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Work-Life Balance Isn’t a Woman’s Issue (or an American one)

A recent article by Cameron Ainsworth-Vincze highlighted work-life balance issues faced by Canadian firm lawyers. Debbie, with abrupt words and “language laden with cursing” alerts the interviewer that she will be working all night and that he can quote her that sometimes she hates her job. Canadian firm lawyers, it seems, are not so different from their southern counterparts (though the first-year associate standard is only 1,700 billable hours, which is modest when you look at 2,000+ hours that many big-city U.S. attorneys routinely bill).

Also familiar is Debbie’s concern that she has “a lack of control over her personal life,” a worry shared by many Canadian lawyers according to the 2005 Catalyst report cited by Ainsworth-Vincze. A “research and advisory group formed to support the advancement of women,” Catalyst discovered that women and men in the Canadian legal profession shared a similar desire: a firm “environment more supportive of family and personal commitments.” Eighty-four percent of women and sixty-six percent of men claimed they would switch firms if offered such an environment. It’s easy to focus on the fact that more women than men seem professionally motivated by work-life balance concerns, but it is no longer a woman's issue. Sixty-six percent is nothing to sneeze at, and it's clear that a majority of all firm lawyers--in Canada at least--share a common goal of finding a better work-life balance.

This news isn’t exactly revolutionary. During my interviews with law firm lawyers in the U.S., no one boasted of long work hours and weekends in the office as a highlight. Clearly everyone, from partners down to summer associates, would prefer to work less and play more if all other things were equal. But they aren’t, and maybe the problem isn’t with the firms. Sure, some firms promote more of a workhorse culture. Some don’t have great policies for working mothers and fathers. Some could do a better job at flex-time, telecommuting, and maternity/paternity leave policies.

But what about the clients?

Firm lawyers do important work. So do public interest/government sector attorneys. Love or hate lawyers, it’s difficult to argue that they don’t serve a useful (or even invaluably necessary) function in our society. From preserving civil rights to keeping the economy afloat by greasing the transactional machine of the corporate world, law is the fence that keeps chaos at bay. Civil rights are just as, if not more, important than a business transaction, but most Department of Justice attorneys work 9 to 5 more often than most corporate firm lawyers. Sure, we can all follow the chicken back to the egg and point out that firm lawyers have to work harder and be better and more available than all other firm lawyers so that the client will choose them and not the firm down the street. We can all convincingly argue (what good lawyers do best, after all) competitive advantage, the laws of supply and demand, etc.

But...What would happen if law firms united in quality of life solidarity? If NO firm were willing to be available Friday night at 6 pm with a deliverable promised by 9 am on Monday? Could corporate America survive with a slightly slower pace? I’m not an economist, so I can’t claim to know what would happen if firms drew a few more boundaries and lowered client expectations. With fewer billable hours, perhaps there would be fewer perqs and lower salaries, and this revenue loss is perhaps the real hold-up in the slow crawl toward a better quality of life for firm lawyers. The fact of the matter is that there are only a certain number of hours in a day, and if you are spending more time at home with your family, you are billing less hours. Which means your firm is making less money, and, by extension, you the firm lawyer are making less money.

Maybe the next time Catalyst does a survey it can ask men and women what they would pay to be home every night to tuck in their children. Or how big of a salary cut they would take to have entire weekends to take a walk or read a book for fun or take up painting. Would you give up fancy lunches out for a vacation spent entirely without a blackberry? Would you buy a Honda instead of a BMW if it meant you could actually drive it to the beach instead of leaving it parked in a parking garage? I don’t know that you can put a price on quality of life, but if it’s true that you can’t get something for nothing, then maybe we as lawyers should be asking ourselves how much we would pay from our salaries to have our time back for ourselves. If Catalyst is right, 80% of Canadian women would give at least something up, but so would over 60% of men. Isn't that a majority?

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