Work-Life Balance, Explained


We lawyers are a pretty messed-up bunch—more emotionally and psychologically messed-up than the mean. We suffer from higher incidences of alcoholism, drug abuse, and depression than the general population.

The lawyer whose career is his whole life, who defines himself in terms of his prowess as a lawyer, is in for disappointment and trouble. Because if you are your successes, then when a case doesn’t end as hoped, you are the failure. A common sequel: the fruitless search for fulfillment in ultimately self-destructive behavior.

The lawyer who can strike a healthy balance between clients and family, between career and avocation, between work and life is going to be happier and more fulfilled than the lawyer whose personal life is in smoking rubble because of his monomaniacal fixation on being Lawyer. In other words, a lawyer is a better lawyer when he is happier and more fulfilled.

That lawyers should seek work-life balance is damn near a no-brainer. So much so that even curmudgeon Scott agrees: there has to be an end of the day, when even lawyers can take their uniform off and pretend that they’re [or be?] human beings. We can accomplish much greater balance in life without sacrificing or shifting our lives onto the backs of our clients if only the business of lawyers comes to grips with a changing attitude toward how we service our clients.

If we had jobs rather than vocations—if, for example, we worked in offices counting widgets or with Thomas DiCicco in a Boca boiler room lying to people—there would be nothing at work competing with our responsibility to take care of  our families. We could arrive at work at 8:00, have an hour to ourselves for lunch, cut out at 5:00 and leave the job behind. Work-life balance would be easy.

But as criminal-defense lawyers, we have people other than our families to take care of and protect, and protecting them is not just an 8-to-5 job. By its terms, “work-life balance” recognizes that each—work, life—has some weight. It doesn’t—can’t—mean sacrificing our clients’ lives for the sake of our own. The work will conflict with life. The criminal-defense contract, at least implicitly, is this: “You’re entrusting your future to me, and maybe paying me a bit. In exchange, I’ll give up some of my life, dedicate my time and my energy to trying to preserve yours.”

When we’re in trial the clash is most obvious: we work 16- or 18-hour days, and our families cope. Even when we’re not in trial, though, clients’ problems don’t keep bankers’ hours.

Still, even the accused benefit from balance because balance is essential to creativity. If our clients need our creativity (they do), they can’t afford for us to bill 2300+ hours a year (sleep less), spend every waking hour at our desks (exercise less), and eat at the office (eat worse), all of which are crushing to creativity.

(If creativity isn’t in your lawyerly toolkit, if you buy railroad-lawyer Lincoln’s saw about your advice and your time being your stock in trade, then go ahead and work yourself like a sugar house mule. It probably doesn’t matter that your wife is sleeping with the gardener, your kids don’t remember your face, and your dog growls at you when you get home at night, none of which should surprise you when your work-life balance scale tips too far over to the work side.)

Dan Hull, who to his credit knows his way around self-destructive behavior, says that work-life balance is a dumb-ass issue.

How’s that?

Dan is not writing to criminal defense privateers, but to young lawyers seeking jobs:

Someone has done you a disservice if you believe employers exist to serve you–and to make you happy. We exist for customers and clients. We will train you–and work very hard to do that. . . . But “work-life” balance is “your” problem–not our firm’s or mine. Each one of us creates our quality of life as we learn to be lawyers, develop standards, hold hard to those standards every day, and attend to the main event: clients. . . . If you are a job-hunting student or young lawyer expecting our firm to support a regime of work-life harmony, please try another shop. That is always your problem.

Law firms don’t exist to make lawyers feel fulfilled; they exist to serve clients . . . and to make money for partners (n’est-ce pas, Dan?). Firms hire young lawyers, invest in their training and development, and get as much return as they can squeeze from their investment. Every hour an associate can work is worth more money to the firm than to the associate. That’s the way the system works, and it’s part of the greatest wealth-creation engine in history: capitalism.

If you want a system where young lawyers give what they are able and get what they need, look elsewhere, and good luck to you. To a firm, associates aren’t just labor; they are also the means of production, like the mules in the mill, and the firm is entitled to do what it wants with the means of production. If you want to participate in the system (for a little money now and the possibility of controlling your own means of production later), you give up control over your a not-insubstantial chunk of your life to those who are willing to feed and house (“pay”) and train you. That’s the law firm deal.

Is that what the deal should be? Wouldn’t the mules in the mill work better if they were happier?

Here’s news for the slackeoisie: you did not invent this question. Lawyers running law firms have sought and found the point of diminishing return, at which the cost to them of giving you more control over your lives is no longer justified by the benefit of your being more balanced lawyers. They will allow you work-life balance right up to that point, and no further.

Don’t like it? Unlike the other mules, you’re always free to leave the mill.


0 responses to “Work-Life Balance, Explained”

  1. Ah, my earlier, more nuanced writings on work/life balance. It was an abject failure, the slackoisie taking from it only what served their self-interest and ignoring the inconvenient parts.

    I wish you better success with your nuanced effort. Perhaps after a good bludgeoning, they will be appreciate your scalpel.

  2. I’d love to meet a person who said, “You know, I enjoy my free time. So I’ll work just hard enough to pay my bills.” Be like the protagonist in office space. Show up. Do just enough not to get fired. Enjoy your many evenings and weekends off.

    There are plenty of 9-5 jobs paying a living wage. Leaves you lots of time for a life. Heck, be a teacher. Five figures, banker’s hours, and summers off.

    It’s wanting – nay, feeling entitled to – high income and high free time that gets on my nerves. That’s why the entire discussion is tiresome and lame.

    “I want to earn hundreds-of-thousands of dollars while not working hard.” <— That, ultimately, is what the work-life people are saying. Why should anyone take such childish assertions seriously?

  3. I think you’d be surprised at the hours teachers put in. At least high school teachers. Early elementary might be different though.

    And even the summers off bit isn’t as good as it might seem after the continuing education requirements are taken into account.

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