Professionals in the service sector are silly. And masochistic.

How else to explain why so many of them insist on working themselves to exhaustion, even when they have options that will ease their lives? According to a new study in the Harvard Business Review, employees at management consulting firms spurned workplace flexibility policies. Even though that sector offers some of the most generous work-life balance options in the workplace, most consultants are reluctant to take advantage of them.

The reason: They’re chicken. They fear that using programs such as paid leave, reduced schedules and sabbaticals will make them look less committed to work, write the study’s authors, Alison Wynn of Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research and Aliya Hamid Rao of Singapore Management University. (They interviewed 50 management consultants in the United States.)

Employees gave various explanations for not using the programs: They felt that work-life balance policies are unrealistic for high-stress jobs; they prided themselves on managing work-home conflicts on their own; they framed making work-life decisions as choices; and they emphasized they could always quit.

What malarkey that they think they’re in control.

“The problem is that this perception of greater control didn’t seem to alleviate their work-life conflicts,” the authors write. They cite the example of a consultant who opted not to take a leave to see her dying father because of client demands. “She continues to carry intense regret about the outcome but emphasizes that the decision was her own choice, which gives her a sense of agency rather than victimization,” the authors write.

Do lawyers in Big Law make similar decisions? Quite possibly.

“The emphasis on billable hours and client satisfaction seems applicable to both law and management consulting,” Wynn says, adding that this “can translate into a cultural norm of intensive hours as a way of demonstrating appropriate commitment to clients.” And “because quality in these fields can be difficult to measure, firms rely on proxies such as long working hours as a measure of quality.”

Vivia Chen.

So is it the fault of the employee or the institution that these programs are underutilized? While the report laments employees’ reluctance to partake in work-life policy, Wynn says corporate culture usually doesn’t help. She advocates that firms turn down the dial on glorifying overwork and rid billable hours.

But lawyers and clients need to change their mindsets too—and that’s not easy when the go-go culture is so ingrained.

“It is entirely inwardly focused pressure we put on ourselves,” says a partner at an Am Law 100 firm with three small kids who’s always worked full-steam. She says the concern for her about taking flex-time or part-time isn’t the stigma, but how it would affect her relationship with clients.

“When building business, you try to instill in clients the need for your counsel,” she explains.

“While no one is indispensable, you have to make your clients feel as though you bring something of value to them that others don’t. The only way you do that is by bringing that value consistently. If you are not there for them, they can get someone else who will be.” So the culture of firms and companies needs fixing. And the attitude of lawyers needs adjustment too. Easy-peasy.

More challenging, in my opinion, is training the client. I mean, do you want to be the one to tell clients that they set unreasonable deadlines and that your life is important too?

Contact Vivia Chen at or @lawcareerist.