Balance, Schmalance

donkey's life

My search for inspiring images illustrating the concept of work-life balance finally led me to this wonderful photograph.  This donkey does not have balance.  And it’s really not his fault.  He didn’t load the cart.

By contrast, we load our own cart—don’t we?

And yet, my observation of many lawyers and law students is that they don’t have the sense of self-determination and agency that one might expect of those in a “powerful” profession like the law.  They don’t feel like they load their own cart.  Rather, their cart is loaded by professors, partners and senior partners; by pervasive competition; by the demands of the billable hour.

This is quite shocking if you stop to think about it.  Many of us choose to attend law school and become professionals at least in part to achieve a sense of personal power.  For some it is the power to earn money, for others the power to command respect, and for others the power to help people.  These are all forms of personal power that require some sense of individual efficacy in the world.  And yet so many of us end up feeling powerless in the face of the demands of our chosen career.

This sense of powerlessness is the opposite of what Prof. Krieger refers to as the universal human need for autonomy and authenticity: the ability to “make preferred choices based on true values/interests,” to “express a true self,” to maintain one’s integrity.

And a sense of powerlessness is a short path to persistent stress and depression.

What are the qualities of our education and profession that make use feel powerless?  I believe one answer lies in the misdirected concept of work-life balance.

*          *          *

In a recent post to the blog “Adam Smith Esq.,” author Bruce MacEwan observes—I am sure correctly—that the goal of work-life balance is “so last August,” that is, so pre-recession.  This is because discussion of and interest in work-life balance “waxes and wanes in synch with demand and supply in the lawyer talent market.”

MacEwan defines work-life balance, or its absence, as follows:

It’s merely the sense that the demands of the profession have gotten out of whack with the rewards.  You can solve for this inequality either by finding greater rewards in your professional pursuits–but there’s no handy or obvious volume knob that adjusts your reward level, and it’s usually a long and extended process of introspection and, more than anything, trial and error, to attain that blissful state–or you can decrease the demands so as to align them with the rewards.  WLB was, for better or worse, always assumed to mean the latter.  And in fairness we know how to achieve the latter:  Basically, work fewer hours and/or less intensely while you do.

I think this aptly demonstrates a primary assumption underlying the work-life balance question: that whether we have work-life balance is not within our control.  If it is under our control, it is to the limited extent that one can choose to not work as long or as hard, but (1) this is difficult to achieve in a profession where productivity is assessed by the perverse measure of billable hours, and (2) within this framework, reducing one’s hours is likely to even further decrease the monetary and possibly the other rewards of employment—like respect from our peers, access to the most interesting cases, etc.

Further, MacEwan rightly points to the fact that ultimately, it is the economy, the market, the invisible hand of supply and demand that determines whether the question of work-life balance is even on the table.  This is quite dispiriting.

*          *          *

Yes!  Work and life successfully balanced!

Yes! Work and life successfully balanced!

I think we need to re-frame the question. The very term “work-life balance” puts “work” on the same footing as “life”—and it also places “work” in opposition to “life.”  Work is a part of life.  It need not be a small part.  But it should be an expression of life—that is, an expression of inherent values and goals.

The first value of work is as a means of earning a living; providing for one’s own basic needs and the needs of one’s family.  Even with the staggering cost of law school, this is still achievable for young attorneys.  (Although many might be surprised to discover that, in light of their indebtedness, their standard of living is not significantly improved despite obtaining their JD.  Well, I was surprised to discover this, at any rate.)

Once this first value is secured, what are the other values that follow?  Who defines them?

These are difficult questions to answer.  But I don’t think the answer lies in simply learning to live with the beast, and trying to do the rest of your life on the side.  The beast always wants more of you, and if you don’t give it, there will always be some implication of failure.

As progressive, sensitive individuals (and also individuals with quite a sense of entitlement), we laud the goal of achieving a work-life balance.  But it’s not what the profession really wants.  And by this I don’t mean its individual practitioners, but the financial structure of the practice of law in a private setting.  Because time is money, the profession always wants more of our time and the notion of “work-life balance” is reduced to a recruiting tool that is quickly abandoned when supply of lawyer talent exceeds the demand for it.  It was a hollow promise in the first place, and if you’re graduating in this economy—forget about it.

It’s difficult to believe that this is the brass ring we’re all lunging after.

*          *          *

The hyphen elides the relationship: we really think of it as work versus life.  Rather than living with an idea and experience of work that is constantly challenging and eroding our ability to live life, and interrogating only the extent to which the two are “balanced,” our time would be better spent interrogating the values of that work, and empowering ourselves and others to shape our profession in our own image.

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6 responses to “Balance, Schmalance

  1. I think that if you love what you do, it becomes an intricate part of your life. I think “life,” described in this context pertains to things you “want to do” or “get excited about doing.” Things such as golfing, traveling, etc. If you have that same passion about the law (especially the area you focus your practice in), then work, too, will be something that you cannot get enough of, and want to constantly keep thriving at it.

    I also believe that measures can and should be taken by bosses/managing partners to better work enviornments. Ultimately, a company will not succeed in the long run without engaged employees. I have found that communication and genuine care are great motivators. If an employee believes that the work they do contributes to something and they have value, as a person and an employee, that employee will work so much harder for the collective goal. Unfortunately, what I have seen, is that power promotes secrecy and the “I am able to show my power and authority because I know more about the inner workings of this company than anyone else” prevails. A lack of communication promotes a sense of mediocrity…which never leads to maximum output or results.

    If management (in most companies) did a better job noticing the little things in their employees and made a point to reward strengths, even if it is just a pat on the back, employees will tend to work harder because they do not feel like just a cog in the machine.

    • A great set of points. I personally have seen law firms make many management decisions that demoralize their employees—attorneys and staff alike. It’s somewhat baffling.

  2. I love the first picture. A friend of mine sent it to me several years ago. Last year when she asked me how law school was going I drew a reference to that very image.

    -I’m glad I wasn’t the only one seeing uncanny similarities between a “tanga”–an animal drawn cart– and professional school.

    • It’s wonderful when an image can convey what we are thinking or feeling better than words. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Sorry for getting to this a bit late, but I think that MacEwan has provided a particularly poor definition of work/life balance, thus creating more than a bit of a straw man argument.

    Initially, the problem isn’t a big firm issue per se, thus removing the taint of billable hours and all the nasty attributes of Biglaw. But if it was, then the answer is quite simple. If you aren’t inclined to fulfill the duties of your employer, find another employer who offers duties more suited to your expectations. Not everybody belongs in Biglaw, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But you can’t enjoy the paycheck and eschew the demands of the job.

    But more to the definition, the problem is that lawyers can’t decide for themselves when they feel like working and when they feel like leaving the office for happy hour. They have obligations to clients, and those obligations don’t terminate because the lawyer would rather go home early and enjoy life.

    To suggest that it’s left to each individual lawyer to define the parameters of their obligation as a lawyer toward a client by what makes the lawyer feel happier is to ignore what lawyers are and do. For most lawyers, there are positions that would suit their needs and lifestyle fairly well, but they don’t want those positions because the pay and prestige are poor. That’s the consequences of their desire to work according to their lifestyle choice. Or put another way, that’s life.

    • Hi shg – as always, thanks for your comment. I know you won’t let us take the easy way out on any of this.

      You are correct to point out that there is no one definition of work-life balance, and the challenges facing lawyers at Biglaw are different that the challenges facing public defenders, which are different again than the challenges facing sole practitioners.

      You emphasize a lawyer’s obligation to his or her clients, and that is absolutely THE critical obligation of the profession that we must all honor and obey. What I am suggesting is that there are other obligations—for example, meeting the profit needs and financial structure of private practice—that interfere not only with individual well-being, but with quality of performance and client service.

      For example, in my experience in for-profit practice settings, there is no incentive for senior lawyers to mentor and guide junior lawyers, and so very little mentoring happens. And I think this puts clients—as well as those junior lawyers themeselves—at risk.

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