Caroline Conway

Seeking A Just Balance: Law Students Weigh In On Work and Family

A Better Balance: The Work & Family Legal Center is publishing a study, Seeking A Just Balance: Law Students Weigh In On Work and Family.  The study is a survey of NYU law students and their expectations around work/life balance.  Generation-Y lawyers – American men and women born between 1978 and 1998 – are extremely worried about these issues and are willing to trade money for time.  

The demand for work/life balance is greater among both men and women than in the past.  Family life is a high priority for today’s young attorneys, and they do not want to make the same sacrifices for their careers as their parents did.  It’s not about the money anymore, but about the big picture in their lives.

The study found that as firms have competed for talent over the last ten years, salaries have increased exponentially.  The result of that is an increased expectation of availability and billable hour requirements.  They offer “lifestyle perks” designed to keep people at work instead of flexible time that would allow workers to be with their families.  Up-and-coming lawyers would rather trade money for more personal time, and will leave for a pay-cut if the result is less time at work.  Many respondents commented on how the private sector works attorneys to death, and that if they are required to put in 80 hour work weeks or stay until others leave so that there is face time, they will leave the firm.

This is not a new trend, but represents a shift in cultural values in Generation Y. 

Highlights of the study’s findings include these statistics:

  • More than 70% of both men and women stated that they are very or extremely worried about whether they will be able to achieve a satisfying career and family life.
  • Eight out of ten respondents are willing to trade money for time.  Women felt more strongly about this than men, at 87% compared to 78%. 
  • Seven out of ten respondents expect to make career sacrifices in order to have a satisfying personal life, but women were more concerned than men about how those decisions will affect their careers. 
  • Half of female respondents are concerned about diversity of partnership, and 19% of male respondents shared that concern to the same degree. 
  • Women expressed much more concern than men about specific workplace policies on work/life balance and the impact of taking advantage of them. 

Intellectual challenge was also a top concern revealed in the study for both men and women, and was of a higher concern than income, prestige and high profile work.  Male and female respondents both would prefer to be judged based on the quality of their work than on the hours put in.

Other fields have made progress in recent years in addressing work/life balance to meet the demands of workers, but the legal profession lags behind.  Some firms are experimenting with changes, doing away with the billable hour model or modifying it so that the path to partnership is slower and with less pay.  Respondents were skeptical of firms with some of the policies reflecting change, questioning the reality of the options. 

The skepticism is not unfounded, as a study of over 1,500 firms and law offices nationwide revealed that only 5.4% of attorneys worked reduced hours in 2007, and 75% of them were women.  It would serve firms well to continue making these changes, as it would reduce attrition, increase the number of happy and productive lawyers, and appease clients who would prefer to have well-rested attorneys.    

The comments of male respondents reflect a reliance on increasing numbers of women entering the legal profession to enact change, not realizing the fact that there have been high numbers of women attorneys for years with little impact on these issues in the workplace.  Female respondents discussed resolving the conflict on an individual level, relying on supportive spouses.  Both men and women recognize the need for a cultural shift and pressure to enact real change, but there is a disconnect between that view and each of their anticipated resolutions.

Ultimately both male and female respondents stated a desire to have more control over their lives.  They want to be able to control how much time they spend at work and how they do the work.  They want it to be challenging and meaningful, and they want to be able to do it in a flexible way that allows for personal and family time.  Women are concerned about the practicalities involved in these types of policies, but both men and women are very concerned about having the freedom to make these kinds of choices. 

The report can be found at  New York Lawyer also has an article entitled “The Daddy Track” about the study that can be found at



Susan Cartier Liebel has a very well written post up about the millenial generation and the business case for accomodating them.  She also predicts that their attitudes towards work will lead to more of them hanging their shingle as solos in the years to come.  Personally, I hope that it leads to a culture change in big firms.  Alas… maybe both will happen.
Susan, insightfully points out:"This new generation can't work within an environment which does not respect their goals and values, a management hierarchy which can't conceive of, never mind nurture, a new way of doing things which actually benefits the company and the clients foremost, If law firm managers, even solos looking to hire an associate choose not to recognize this but, instead, behave antagonistically, then they are going to lose the talent they have and certainly not attract new talent.  If this talent strikes out on their own without regrets why are the law firms so mad?  Why should these new lawyers have to take 20 years to figure out they don't want to waste their time at that law firm?  There is 'paying your dues' and then there is selling your soul." 

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