Back in the Pleistocene Era (1989, to be exact), I was a law student. I attended Boalt Hall, interviewed with a minimum of glances at floor and door, and generally put deadlines ahead of impromptu road trips. Through whatever happy confluence of events, I wound up with offers from four excellent (by all accounts) law firms. A nice but flummoxing problem. All claimed to be great places to work. The deciding wisdom came from Bruce Tester, cofounder of the midsize, now defunct Pettis, Tester, Kruse & Krinsky. He went on record as being pro-life:

Do you have any idea how much of your life is consumed billing 1,800 hours a year?

I didn’t. Like the most effective of modern interrogation techniques, it’s one of those things you have to experience to fully comprehend. The other firms I was considering-Latham & Watkins, Morrison & Foerster, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips-expected lawyers to bill 1,900, 2,000, even 2,500 hours a year. (Of course, today’s realities can make those hours seem like an extended ski weekend.) And here was someone assuring me that 1,800 billable hours was a formidable obligation. Although family obligations were not my priority, (I was 24, single, and minus both siblings and offspring), I liked his concern for my well-being. I accepted his offer.

In those days, work/life balance wasn’t widely discussed. It’s still a new-enough buzzword that spelling and punctuation are open to interpretation: “work-life,” “work/life,” “work life,” and “worklife” all yield pertinent search results. But it was and is crucial to how lawyers make career decisions.

These days, most firms know it, or at least know that they must pay lip service to it. Wiley Rein, for example, touts its commitment “to fostering an environment that enables our attorneys to seek a suitable and comfortable balance between their professional and personal lives.”

Now there’s a lawyer-crafted sentiment if there ever was one. By all means, seek away! But remember, suitability and comfort are relative terms. They mean one thing at a firm with a balanced work ethic, as it struggles to compete with machinelike organizations that grind billables out of associates like Oscar Mayer grinds meat into hot dogs. Those terms mean something else at the machinelike firms. Ironically, it is those firms that may face a more dire challenge: the risk of losing their highly paid, much sought-after workforce and alienating potential reinforcements.

Even though we live in an age of million-dollar profits per partner and record-high salaries and bonuses for associates, large firms lose 80 percent of law school hires within five years, according to The National Association for Law Placement. 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. The result: Law school applications are down nearly 7 percent from 2006, when they were already down more than 5 percent from 2005.

Family time must bear some of the cost of this attrition. The Families and Work Institute has found that younger workers are more “dual-centric” (attaching equal importance to career and family) and less work-centric than in decades past.

I noticed this when I lateraled to the much-merged Reed Smith. The generational divide was palpable: Younger lawyers were increasingly unwilling to sell their parenting opportunities and other extracurricular priorities to the highest bidder. Even if those lawyers had the fortitude (or foolishness) to try and achieve balance, they weren’t given much chance to do so. “The money winds up giving people less time to meet performance goals. Decisions about who to keep are made a little quicker,” says one Am Law 20 partner.

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.

Denise Howell’s practice focuses on intellectual property, technology, and media. It’s generally accomplished from home while her son is in school. Among her online endeavors, she writes a blog, Bag and Baggage, posts to ZDNet’s Lawgarithms, and podcasts at This Week in Law.