It would be hypocritical for the legal media to complain about the lack of serious debate on work/life balance but since no-one got into this game to be consistent, we will not let that stop us. Attempting to make up for lost time this month with a focus on quality of life, the core question is how can the profession help its staff make work more rewarding and achieve some measure of balance in their lives?
The profession is already well in the initiative phase, in the last five years launching all manner of worthy programmes on work/life balance, wellbeing and stress. That is better than nothing but the track record on retaining female lawyers shows that platitudes can go on for decades without impacting realities on the ground.
But then the profession is navigating without a map here. If readers want to see mind-numbing debates over the ideal compensation model of a law firm or the appropriate balance of modern deal finance practice, they will be well served. Substantive discussion on what is appropriate and realistic on a new deal for Millennial lawyers, not so much.
Clearly there are wider forces at play here with the transformation of the City from club to interconnected always-on culture blurring the lines between office and life and ramping up working hours. Likewise, law firms, in their ceaseless efforts to hike charge-out rates, implicitly locked themselves into a dynamic where the clients took them at their 24/7 word and expected immediate turnaround as part of the deal for sky-high bills. On the other hand, in-house legal teams have increasingly chosen in recent years to have their cake and eat it by stressing their progressive values and expectation that external counsel are not beasting their teams… until they need their work done.
Law firms for their part may want to consider what are the points of diminishing economic returns before the productivity of associates, partners and staff fall off a cliff. Is it 50 hours a week? 60 hours? Is it economically better to expect brutal weekly hours but give longer holidays to recharge in between? Few in the legal profession has given it serious thought or analysis. Conversely, what are the truisms of the work/life debate that are – how to put this – cobblers? Because the chances are that some measures are really effective while others are really not. And that distinction would be handy to know.
Where some of these issues are seriously debated, there would be more chance of a defined set of expectations that law firms could give to staff and partners about what the deal is on this career and how it fits in with their lives.
It would be good for the profession to be pragmatic about that debate. The interests of owners, staff and clients are not always aligned – being honest about that and focusing your efforts on the win/win situations that benefit all sides is a more realistic prospect for success than pretending to soon-to-be-disillusioned staff that you will fit a square peg in a round hole.
But with the hourly rate losing its grip, technology and alternative providers offering fresh models and junior lawyers wanting a new deal, it is hard to imagine a better time to get talking and thinking. Law firms love to show off their new kit in tech and offshoring. Well, for the foreseeable future, they are still intensely people businesses. Until that changes, imaginative thinking about those people will have more impact than anything else.
For more coverage, please read The quality of life report