As the new year approaches and many of us think of what we can do to make more time for our relationships, physical fitness or hobbies, the reality is we might never achieve the perfect work-life balance we crave. The practice of law is rigorous and requires undivided meticulous attention to detail, thoroughness in analyzing legal questions and arguments, and ’round-the-clock availability through electronic means. Becoming a good or better attorney often requires working an inordinate amount of hours. When attorneys regularly leave work late, check for emails during every minute of their “free” time, and eat more dinners at work than at home, is there any hope for work-life balance?
A major recruiting tool of large law firms, which are infamous for being sweatshops for young associates, is to advertise the things the law firm has done to promote greater work-life balance. Some law firms have their own gyms. Others have generous parental or maternity leave policies, and some allow reduced work hours. Few law firms will discuss the reality of work-life balance for the young attorney—i.e., it will be very difficult to find balance between work and life if you want to maximize your opportunities for growth.
The practice of law rewards investment of time—the more time attorneys spend working, the greater the reward. Practically speaking, attorneys who bill for their time are rewarded monetarily for every fraction of an hour they work. A litigator who is better prepared in court may win an oral argument. Associates who are comprehensive and thorough in their assignments will be trusted with greater responsibilities.
The underlying assumption in discussions of work-life balance is that we can have it all. We can be meticulous attorneys and zealous advocates while having great interpersonal relationships at the same time. We can bill 2,200 hours a year while raising young children and being there for every important milestone in our children’s lives. We can take depositions across the country that devastate our adversary while making sure we eat healthy meals and stay in good physical shape.
The reality though is that attorneys will often need to make choices between work and their personal lives—and these choices have consequences. As the number of associate positions contract with the contracting economy, law firms should be honest about the realities of work-life balance for attorneys seeking success and growth. Rather than aiming for an often unattainable “balance,” lawyers should focus more on the fact that they have work-life choices to make. Becoming a better attorney does not happen overnight and is often a result of a number of small choices made along the way. Sometimes these choices involve decisions to forego spending time with friends or family, exercising, or doing other things to take care of ourselves for the sake of work.
There will be other times when we can make choices to invest in relationships rather than work. There will be times when we do not necessarily need to work until the wee hours of the night and can actually get home at an early hour to have dinner with family or friends. Or when we can shut our phones off; or not take deposition transcripts or briefs home to read. Successful attorneys are often successful precisely because they have developed the habits of a workaholic and do not know when to stop working, even when it is unnecessary.
We would do better to stop telling young attorneys to strive for a balance that is incompatible in some ways with growth in the practice of law. There will be times, particularly in the first years of practice, when more often than not attorneys will choose work over relationships—and this will be the better choice. There will be other times when it will be better to choose relationships over work. As the holiday season approaches, and as we consider our resolutions for the new year, let’s stop making resolutions to attain an impossible “balance,” and instead resolve to make wiser choices.•