Law Firms and the Time Crunch

Recently the NY Times reported in an article titled “Wall St. Shock: Take a Day off, Even a Sundaythat Bank of America Merrill Lynch has issued an internal memo to its junior analysts and associates that they should try to spend four weekend days away from the office each month as part of an effort to improve working conditions. JPMorgan Chase plans to increase its staff of junior bankers by ten percent to help spread out the workload to ensure that its young employees have one “protected weekend” set aside each month. No such “relief” is planned for more senior (and probably even harder working) employees. 

These moves by Wall Street banks are an “attempt to change the hard-charging culture of these jobs”. Most people would not think that having a mere four days or one weekend a month for personal time, as a “perk” of a job.

Working 24/7 in banking and law both on Wall Street and Bay Street has been a reality of the past twenty years. This is partly the result of technology that tethers workers to their jobs even when away from the office and partly the result of increasing global competition that demands more and more effort to stay ahead. This is exponentially magnified with the social change of having both spouses now in the workforce so that both parents now work a second shift when they come home from the office.

Not surprisingly, many lawyers (both men and women) are pushing back. Such a grueling pace leaves little time for families, personal relationships of any kind, recreation or even getting to necessary personal appointments and domestic tasks.

The CBC recently ran a documentary called “Motherload” that showed the pressures faced by mothers who have full time jobs outside the home. One of the lawyers interviewed is the daughter of former SCC Justice Louise Arbour and a prosecutor for the Justice Department.

The documentary observes that the number of women moving into senior positions in business and law has stalled for the last ten years. After making steady progress when women started entering the professions and business in the 1970s, the numbers have been largely flat for the past decade. This is especially true for law firm partnerships where women partners have plateaued around 17% for equity partners and 23% for income partners.

However, it’s not just the business and legal world that has changed. The expectations of motherhood have dramatically changed as well. The documentary notes that women now bring the same level of professionalism to motherhood that they bring to their jobs. They are a different kind of mother than many of their own mothers were. Mothers working outside the home today spend more time with their children than at-home mothers did in the 1960s.

In a more competitive world, children are enrolled in many more after-school and weekend programs and parents spend much more time assisting with homework than their mothers ever did. Children are driven everywhere including to school and parents are constantly juggling who attends the two weekend soccer tournaments plus the dance performance; who helps with the science project and who researches and registers the children in the programs needed to cover spring break and the long summer months while the parents are at work. Statistics show that it is still primarily mothers who add these activities onto their already busy workweeks.

Many women lawyers (and increasingly male lawyers) want their law firms to provide some relief through more flexible work arrangements to allow them to stay in the law and have time for their families. While many corporations are adopting a range of alternate work arrangements as both a retention tool and to have more engaged and productive employees, law firms are very slow to adopt similar arrangements.

The challenge lies in the nature of partnership. Whereas a corporation can bring in diversity policies or more flexible work arrangements without the consensus of all of its managers, partnerships are made up of individual owners with no hierarchical management structure.

A managing partner has no authority to make firm wide changes without the consent of the majority of the partners. One powerful partner (especially a significant rainmaker) can obstruct any change that the managing partner wishes to make, if that partner thinks it will negatively impact his or her practice or income. Partnerships are not structured like corporations where the CEO can, like Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek, simply say to his colleagues “Make it so”.

The organizational structure of partnerships combined with the small number of women equity partners (who are usually not members of the management committee) make the wide scale adoption of more flexible work arrangements still many years off.

Law firms will eventually change as more men and more partners (especially those over 60 who want to dial down the pace of their practice) look for some relief from a pace of work that is escalating for some to eliminate almost all personal time. New models for organizing firms as well as the profitable adoption of alternate work arrangements will one day be more common. But in Canada, at least, it is still many years off.


  1. Surely the barrier to more flexible work time in a partnership is not just that some hard-working or high-earning or old-fashioned senior partner does not want change. The nature of earnings is radically different from that of an employee in a corporation, too. As an employee, my earnings are not affected by the earnings or working hours of my colleague in the next office. As a partner sharing profits, my earnings are affected if my partner – or my employees – take time off and earn less for the firm (for me).

    So a partnership has to figure out what impact time off has on everyone’s earnings. Ultimately, in a civilized or even sustainable model, everyone should figure out that the colllective good is maximized by reasonable flexibility for lifestyle choices. But one understands that the single and childless partner may not be enthusiastic about what he (or maybe she) will see as subsidizing the different choices made by others in the firm.

    How does the ‘right’ answer get imposed on a group of partners? Must we await a change of culture? Is the culture changing in that direction?