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Need life be a pressure cooker?

15 March 10

The need to take work-life balance seriously, as business picks up and demands on fee earners increase

by Hilary Tilby

Tyresse Horne was at the airport waiting to board a flight to London for the weekend when she received a message from the law firm where she works in New York, saying that she was needed there that weekend. So she left the airport and went back to the office. The incident wasn’t too unusual for Horne, a sixth-year associate, who averages a 16-hour workday, plus another 15 to 20 hours on weekends. She said finding time for a life outside law poses a challenge: “People just treat you like a machine. If you didn’t feel like you were in a pressure cooker all the time, the work would be enjoyable.”

She isn’t alone in the “pressure cooker”. At large law firms, both in the USA and the UK, the typical lawyer bills between 2,200-2,300 hours a year. Combine that with the other commitments, like pro bono work and client speaking engagements, and you’ve got a group of professionals stretched to the limit in trying to fulfill their lawyer duties whilst remaining whole, sane people. “There are demands for more time than a person can put in”, said Debora de Hoyos, managing partner at Mayer, Brown, Rowe and Maw in Chicago. “Time is the scarcest resource.”

In the medium to small size firms, more and more non-fee earning tasks are having to be shared amongst partners, or borne alone, if a firm is to remain competitive: marketing, client care, personnel, strategic planning. All requirements of the modern practice, but not tasks for which a lawyer is traditionally trained.

Generation challenge

Blame it on billable hours, demanding clients or the tethering force of technology, there is no doubt that the demands that legal practice is making on individuals to devote more and more of their time to work are becoming a concern within the profession. The number of suicides amongst high striving lawyers in the last couple of years in the UK has been well documented in the press, and in Oklahoma, for example, since the beginning of 2006 one lawyer a month has been lost to suicide.

The stressful nature of the legal profession presents a major challenge for achieving a work-life balance, especially when these days, technology allows lawyers to bring their work home with them, in a literal sense. Whilst this can help reduce the time spent in the office, it can make it harder for lawyers to stop working at all. Blackberries have earned the nickname “crackberries” in some law firms because they are so addictive that some lawyers have a hard time putting them down.

Bruce Tulgan, founder of the New Haven, Connecticut based management consulting company Rainmaker Thinking, Inc, spent the decade from 1993 to 2003 studying the workplace in light of generational dynamics. In the executive summary of his study, Generational Shift: What We Saw at the Workplace Revolution, Tulgan points out a greater desire for work-life balance among members of Generation X (born 1965-77) and Generation Y (born 1978-89), compared with those of earlier generations. That sentiment is reflected among today’s young lawyers.

Cases on file

Looking at 18 months of LawCare case files, considering only those who complained of unhappiness in their firms to the extent of leaving that firm, or even the whole profession, 75% of the cases related to assistant solicitors who were not coping with the demands being made on them and the pressure they were under, with 81% complaining of bullying and 80% of lack of support and supervision. Further, 77% complained of poor working relationships in their firms and 74% said that they were considering leaving as a result.

There is no easy answer to the work-life balance. The clients’ needs and demands still have to be met, perhaps even more so than in the past due to fierce competition for their work and decreased client loyalty. Thus, whilst flexible and part time working may seem a panacea to the work-life balance conundrum, in some firms there can be a stigma attached to working part time in a career that tends to measure value by the number of hours billed. In her 2001 report on a study of work-life programmes in Washington, DC, Joan Williams related the case of a couple of part-timers at a Washington firm who would signal an “L” on their foreheads when they saw each other in the firm’s library. The action indicated how they were made to feel at the firm – like losers – because of their reduced-hour status. “Many at law firms who think they’ve solved the problem, sadly, have not”, Williams said.

There is also the problem that many lawyers working a four day week ending up doing just as much work as before – they simply do five days’ work in four, often without being compensated for the extra time they put in. “Your clients don’t see you as a part time lawyer. You still have to be available to your clients 100% of the time.”

The demands of young, up and coming lawyers will drive change. The more that firms realise they can’t afford to lose their lifeblood and future partners, the more they’ll make reduced hours a priority. Also, as the marketplace demands more gender diversity in firms, employers will have to attract the lawyers they want by gaining reputations as places that offer the chance for work-life balance. It’s just going to take time for the industry to learn that it can change the way it does business.

  • Hilary Tilby is chief executive of LawCare
  • LawCare’s free and confidential helpline is available from 9am to 7.30pm on weekdays, 10am to 4pm at weekends. The number to call is 0800 279 6869. There is also a comprehensive website at www.lawcare.org.uk.
  • With grateful thanks to Francesca Jarosz and the ABA

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