Work-Life Balance or Professionalism: Who Wins?
Two of my favorite blawgers, Niki Black at her new blawg, Women Lawyers—Back on Track, and Dan Hull at What About Clients?, are unwittingly going to head to head. It smells like a good fight.
Niki, quoting from Denise Howell's piece, On Life Support, argues that lack of work-life balance is causing massive disenchantment with the law:
It costs firms somewhere between $200,000 and $500,000 to replace attorneys who don't work out, according to Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at Hastings College of Law.
And the replacements are becoming scarce. In a recent ABA member survey, only 44 percent of respondents said they'd recommend the profession to others. The animosity doesn't stop at passive nonendorsement. Disenchanted lawyers are busy warning off the uninitiated via every channel available-chronicling the pitfalls of large firms and the profession in general.
On the other side, Dan says
Like work-life balance, lawyer "professionalism" as touted and practiced in the U.S. is an anti-client, lawyer-centric ruse which needs to die before it can be re-born. It is disingenuous and a crock. It's a license for mediocrity, cooked up and maintained by lawyers who think law is a special club for special people.
Like two freight trains traveling full speed at each other on the same track.
While Dan's approach reminds me of the movie Moonstruck, where Cher smacks the guy across the face and says, "Snap out of it," he doesn't address the flip side. In fact, he dismisses it completely. That's fine for those of us who are willing to dedicate every second of our lives to our work and clients. But I'm not clear that it's necessary to go to that extreme in order to put the client's interest first.
Being available to do everything necessary to represent a client is what I think Dan is talking about. But that may mean that when a client can't sleep at night, he's welcome to call to chat and the "professional" lawyer should be happy to hand-hold at 3:37 a.m. if it makes the client feel better. Not in my practice, pal.
Dan is right, of course, that the entire work-life balance theme is predicated upon the lawyer's needs rather than the client's. But most businesses close at some point, and the staff goes home and leaves work behind. Lawyers aren't particularly special in that regard. If anything, we're unique in our dedication to our clients beyond the 9 to 5 construct. When an arraignment comes in during the lobster shift, it has to be done. No judge sitting on the bench at 3:37 a.m. wants to hear that you're sleeping and hold the case until the morning.
But Niki brings up a point that's important to recognize:
If firms are to get serious about fostering environments of "reasonable balance," they may need to look back before they can move ahead. In the 1970s, my dad, who was a partner at a respected California firm, made sure that our family spent most of each August river rafting, and that we took some fishing trips during the rest of the year. In 1963, the ABA considered 1,300 billable hours full-time. This Kennedy-era approach and my dad's insistence on being a dad seem far more suited to the mind-set of the twenty-first century legal workforce than today's firms have yet to recognize.
There's a degree of client-centrism that's not really about the client, but about the money. Law firms just can't seem to suck enough hours out of lawyers these days to cover the cost of the new gold-plated faucets in the partners' bathroom. How many criminal defense lawyers have had the pleasure of strolling leisurely through the offices of Biglaw in Manhattan? The cost of maintaining these Taj Mahals would blow you away; the cost of keeping these big boys in redwells would sustain most criminal defense practices in hitherto unknown luxury.
I am particularly dedicated to my clients, far more so than most of them realize since they don't see the hours spent working on their cases when not in court, or pondering how to get them out of their jams when they've done everything possible to guarantee that the prison door is going slam shut on them. That's not just my job, but my quest. It's a matter of personal pride.
But not at the risk of my family. My solution is to limit my caseload to those I can address properly while still having a life. I've spent a career letting cases walk out of my office, each representing a loss of revenue that pains me when things get quiet, because taking them would make it impossible to eat dinner with my kids. But then, it's my firm and I get to make my own balance.
Niki, I think, has the better part of the argument, since lawyers working for firms have no option to call it a day when they've reached the melting point. This isn't the clergy, where we've taken an oath of obsequiousness to our masters to serve clients night and day and sustain the big boys in the lifestyle to which they're accustomed. It's not about clients, then, but about being a profit center. The expectation that lawyers should give a thousand hours more per year than their fathers pushes the envelope too far.
Serve your clients. Serve them well. But there has to be an end of the day, when even lawyers can take their uniform off and pretend that they're human beings.