Family values

Big news: most law firms no longer consider a lawyer’s decision to start and raise a family to be an implicit violation of the employment contract. Many women lawyers can now take nine months or more of maternity leave and return to find their jobs still waiting for them and their career prospects not greatly dimmed.

This is good news, of course, and I applaud the architects and pioneers of parental leave acceptance. But in many firms, parental leave allowances are simply part of an effort to staunch the hemorrhaging of young talent. Firms have learned that if they want to keep young lawyers around, they could start by accommodating these lawyers’ desire to have kids and to be with them during the first several months of their lives.

But that young talent probably will continue to drain away regardless, because it’s not just about getting time with a newborn. Consider that for many of these lawyers, the hard part comes when they return to work and find the firm demanding exactly the same hours and dedication it did pre-leave — if not more. I know a lot of ex-firm lawyers for whom that was the breaking point.

Why do so many lawyers still have to choose between a fulfilling career in a law firm and a fulfilling role as an involved parent? There are always tradeoffs, naturally: you can’t be a high-powered, high-paid lawyer and still spend hours on the playroom floor with your kids. But lawyering and parenting don’t have to be mutually exclusive. And more to the point, the firms seem to keep mistaking the symptoms for the problem.

Law firms are businesses trying to turn a profit. But they’re hamstrung by how they go about it — by their addiction to the billable-hour system. When you sell your services, compensate your workers and evaluate your future partners on the volume of hours billed, you will disproportionately reward those lawyers who have few if any commitments outside the office.

If time equals profitability, and if profitability equals profile and promotion, a firm inevitably will exclude lawyers who want or need to spend time away from work (a group that remains overwhelmingly female). There are thousands of excellent lawyers who fall into that category. They form a vast pool of top-quality resources that continue to slip away from firms addicted to the billable hour system. Is the system worth that?

This post first appeared as the editorial in the March 2007 issue of National.

21st-century legal technology

This article was first posted at Slaw on September 27th, 2006.

As someone who still pays his bills with a chequebook and stamps, I’m a little reluctant to address the whole question of technology in the legal profession. But here we go anyway:

To get a sense of the degree to which the law is still a pen-and-paper profession, listen to the language that lawyers use. “Paper the other side,” articling students are told. “Note up the case. Write a memo to file. Docket your time.” In our mind’s eye, it seems, we’re working in the age of bound ledgers and three-ring-binder timesheets, and the phrases we use unconsciously reflect that. That’s going to be a problem for 21st-century lawyers, for whom trying to ignore technology will be like trying to politely overlook that tornado outside the window. Continue Reading

A to Z: 26 trends for the legal profession

This article was co-authored with Mélanie Raymond, then-Senior Editor of National, and appeared as the cover story in the April/May 2006 edition of the magazine.

The legal profession is turning upside down, and many of the familiar landmarks are disappearing or bring replaced by brand-new structures. There are so many changes afoot that National’s editorial team could match each letter of the alphabet to a development that presents a threat — or an opportunity — for lawyers. Twenty-six trends, 26 letters: which ones matter the most to you?

Associé (Partnership)

It’s always been the Holy Grail, the ultimate goal for lawyers starting out in private practice It has been considered the final step in a lawyer’s transition from simply an employee to a partner. But this is all changing, thanks to systematic and generational change.

Equity partnerships (partnership without capital investments or draws), salaried associate, permanent or advisory associate — new forms of quasi-partnership are born every year. The journey to the associate level is accelerated in some firms, delayed in others. Methods vary from one firm to another, from one individual to another.

And increasingly, there are lawyers who choose to not aspire to partner status at all — for whom client development, firm management, and the additional responsibilities that go along with being a partner hold little or no appeal. Will partnership become obsolete? No, but flexibility, rather than tradition, will rule this ancient institution from now on.

Runners-up: Asia, Latin America Continue Reading

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.

Culture wars

Every year, thousands of lawyers in their 20s enter the legal profession, while thousands more in their 60s leave it. In the result, we’re seeing a mass-scale infusion of new value systems into the legal profession — and the old and new systems usually mix like oil and water. The clearest value clash is revolving around how much of your life should be dedicated to your job, rather than to you and your family. Most new lawyers say: not that much.

Demographers argue over why this new generation cares more about spending time at home or with family than it does about professional advancement. But I can tell you this much: most new lawyers don’t really give a damn about law firms’ billable-hour targets.

And there’s the problem. Today’s legal culture (including the typical law firm compensation structure) is mostly ill-equipped to deal with this sea change. Boomer values — including devotion to the job, financial security and social status — have shaped the modern legal profession. But the profession’s newest members value self-fulfillment, job satisfaction, and family priorities more than they value overtime bonuses. This “problem” (as most firms still refer to it) is only going to get worse.

Time was, young lawyers shaped their family planning around their careers. These days, they’re shaping their career planning around their families. Law firms and legal employers that fail to recognize this change are in for a very rough ride.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the June 2005 issue of National magazine.

Double happiness

I came across an article recently that argued against pro bono expectations for legal practitioners. Lawyers should not be obliged to “give back to the community” because, among other reasons, conscientious lawyers haven’t taken anything from it — no more so than hairdressers or mechanics, for instance.

The term “give something back to the community” probably has earned criticism — overuse has turned it into something of an empty catchphrase. So let’s think about it for a moment.

In our feature article this month about happiness in the legal profession, we list seven steps by which lawyers can achieve greater personal satisfaction. The seventh point includes the simple yet powerful prescription: “Be grateful.” Gratitude is the expression of humility. It’s the emotion generated when we recognize how immense is our good fortune and how little our contribution to it.

We were born in or immigrated to one of the finest countries in the world — a country whose medical, judicial, and educational institutions are lavish by comparison to what you’ll find on most of the planet. On top of that, we personally had sufficient resources — intellectual, financial and familial, few of them authored by us— to enter and graduate from law school. Just 0.03% of Canada’s population belongs to the legal profession; that tiny sliver is us.

And we’re lawyers. Despite what we may hear or even think in dark, cynical corners, the law is widely admired and its practitioners accorded a social status surpassed by very few. When was the last time you were ashamed to admit, at a party or other gathering, that you were a lawyer? We’re pretty proud of being lawyers, and we can hardly be blamed for that.

But it would be blameworthy if we were to grandly accept the mantle of lawyer as some kind of birthright — if we mistook our good fortune for anything more than an inheritance of grace. It’s the recognition of how lucky we are that drives the best of us to share the gifts we’ve received with those less fortunate. We’re not “giving back to the community” — we’re giving away freely that which was given freely to us.

That’s why lawyers who give of themselves — of their talent and time — are some of the happiest and most satisfied people I know. Like everyone else who donates what they have, they realize how rich they are and are compelled to enrich others — and find themselves enriched in return beyond their expectations.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the April/May 2005 issue of National magazine.