The “W” Word

I billed 2,400 hours last year because I have the perfect work-life balance.

Since its adoption into mainstream North American vocabulary in 1986, the term “work-life balance” has caused hypertension in and the impression of decreased work-ethic by senior lawyers and firm managers. Its use by an applicant in an interview is usually fatal. Yet firms spend thousands of hours and dollars seeking the Holy Grail for law firm management: equilibrium between “work-life balance” and business interests. Why? Because “work-life balance” equates to associate retention.

With all the focus on work-life balance, why have so few managed to achieve the Holy Grail? It’s simple. Firms don’t know what the term means.

In the eyes of many senior lawyers, “work-life balance” means an entitlement to a reduction in the time spent working and an increase in the time spent playing. It means shorter work days, less time at the office, reduced work ethic, and more time spent on touchy-feely things like sensitivity training and team building exercises. Simply put, it equates to accepting lower profits for the benefit of employees’ personal lives. It’s understandable how such an interpretation would generate feelings of repugnance and disappointment in senior lawyers. After all, in their minds, they worked longer hours, for less pay, and spent less time with their families than most junior associates. Why should they now pay for employees to have a personal life that they were never afforded themselves? They are wrong.

“Work-life balance” simply means control.

Despite the broad misinterpretation of the “w-word”, the new generation of lawyers are not lacking in work ethic and ambition. Both are required to get into law school, through law school, through articling and into jobs in the legal community. Work ethic does not disappear when a lawyer is called to the bar. However, the new generation is facing different challenges than their predecessors due to increased cost of living and the technology-induced demand for 24/7 availability to work. Such challenges necessitate transferring certain amounts of control from the firm to individual associates.

Specifically, “work-life balance” means control over where you work, when you work, how you work, and how your career develops. It means senior lawyers trust associates to get the job done and do it effectively. It means setting goals for associates and allowing them to control how to achieve them. It means “work life integration”.

The Holy Grail can easily be achieved with just a few changes to firm management that benefit both the associates and the firm:

  • Allow associates the freedom to work where they want to work. Such flexibility provides associates with the control to determine their most effective work habits and location. With standard technology in law firms, associates can work just as easily from anywhere with an internet connection and cellular reception as they can from the office. In fact, the vast majority of work-related conversations with co-workers and clients now take place via email or teleconference. As long as associates are available, their physical location is usually irrelevant to the profit of the firm;
  • Allow associates the freedom to work when they want to work. In today’s economy, a double income for a family is often a requisite rather than a choice. With both parents working, the responsibility for children, household chores, etc. is shared. Often such responsibilities are required between 8:00am and 6:30pm, when lawyers are expected to be working. Furthermore, the majority of associates live further from where they work than their senior counterparts. Commuting with rush hour traffic can mean the loss of two or more hours of productivity from a day. From the perspective of the firm, that’s a loss of two or more billable hours a day. Moreover, it is well-recognized that modern technology has led to an expectation that all lawyers will be available to clients and co-workers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, whether the lawyer is “working” or not. In fact, most lawyers who negotiate reduced work weeks find that their actual working hours do not decrease – they just work at different times than they used to. When lawyers have the freedom to determine when they work, they can manage other personal obligations in tandem with work obligations. Similarly, the freedom to more effectively manage hours of the day increases the potential work hours for the lawyer;
  • Set a bottom line for associates. To ensure associates remain profitable, inform associates of the specific numbers that must be achieved to maintain their employment, receive their salary, and keep their superiors content. Make it clear to associates that control comes with responsibility: work product and client satisfaction cannot be compromised;
  • Provide regular statistical status reports for associates. For example, a monthly report showing each associate their hours for the month, the year to date, and their projected annual billing provides a gentle reminder of the bottom line, and enables associates to manage their time over the year and not just over the day;
  • Provide associates with a pro-rata incentive for exceeding their bottom line. This way, when an associate exceeds expectations, both the firm and the associate profit, and they profit in an amounts directly correlated to one another; and
  • Most importantly, trust must be earned by associates and acknowledged by firms. When associates are trusted, standard policies that limit associates’ freedom will not be required. Standard policies tend to be applied to the masses but only needed to manage the minority. As a result, the masses feel micromanaged and controlled rather than trusted and respected.

The above changes will not increase costs for firms. To the contrary, costs may be reduced by reducing overhead, increasing retention and increasing productivity.

Last year I billed 2,400 hours. That was my choice. I controlled when, where and how I wanted to work. I chose to invest in my career and my income. I also planned my wedding and took 5 weeks of vacation. I have the perfect work-life balance.

By Kate Saunders 

Kate Saunders is a Board member of the Legal Profession Assistance Conference


  1. As a junior associate, I think my idea of “work-life balance” was exactly the kind that the partners don’t want to hear about: I wanted to spend less time working and more time playing (I wasn’t as worried about team-building or sensitivity training). Being given the power to work 70 hour a week from the location of my choosing wouldn’t have impressed me, because it wouldn’t have changed the fact that I was still being expected to work 70 hours a week.

    Which is why it’s probably for the best that me and the legal profession have parted ways.

  2. Thanks for your article – it’s great. Just a few thoughts to throw in the hopper:

    first: your conversation suggests this is an associate issue, which it is, but it’s also a lawyer-at-every-stage-of-their-career issue, equally applicable to partners and of counsel and others. Let’s make sure that everyone understands the concepts because they’re equally beneficial for all.

    second: I agree with the idea of establishing metrics that allow folks to demonstrate their value beyond “how many hours were you in the office last week?”. I’d pull some additional detail from your article to adding a bit more on a metric for flexible work that nothing to do with hours at all … For employees I’ve supervised with flexible work options, we simply shifted our focus away from office hours/time and toward articulating and delivering the results or outcomes I wanted them to provide: so, for instance, at the beginning of the week, I’d say: I need x, y and z, provided in this fashion, by Friday. They either agreed, or pushed back if I was asking for something they were not equipped to deliver for whatever reason. But once we agreed, off they went, and I no longer cared if I was able to document how many hours it took them or where the employee was. If they turned in what I’d ask for on time and as requested, I had the only proof I needed that they were contributing excellent value. I also in many cases had the proof to demonstrate that they were delivering more than the matyrs slaving in the office but not accomplishing as much. And a nice side benefit is that this shift in thinking makes “pricing” their work to clients easier and more consistent, since we’d defined the product and they were encouraged to work as efficiently and effectively as they could. They didn’t get rewarded or paid more for spending more time on a matter, and we began to copy their work process and ask others in the office to implement it. Isn’t it much better for everyone when we’re judged by the result we delivered rather than the amount of activity we’re generating? But this requires follow through – you have to start billing and compensating based on performance to defined results, and not just on the timesheet, too.

    Debra Epstein Henry has a great book out on these topics that may be of interest to those who want to dive deeper – it’s called “Law and (Re)Order.”

  3. I commend Ms Saunders for tackling what remains a challenge in our profession – finding the right balance, on an individual basis, between hours spent in pursuit of our profession and hours spent on our other pursuits.

    I also commend her for taking 5 weeks of holidays in the course of the year described – that is quite a feat.

    But, I am troubled by this piece for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that I just cannot work out the math. Billing 2400 hours in 47 weeks is possible, to be sure, but challenging and allows little time for other necessary professional pursuits such as continuing education and office administration, not to mention participation in professional associations and volunteering.

    I am even more troubled by the focus on billable hours in both the personal story related and the advice to associates (and firms). While the billable hour may still rule in the author’s firm, it is certainly a measure that tells us little about either quality of work or productivity and, increasingly, is being called into question by clients.

    Finally, I find it concerning that this version of a balanced life is presented on behalf of the Lawyers Professional Assistance Conference. I’ll concede that each of us has a different view of balance, and that what looks like balance in one’s 20s or 30s may no longer seem so in later years. But LPAC itself recommends, in its Model Work Guidelines for Young Lawyers ( no more than 50 hours of work per week as a maximum.