Speed kills

In every survey the Canadian Bar Association conducts, we hear lawyers talking about “work-life balance.” I’ve always found this an odd term, actually, because work and life aren’t two sides of the same coin — life is the coin, and work is one side of it. Or better yet, life is a pyramid or a tetrahedron, and work is just one facet.

What lawyers are struggling to express with this phrase, I think, isn’t so much a search for “balance” as a reaction against the overwhelming pressures of law — pressure from clients, employers, regulators, suppliers, creditors ,and, oh yeah, family.

This pressure never eases, and it usually rises — if we don’t control expectations, they overpower us. Accordingly, for most lawyers, anxiety is the standard operating mood.

Many lawyers are over-pressured and unhappy, I think, because they’ve ended up with an assembly-line approach to their work. They’ve discovered that the reward for greater efficiency in their job is not more time off, but more work. They don’t get to enjoy the time that their increasing expertise saves — they just plow it back in to the next file on the desk.

Thanks to the billable hour system, speed has become a matter not only of pace for lawyers, but also of volume. It’s not just the hour you spend at the office — it’s how much billable activity you can cram into that hour. Lawyers fear wasting a single drop of time — it’s the fuel that powers their revenue. The faster they work, the more “efficient” the fuel becomes — and never mind the damage to the “vehicle.”

What’s the bottom line? In the billable hour system, time literally is money. So if we want an easier pace at work and more time for ourselves, we’d better get used to a lower income — unless we’re willing to adopt a compensation system that doesn’t use time as currency.

The lesson here is: own the clock — don’t let the clock own you.

This post originally appeared as an article in the January 2006 issue of the ABA Law Practice Management Section’s Law Practice magazine.