Solving the Work-Life Equation
Given the overwhelming need to serve our clients, meet deadlines, do pro bono work and contribute to our profession, it is a challenge to achieve balance in our lives. Because it makes good business sense to do so, corporate and government employers increasingly are providing employees more flexible work environments that allow for better balance between work and personal commitments. Many law firms now accommodate certain serious personal needs with flextime and temporary leave policies.
The legal profession must work creatively to accommodate the intense commitment it requires to practice law and, at the same time, enjoy a personal life. Achieving such a balance helps us retain and recruit our most critical resources—talented and skilled professionals.
Stress and high attrition are well-documented in the legal profession. The support of a loving family, time for exercise, and a spiritual life can help most legal professionals deal with such challenges.
There is some evidence of a correlation between work-life balance and attrition, which a NALP study highlighted by linking decreased percentages of lawyers searching for new jobs with enhanced availability of work-life balance policies. More than 70 percent of those surveyed reported having significant problems meeting personal and health needs and finding time for family and leisure.
People should not have to choose between their careers and their well-being. That said, however, choosing a position with greater work-life flexibility will have direct economic consequences.
Changes in workplace policy, even small ones, can make major differences. Some employees benefit from compressed schedules where they work the same number of hours compressed into fewer days. Others benefit from part-time work, telecommuting, phased retirement, sabbaticals and temporary leaves to care for family. Some law firms are experimenting with allowing lawyers to work under lower billable-hour requirements at correspondingly lower salaries. Even simply creating an atmosphere open to flexibility can help, such as allowing parents to work from home as needs arise. Technology has greatly facilitated these options by allowing most office functions to be done remotely.
Men and women of all ages can benefit from work-life balance policies. Women are obvious beneficiaries, as they often bear the brunt of caregiving responsibilities. They enter private practice at the same rate as men but account for only about 16 percent of law firm partners and Fortune 500 general counsel. Among the reasons for these statistics is inflexibility—real or perceived—in client demands, parental leave and flexible work options.
But not just women or caretaker parents desire more choices. AARP studies show that 80 percent of baby boomers wish to work beyond traditional retirement years, but often more flexibly or in different capacities. With 78 million approaching retirement age, legal employers must adjust to avoid losing a wave of vast knowledge and experience by failing to offer needed options.
Most fundamentally, legal employers who enforce mandatory age-based retirement policies must stop this outright discrimination. Evaluations must be made on a case-by-case basis, applying objective, transparent criteria. In August 2007, the ABA adopted a policy rejecting mandatory age-based retirement policies. The recommendation urging this advance is worth consideration and adoption by all legal employers.
While hard work and long hours may always be a fact of life for lawyers, taking steps toward helping employees achieve work-life balance can improve attorneys’ lives and benefit employers. One size does not fit all for employers or employees, so both sides must learn to be flexible and open to policies that can be beneficial for each. Employees benefit through greater balance, and employers benefit through attraction and retention of productive, engaged and loyal talent.
Since adopting a policy to encourage alternative work options for lawyers more than a decade ago, the ABA has offered many resources to guide employers in effective implementation of such policies and help employees achieve better balance. Publications from the ABA’s Law Practice Management Section and other entities can help you enhance work-life balance for yourself and your employees. I encourage you to explore them at ababooks.com and abanet.org/lpm.
I often advise aspiring lawyers to take work seriously, but always balance work with family, friends and enjoyment of life. Doing so creates personal stability and makes one a better lawyer by providing safe havens and springboards to professional strength. These multiple obligations do not have to conflict. We must work to ensure their achievement through greater adoption of policies that allow for balance, not only on paper, but embraced through workplace culture.