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.


  1. shg

    Surprisingly, I’m finding the bulk of those still arguing for work/life balance both to justify it as a Gen Y demand (see Adrian Dayton’s posts, for example) as well as to fall well outside of the Biglaw paradigm. While they use Biglaw as a justification (2400 billables), they actually work in solo or small firm practice, and still make demands.

    The solo practice, obviously, is the most mysterious, since they have the option of going home whenever they want. The problem is that they want to earn like “hard workers” without the time and effort. and their beef is that they can’t seem to get the clients to just pay them without expecting them to do the work as well. And then the clients want quality work. They can be so demanding.

    It’s just not fair, I’m told.

  2. Edward Wiest

    I think you hit the nail on the head with your observation that the work-life balance debate is really one about billable hour norms in all segments of the profession (not just BigLaw). When young lawyers can arrive at a reasonable, transparent measure of the return on their investment in a 2000+ hour year, not only in money, but in such things as opportunities for professional growth and advancement and development of useful, transferable practice and business skills, there will be no need to couch the debate we’ve been seeing under the rubric of work-life balance.

  3. Lisa Gates

    Great, thoughtful post. The necessary convergence of “personal responsibility and choice” and “institutional change” signal to me that the conversation isn’t dead and that the quest for WLB is still very much alive. Makes me wonder if our lawyer-turned-first lady will rally her influence at a higher pitch for the institutional side of the matter, or if she’ll remain as window dressing to the issue.

    I know this is skewed and not statistical, but the lawyer clients I’ve worked with in the past all made seriously difficult choices to sacrifice a hefty slice of income for personal fulfillment. They’re not looking back.

  4. EJC

    I realized early on that my family would take priority to my career and it’s guided how I’ve made my career choices. I know that these choices have not been as lucrative as others, but that’s how it goes and I’m at peace with that.

    I think one aspect missing from your commentary is how it was the influx of female lawyers (or two-income families) that really started to drive the discussion about work-life balance in the first place. Not to say that dads didn’t want to spend time with their kids, but they face a much different set of expectations when it comes to involvement in their kids’ lives. Culturally, it’s “okay” if Dad misses Janie’s piano recital because he’s working, but if it’s Mom? There’s that perception that she must care more about her career than her kids, never mind the sacrifices for her career that she probably made to have those kids in the first place.

    Balance doesn’t mean 50/50, it’s about finding what works best for you. But until things start changing, we shouldn’t be surprised if mothers continue to leave private practice (or BigLaw) in droves.

  5. James Dunning

    Whilst I agree with elements of your post, my sincere hope is that you are incorrect in surmising that WLB is in retreat.

    Having worked in both Biglaw and a major corporate, the differences are striking.

    In the corporate sector, whilst the “job for life” approach has long gone, there does nonetheless exist an implicit agreement that employers will support individuals’ personal development in return for their efforts at work. What’s more, that personal development tends towards improving individuals’ ability to work in group contexts, the expectation being that the view/decision of the finest individuals can still be enhanced through consultation.

    Building on that, many corporates also acknowledge that individuals are individuals, that they experience a variety of varying circumstances and that taking into account individuality can be to the significant benefit of the business as a whole.

    Turning then to the law context, it comes as a surprise to many to learn that it is not necessarily only “the brightest and the best” that make partner and earn the considerable salaries. Some are for sure, but not all. Instead, and I do not in any way mean this critically, it is those that are of an acceptable quality, typically “fit in” and who are willing to tolerate the workload who make partner.

    So if it is correct to say that WLB is solely for the individual, you are also stating that (1) individualism must always come second to the firm (regardless the impact of losing individualism on creativity and innovation) (b) that firms view “excellent” lawyers walking out the door is a pretty much wholly acceptable reality of “doing business” (c) no means ever exist to retain that “excellence” (assuming they are leaving for WLB reasons) and (d) that the firms that continue to focus on WLB are putting themselves at a disadvantage by doing so. At a high level, you are also saying that firms that ignore WLB get just as much out of their retained people as firm’s that respect WLB. That cannot be right can it?

    Respecting WLB should be about accommodating and supporting individuality to the benefit of the business as a whole. That does not mean working less hard, or not putting in the hours. It might mean though employing a few more associates and/or being innovative/supportive/understanding in the treatment of individuals as individuals.

    Of course, that is no easy thing to do. Would that it were! In the same way, however, as firms now benefit from no longer being closed to women, for example, they must surely benefit by being able to retain their brightest and their best and getting the best out of everyone along the way rather than limiting themselves to those that “fit”.

    So “yes” WLB is for the individual, but if that really is the end of it then (in my view at least!) (a) associates will have been proved right in having suspicions about their bosses’ commitments to WLB efforts (b) talent will continue to leave and not return and (c) clients will receive a lesser service as a result than might otherwise have been the case.


  6. Jordan Furlong

    James, thanks for your detailed and thoughtful comment. A few thoughts in reply:

    “it is not necessarily only “the brightest and the best” that make partner and earn the considerable salaries. Some are for sure, but not all. Instead, and I do not in any way mean this critically, it is those that are of an acceptable quality, typically “fit in” and who are willing to tolerate the workload who make partner”

    No question. Just as an IQ test measures how well you do on IQ tests and little else, your rise to the top of a large law firm indicates that you possess qualities that engender success in a large-firm environment but doesn’t otherwise infer anything much about your talent.

    “So if it is correct to say that WLB is solely for the individual, you are also stating that (1) individualism must always come second to the firm (regardless the impact of losing individualism on creativity and innovation) (b) that firms view “excellent” lawyers walking out the door is a pretty much wholly acceptable reality of “doing business” (c) no means ever exist to retain that “excellence” (assuming they are leaving for WLB reasons) and (d) that the firms that continue to focus on WLB are putting themselves at a disadvantage by doing so. At a high level, you are also saying that firms that ignore WLB get just as much out of their retained people as firms that respect WLB. That cannot be right can it?””

    I’d much prefer that it wasn’t this way, but I haven’t seen much evidence that the private bar operates differently from this. In terms of (a), vanishingly few lawyers seem prepared to put the firm’s interests before their own and equally few firms seem to value either creativity or innovation; I wondered in an earlier post how many law firm partners would be willing to voluntarily reduce their annual draw to save jobs within the firm, and the crickets are still chirping on that one. In terms of (b), many firms seem to view associates as fungible and regard the loss of partners as problematic only to the extent that she might take clients with her or otherwise damage the firm’s image or financial interests (and for most firms, “excellence” is measured in financial terms anyway, so by their logic, no “excellent” lawyer would leave because of overwork issues). In terms of (c), I think the means do exist to retain a lawyer whose WLB concerns are driving him away, but few firms seem inclined to do the kind of internal productivity calculus that would give them a means beyond hours billed or rain made by which lawyers could then be appreciated for a wider range of skills. In terms of (d), “disadvantage” would depend on what the firm’s goal is; if it’s to maximize PPP within a traditional law firm structure, absolutely, it’s disadvantageous to do anything that will reduce your stock in trade (hours billed), whereas if your goal is to have a firm that aims to be a holistic net benefit to both clients and lawyers, then you would tilt your model and incentives differently. Most firms of more than modest size, in my experience, fall into the former category; their primary interest in lawyers is in their one-dimensional ability to generate work that can be billed to clients, a purpose to which WLB issues are largely irrelevant (since even if some lawyers give up, burned out or bereft, others have always been willing to take their place).

    “Respecting WLB should be about accommodating and supporting individuality to the benefit of the business as a whole.”

    While I agree with this in spirit, I think two things need to happen for this to actually be the case. The first is that the vast majority of lawyers must decide for themselves that certain types and conditions of legal employment are unacceptable to them, so that the nature of the legal talent market itself changes. In other words, before law firms will make fundamental changes to accommodate lawyers’ desire for personal time, they must be convinced that such personal demands are a permanent and inescapable reality of the talent market. So long as there are enough lawyers with one-dimensional interests available to populate the firms, these firms will have no incentive to act differently. Secondly, firms also need to identify what kind of behaviour is in their enlightened self-interest, a challenging task that requires long-term strategic thinking, broad talent and client marketplace analyses, and an understanding of the larger role of a law firm within a given community. Most firms are light-years away from being able to assimilate those factors effectively and come to an understanding of enlightened self-interest, not least because most law firms are not run by professional corporate managers but by lawyers themselves.

    Long story short (too late), before firms will seriously consider adapting their practices to accommodate the individual interest of their lawyers, they need (a) to be convinced that the legal talent market has changed permanently, (b) a far more sophisticated grasp of long-term corporate self-interest, and (c) other fundamental changes to the legal services marketplace (from the client and competition sides) that will render the current model unsustainable and make change not just desirable but necessary. We’re coming up on the third, but the first two still seem some distance away.

  7. James Dunning


    Likewise many thanks for your detailed response.

    I agree with your final paragraph in particular and wonder whether, at BigLaw in particular, it has been exacerbated by the pyramid career structure and consequent need to “divest” associates as they rise in seniority – “if you need to “divest” then why bother keeping them happy to stay?”. I am also reminded again of when I was appointing a BigLaw practice and suggested limiting associates from working too long hours on the deal – an idea that was very politely “parked” by the law firm!

    Indeed, I suspect our views our very much in the same place on this one, save, whilst acknowledging the realities, that I would regret seeing the back of WLB for the reasons I have stated.

    I would also make the following follow-on comment-

    You note that your posting on reducing PPP to save jobs didn’t elicit much support. In the meantime, to maintain quality and inflow of associates, firms have engaged in a pricing war to attract associates that has escalated salaries to levels many are now, post-credit crunch, viewing as unnecessary and unsustainable.

    Put another way, partners have effectively taken the PPP cut to keep attracting associates but are less willing to do so to retain associates who don’t “fit” the required template.

    I have not done the maths, but I wonder whether it is the costs of the former or the latter approach that result in the larger PPA cut?

    It’s not an easy one I admit – not least as associates expect to be paid more as they get more senior/experienced and as “this is the way everyone does it”. On that though I am reminded of Prince at Citigroup saying “as long as the music’s playing you’ve got to get up and dance” (see my blog on that one – ) in defence of why the banks followed each other over the cliff.


  8. Yadgyu

    For me, being a high-powered exec is more important than being a good parent.

    Things cost money. Staying at home doesn’t buy things. Going out there and making as much money as possible is the best thing to do. Everyone wants to live the good life. But the good life costs. So what if you can’t make it to the softball game or the ballet recital! If you are bringing home big bucks, you are doing more for your family than any amount of time will.

    A parent that doesn’t make a ton of money is shameful. Kids want iPhones, computers, jeans, sneakers, and other cool stuff. How can a kid be cool if mom or dad only works 40 hours a week but brings home diddley squat? I would rather work a ton of hours and make a ton of money than come home at the same time and sit in the house with a nagging wife and bratty children. A family has to understand that having things is more important than being together. Working less is not an option!

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