Attorney Work-Life Balance and the Stalwart Worker

If you follow any legal news or law blogs, you won’t go long without another article on the concept of “work-life balance.” I try to stay out of the debate because it usually goes nowhere, but I’ve even had a post on it before.

Two recent posts inspired me to write about it again. First, the Young Lawyers’ Editorial Board at The Legal Intelligencer:

We were saddened to learn about a 32-year-old corporate associate who passed away in June of an apparent heart attack. Some commentators have suggested a connection between her premature death and her workload, which had been especially severe in the weeks immediately preceding her death. …

Yes, we are all well aware that when you were junior attorneys, you worked long, stressful hours, without complaint and without concern for your hairline, your family or your sanity. (Perhaps you also walked 15 miles each morning to law school, uphill both ways, and in snow.) We understand that the practice of law is hard, and we understand that there will be times when the work demands longer hours of uninterrupted attention.

Chest-puffing aside, this editorial is about extreme and uninterrupted workloads (don’t challenge the fact pattern). Burned-out attorneys could quickly become disaffected, unmotivated and unhealthy attorneys, with declining work product and dwindling loyalty to their employers and, possibly, clients. Such scenarios easily could be avoided through proper oversight and better staffing. (Similarly, while this editorial focuses on the other end of the spectrum, better oversight will also reveal attorneys with unusually light workloads who themselves might correspondingly be unmotivated and disaffected.)

We ask all attorneys: Are you looking out for your colleagues and friends to see whether the demands of the profession have suddenly become unmanageable and overwhelming for them? Have you noticed changes in colleagues’ behavior or demeanor? If so, what can be done about it? Mention to your overworked colleagues the changes you’ve perceived; volunteer to help on their assignments; and, if need be, mention the situation to your employers.

If you spend any time following law blogs, you already know what the reaction to that article will be. Either it’s more proof that the younger generation is full of slackers who don’t want to pay their dues, or it’s an appropriate challenge to an older generation that hasn’t delivered on its promises to grant wealth, power, and partnership after nearly a decade of all work and no play. I know plenty of 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th year associates at big law firms who still haven’t made partner not because they haven’t paid their dues but because the firm hasn’t elevated anyone to partner.

At the Harvard Business Review (via Boing Boing):

There’s an unnoticed population of employees in business today. Strangely enough, they’re also the majority. …

[D]espite the number of Stalwarts in an organization, these good, solid citizens of the organization go largely unnoticed. Few leaders think about the motivation, inclusion, and explicit career management of the solid performers. One Fortune 500 leader said, “I thought that it couldn’t be true that so many workers are systematically ignored through no fault of their own (except for the fact that they may not be politically astute or they don’t draw attention to themselves). But the more I reflected on my own company, the more I realized that I spend all my time worrying about the high performers and assume that everything is OK with everyone else.”

So what exactly is the Stalwart temperament? Perhaps the defining characteristic of Stalwarts is their aversion to calling attention to themselves — even when they need to. They are like the proverbial wheel that never squeaks — and, consequently, gets no grease. The quickest way to identify Stalwarts is to list the people who make the fewest demands on the CEO’s time. Such reserve is utterly alien to most Stars, who make sure that they squeak loudly enough to get the attention they want.

Let me explain the connection with a bad joke: what do you call a law firm where every lawyer is a star?

Dissolved.

Sure, there are a handful of firms where almost every lawyer puts in 2,500 or more billable hours a year — which for most lawyers means, after deducting a short lunch and time in the bathroom and the like, an average 11 hours at the office every weekday — but those firms are the exception. Moreover, they’re not truly firms filled with loyal star performers, they’re firms with an exceptionally high turnover rate. Many of those firms that preen about loyalty and dedication regularly have three-quarters of associates voluntarily leaving the firm, and lose partners the moment they’re offered something better.

Truth is, most of the debates over attorney work-life balance create a false dichotomy between stars and slackers. If you want to make the big bucks and handle the big cases, then you’ll need to tip the scales towards “work.” If you want to prioritize your family or your personal life, you can do that with honor and dignity and without any shame, doing the necessary for both your family and your professional as a “stalwart.” Some lawyers want lives like that, and most firms — even firms that profit most from stars — need loyal workers who can do the day-in, day-out work of the company, championing its values while refraining from internal politics. Lawyers who choose the wrong paths for themselves, and law firms that exclude stalwart workers, do so at their own peril.

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  • John Day

    We dabbled in the whole work-life balance thing in our firm several years ago and found it did not work for us. Those who worked less and were less productive expected to be paid the same -they felt they were “punished” for not working harder and being more productive.

    I now make it very clear when we interview lawyers that we only hire half-time lawyers – lawyers who will work 12 hours a day. Unless we are very busy. In which event we work more.

    Does that mean that we get a certain breed of cat? Yes. Do we find it works for us? Yes.

    That being said, I certainly have no problem with the concept that there is a place for those who seek a 9-to-5 job in the practice of law. However, I have yet to meet one who will settle for 9-to-5 pay.