especially in large firms, were overworked, stressed and deeply unhappy. I won’t go into the nuts and bolts here, but among the findings was that satisfaction was much higher than expected and that there was no correlation between long hours and unhappiness — rather the opposite, in fact. I think these two items say something about today’s new lawyers that law firms need to understand.

I continue to be amazed by senior lawyers who complain long and loud about the current generation entering their firms: “no commitment,” “not willing to pay their dues,” “a sense of entitlement,” and occasionally, even “lazy” are among the apparent sins of the young. The people saying these things are very smart, very capable, often leaders of their firms, but I don’t think they’re grasping a critical point: by and large, today’s new lawyers have no qualms whatsoever about working long and hard. What they have serious qualms about is working long and hard on rote tasks, unfulfilling assignments, due diligence and similar kinds of docket-filler, with few opportunities for serious client contact, independent undertakings, or crunch-time appearances in dealrooms and courtrooms.

The standard large law firm model, both economic and cultural, requires junior lawyers to labour in the salt mines for a certain period of time; those able and willing to make it through advance to the next phase. That’s the way it’s been for decades now. But it looks to me as if the newest shipment of law school grads isn’t interested in playing that game. They’ve been raised from Day One by their Boomer parents to work hard, seeking out and conquering challenges, and they expect work to be engaging and meaningful. It’s no surprise that they chafe and carp about what lands on their desks at law firms, and it’s equally unsurprising that their employers aren’t sympathetic.

But what Seth observes and what Hildebrandt shows is that there’s potential here for a more positive result. Young lawyers, if set to work on tasks that stretch their abilities and engage their intellect, will respond enthusiastically and become tremendous resources for their law firms, now and down the road. They won’t talk as much about “work/life balance” because they’ll be more willing to make work their life — if the work matters and if it allows them to rapidly develop their skills.

I’m pretty firmly of the mind that the disconnect today is not between hard-working older lawyers and laid-back young ones — it’s between different ideas of what should constitute satisfying work for novice lawyers. The firms that can (a) figure this out and (b) re-engineer their processes to get their new lawyers engaged quickly on meaningful work that develops skills and contacts will have a great advantage in winning the generational war. Law firms are run by smart people, so I think they’ll get the first one soon enough. But the second? Well, it takes quite a while to get a fully loaded tanker ship sailing at full speed to change direction.

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