Law Firms and Work-Life Balance–um, rite

So I’ve been reading a couple of blogs that discuss whether law firms are becoming more hospitable to those who want a work-life balance. (Here, and here.) I think ultimately, law firms will change some of how they manage their resources, just because of the sheer number of Millennials. But I’ve been waiting since the early 1990s to see positive change in the general law firm environment, and it’s mostly gotten worse. The upward hours spiral long ago passed insane levels, but there’s so much else that makes law firm miserable places to work.

There is, as I’ve discussed before, the general emotional fuckwittage of lawyers. Add billable hour pressure and client expectations (often unreasonable) to that predisposition, and you’ve got the definition of hell on earth to work in.

Yet lots of the comments to those blog entries make the point that lawyers can leave the nasty places and find a better place. I’m not sure the numbers really support that argument. Law firms continue their trend to become either mega-huge or very tiny and specialized. It’s harder and harder to find a mid-size regional firm spot, because those firms are getting gobbled or are splitting up. Plus, mid-size firms are not guarantee of Nirvana. The people who work in them are, yanno, lawyers.

And really, just because there are some alternatives out there to an inhumane environment doesn’t justify the inhumane environment itself. I mean, would you say to someone whose spouse is beating them that they made a choice, and to stop whining about all those bruises and broken bones? You can just get a divorce, you know. Right, there are some wing-nuts out there who would be that cold, but most folks would recognize a few things, such as:

  • The abusive spouse shouldn’t be allowed to be abusive, period. This is not behavior society wants to promote in any way;
  • The battered spouse knew that his or her spouse wasn’t perfect, but did not foresee how badly the abusive spouse would behave. Initially, she or he was really charming and considerate;
  • The battered spouse’s mental and emotional state is impaired after being in the abusive situation, and they can’t always make the best decisions about their current situation without help;
  • The battered spouse still loves the abusive spouse, as irrational as that seems.

A lot of the talk about law firm environments reminds me of how the perception of women in the workplace has evolved. In the 1960s and 1970s, women could get jobs, but they were expected to put up with all manner of slurs and denigration. There were some few men in the workplace who were willing to accept women as equals; a big chunk who were unsure the arrangement would work, but didn’t spend a lot of energy opposing the idea; and another big chunk of men who were diametrically opposed to the idea of women in positions of power and authority.

Nowadays, no one dares say that women cannot do the jobs, but they defend to death the workplace structures that make life difficult for single people, and impossible for people who want to be parents in anything but the Ward Cleaver, see-you-at-dinner mode. Except that Ward and his lawyer buddies in the 1950s didn’t work nearly so hard or so many hours as are expected today.

So in law firms, we see an evolution from grudging acceptance of the idea that the world won’t end if some lawyers work part-time, to a realization that firms can make more money if they let lawyers be “of counsel” and never make partner, but still bill the daylights for their work, to the current dipping of the toe in the less work for less money pond. These are all good steps toward making one aspect of law firm life — the sheer amount of work — more bearable, but these steps do nothing to make the environment itself more palatable. Too many partners treat their colleagues, associates, and staff like crap, raining undeserved criticism down by the bucket, and doling out praise by the drop. Or simply standing by when their partner does it to someone else. Or maintaining ridiculous expectations, like instant reply to Blackberry summonses on a Saturday night. Or . . . well you can fill in some of the list, those of you who live it every day.

The point is, until the belief system of the abuser changes, simply spending a few hours less in his or her presence doesn’t solve much.

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