What if Work/Life Balance Was as Important as Money?

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When I first read the ABA story about Gen Y women lawyers—single, childless ones—who were worrying about work/life balance as they searched for their first law job, and not applying for jobs with long hours, I did roll my eyes and scoff. I admit it.

professional woman multitasking
Sure, you could grow extra arms to help get your work done. But insisting on real work/life balance might be easier.

Well, truth be told my inner critic, whose name is Guido and who acts and thinks like a thug, rolled his eyes and scoffed: “Law grads of any stripe can’t find jobs, and these overprivileged Gen Yers are worried they might have to work a lot? Puh-lease! They need some knocks from the school of life so they can get a clue.” You know, the standard Puritan reaction. Guido is good at it, since he adores all forms of authoritarianism, as most inner critics do.

We all know that working hard is a religious virtue amongst lawyers, most of whom also worship authority. I did not escape that inculcation; even now, when I absolutely know better, I too often default to workaholic guilt. Most recovering lawyers do.

Gender Equity, or Mass Insanity?

The article came at this issue as one of gender equity—women are “sabotaging” their paths to glory in law by turning up their noses at high-power, high-hour jobs for less demanding ones even when they don’t (supposedly) need to work fewer hours right at this moment. It was a not-so-veiled criticism of not going for the career gusto. That by not pursing that high-status path, these young women were missing out, ruining their career prospects right out of school and letting down pretty much all women in the profession.

So let’s see, what is that career gusto, anyway? Working endless hours, missing family time, sleep and oh, most of life, for very demanding clients who expect you to be chained to your Blackberry 24/7? Let’s not forget incessant dealing with asshole colleagues in your own firm, plus opposing counsel and all their charming behaviors.

It might be worth it if the work really thrilled you at least 40% of the time. But my sense is that most women in law are not thrilled with what they are doing even 20% of the time, from junior associate to senior partner. They may not hate what they’re doing, but they sure don’t love it.

Resistance Is Futile

You know that Schopenhauer quote about truth? First the new idea is mocked mercilessly, then staunchly opposed as if its adoption represents the end of life on Earth, then suddenly everyone says “Oh, well of course.”

I’ve seen this reaction to change in law firms before, and so have most of you Boomers and older Gen Xers. Telecommuting, flex schedules and casual dress policies leap to mind. Along with law firms offering attorney positions other than simple associate and partner. There’s even some allegedly part-time work in law firms, although it mostly looks like full-time work to the rest of the world. I suppose it’s something.

Remember the horror that law firms had about attorneys working from home? The shrill, accusatory questions abounded: How would you know they were working and not watching TV, napping or playing golf? People might lie about their billable hours if they’re not in the office. (Yeah, that never happens otherwise.) We need to be able to find people right away, and we can’t do that if they’re not in the office where they are findable. (Thank you Blackberry for rendering this one moot.)

The debates over law firm dress codes were even funnier. Lots of lengthy memos were written about precisely what kinds and colors of pants and shirts were acceptable; appropriate hemline and sleeve lengths were spelled out in more exquisite detail than at a Catholic high school; oh and let’s not forget the dangers of toe cleavage. Toe cleavage ranked right up there with Victorians and their obsession over women’s ankles. But I digress.

Real Work-Life Balance Would Screw Current Law Firm Economics—and That’s Good

The debate over long hours in law firms shouldn’t be confined to single, childless women lawyers. Every lawyer–young, middle-aged, or getting on; single, married, partnered or divorced; with or without kids, ailing relatives, or pets–needs a life that includes more than working, sleeping and eating. But right now, without the “excuse” of kids or sick parents, lawyers are at very best frowned at for putting any needs before billable hours. Usually it’s more that their loyalty gets questioned and their reviews start sucking.

Come on, law firms, get over yourselves. Even doctors have given up the ritualized hazing of residents. Doctors had some (thin) medical justification for requiring 3 days of sleep deprivation, i.e., following a patient’s progress and having one person who knew all about that patient’s history. Lawyers can’t even summon “we save lives,” they can only carry on about “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Oh, the rallying cry of so many successful business practices, isn’t it?

If lawyers, new and experienced, started focusing on work-life balance as something just as important as money, think how the profession would change. Law firms might have to hire more attorneys, rather than getting one person to do 80 hour weeks. Gee, maybe it would even speed the demise of the billable hour system, and good riddance there.

Maybe if lawyers didn’t have to work as many hours, they might get enough rest and have time to explore non-law ideas and experiences. Then, they would have broader experiences and be able to come up with better solutions for their clients, rather than solutions that involved more inefficiency, like throwing billable hours at a problem rather than thinking it through, and engaging in pointless pissing contests with opposing counsel. Maybe they would even worry about properly training new lawyers so they could become efficient and competent more quickly. I can dream, can’t I?

You can call me crazy. I know the likelihood that law firms will buck their DNA and try any of these or other ideas for changing the way they do business will be met with screaming resistance (see Schopenhauer stage #2). All I can say is what John Wooden says: Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.

The debate over work-life balance in law is a lot like getting started with an alternative legal career search: Once you start questioning the status quo, you can see all kinds of possibilities.

So to all of you Gen Y women lawyers out there job hunting and worrying about working yourselves to death: More power to you. I hope you help the profession change for the better. I think you just might.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who completely lost her patience with law firms when she got criticized for being too creative. She coaches attorneys to help them find work that empowers them, not drains them. You can get a discounted sample coaching session to see if coaching works for you—email jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to schedule yours today.


  1. I agree and thank you!

    I can tell you I am one of those Gen Y young female childless lawyers who refused to take any job that didn’t have a good work-life balance. And I had no trouble finding a job actually. I work at a small law firm, I leave at 6pm everyday, and I don’t have a budget of billable hours that a must complete. But I even think having to stay until 6pm sucks, and have set my sites on public service jobs, where overtime is usually frowned upon and everybody is out of the office by 4:59pm sharp!

    That will affect my “career advancement” but I see it as affecting my career for the better!

    As a general observation, I think that you see this attitude more with young female lawyers, rather than their male counter-parts, because society still places more importance on a man’s career success as a measure of his desirability (ie career success for a man = more attractive to females). Whereas career success in females has little or no affect on their desirability. Therefore, the general consensus amongst my peers seems to be that, because we’re girls, there’s less pressure for us to make money – that’s what men are for! Men need to be able to support a family – women are only expected to be able to support themselves… if necessary. Therefore, females have the luxury of turning our noses up at high pressure, long hour jobs in favour of more relaxed, albeit lower paid, jobs. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

    1. She’s actually on the border between Boomer and Gen X, running a decade before me (I think).

      I’m smack in the middle of Gen X (10 years in law).

      Gen Y is just now entering BigLaw world. They also just got their heads handed to them in the BigLaw layoff crisis of 2008, so work-life for Gen Y is somewhat moot.

  2. Jennifer, Well said, and very entertaining. It’s nice to see someone make a serious point and not become ponderous or preachy in the bargain.

    As a boomer of the male persuasion, I haven’t had the opportunity to experience what being a woman lawyer means, but I do know something about the pressures involved in producing billable hours and staying on the partnership track. I think the good news is that the old model (a pyramid with a few fat cats at the top and legions of overworked, unreasonably hopeful associates at the bottom) is dying. This isn’t happening because people my age have had a moral epiphany; it’s happening because the marketplace requires it.

    The communication tools afforded by the internet (online meeting services, document sharing, etc.) and the availability of legal services for hire outside the office are combining to drive down the amount that clients are willing to pay their lawyers. This is good. Soon it won’t be possible for firms to maintain armies of sleepwalking associates because the firms won’t be able to pay the rent on the necessary office space. If young lawyers, men and women alike, can escape the physical confines of the office it will be better for everyone, including the clients.

    Well, maybe not everyone. The people at the top of the pyramid (or what used to be a pyramid) might not like it much.

    1. When I was billing hours doing patent work for a megacorp, the megacorp was into two distinct practices:
      1) Hard fee caps.
      2) Not paying bills on a timely basis.

      This was back in 2000. My billing rate went up and the fee cap didn’t move. I was stuck between billing hours at steadily increasing houly rates and a fee cap. That was fun. I actually got pretty good at that work, efficiency-wise.

      The firm I was with also solved the rent problem. They acquired the building and became the landlord.

      They also leased space to the Clerk of Court for the Court of Appeals for the state. That was kind of neat. I would get off the elevator and pass by the Clerk of Court on the way to the firm library.

  3. The bigger problem is that there ARE WAY TOO many attorneys. They have no clout; why should they; there are a godzillion of them.
    Like Mao used to say when asked but what if the battle kills millions of Chinese. No problem, he smiled—I’ve got millions more.

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