I am totally exhausted after a day involving a chambers application, client meetings, attempting to settle a high conflict matter likely headed to litigation despite all efforts and then coming home to two children under four with a husband out of town. And, Monday is my day to post on Slaw …
Which leads to me to a little rumination on the ethereal promise of work life balance in the context of private practice law. I am with Jordan Furlong, whom I met coincidentally for the first time in person at a CBA Work Life Balance function, that we are in a post work life balance era. Any private practice lawyer with a full practice knows the all consuming nature of the job – juggling multiple client matters, advocating for people at often the worst times of their lives, working to fix or prevent very serious problems, keeping up to date with ever evolving law and practice, marketing, managing staff, managing finances etc. Many lawyers also have a deep commitment to public service and donate many hours to pro bono matters, serving on boards, mentoring young lawyers and volunteering in their communities.
The ability to “balance” those professional demands with health goals and family time is an ever present balancing act of compromise and second guessing. Which leads me to acknowledging the elephant in the room that often the work life balance issues come up in the context of working mothers. It’s not a coincidence that only 29% of lawyers in full-time private practice in BC are women. I can personally attest that there is nothing more sobering than playing with your toddler on a sandy beach on a sunny Sunday morning, and he picks up the pail like a briefcase, walks the other way and says “Mummy goes to work.”
Nicole Howell of Hamilton Howell said it very well at the recent “great debate” CBA event on work life balance: it’s all about choices. Law is a consuming profession and income is often directly linked to hours put in. Individual lawyers have their own sense of what is important to them, and they have professional choices to make as a result. They can choose to work at larger, traditional firms which have a business model that requires a certain amount of billable fees earned each year per lawyer to remain profitable. Lawyers can choose to work at smaller or more innovative firms which may have lesser or more flexible requirements. The extra or flex time could be used for parenting, to do a PhD or to travel the world. Lawyers can choose in house positions, government or to leave practice entirely. There will be financial consequences to these decisions, for better or worse.
Concurrent with this debate, business pressures on the traditional law firm model are increasing. Younger (often Gen Y) associates, both male and female, are increasingly less interested in committing to significant hourly targets. Clients are increasingly pushing back on paying high hourly rates to subsidize expensive real estate and training for junior associates. Innovative firms are using strategies such as virtual offices, value pricing, document automation and online legal services to erode the traditional law firm client base.
I suspect the “work life balance” debate in law will eventually subside as more law firms are forced to innovate to stay competitive and profitable. More flexible arrangements will be offered to retain scarce and valuable talent. Instead of the lawyers advocating for it, law firm employers will be leading the charge to attract and retain their most valuable asset: their people. Like today, it will be up to individual lawyers themselves to decide what balance means to them and then make it happen. They will just have more choices available to them.