Single Attorneys Desire Work Life Balance Too! - ABA YLD 101 Practice Series

By Ellia Ciammaichella and Rachel Blake

Work-life balance is not just an issue for attorneys with families. Single attorneys desire work-life balance too! In a recent article in the ABA Journal entitled, "The Ultimate Time-Money Trade-Off", 1 the author cites to an unscientific study that reported that 84.2 percent of respondents would take less money if they could work fewer hours. 

Unfortunately the phrase "work-life balance" is often only associated with attorneys with families and usually connotes a woman's desire for work-life balance. Although it seems that there is no agreed upon definition for what work-life balance is, for many, lowering the minimum billable hour requirement is key. The question is how much?

Since work-life balance is often considered in abstract terms, let's examine it using some hypothetical numbers. Consider an associate living Pennsylvania who has a billable hour goal of 2,000 and a daily work start time of 9:00 a.m. Add a daily commute time of 23 minutes, 2 (which is approximated by two different one-way distances of 30 and 15 minutes each); an hour for lunch; 30 minutes for personal time, such as occasional doctor visits, lunches that run over, and restroom or snack breaks; 30 minutes for professional time to cover talking with colleagues regarding non-billable matters and reading legal news/case updates; and another 30 minutes for administrative time for timekeeping, reading emails, and answering non-billable calls. The exact numbers will vary, but it is important to be honest about the little non-billable items that add up. Such honest estimations will show that many attorneys spend far more of their lives dedicated to work than they would like to believe.

The results of the hypothetical? Using the worksheet provided at the JDBliss blog, 3 which estimates the amount of real time required to achieve a billable hour and after estimating ten vacation days and two personal days (one full week and a few long weekends), the associate will have billed just over 2,070 hours for the year - after spending more than 2,800 hours at work! This means that the associate is out of the house about twelve hours a day, five days a week. If the associate sleeps an average of seven hours a night, that leaves five hours left in each day! If the associate exercises 30 minutes a day that is recommended for good health and stress reduction, the associate would only have four and a half hours left. It probably takes another hour to get ready in the morning, so drop the total to three and a half hours. Then, think about all the little things that must be done during the week, such as grocery shopping, eating, and laundry, and you can see how many attorneys feel that they have no time for themselves or their lives - at all.

Work-life balance is increasingly becoming a concern for law firms across the country. Dissatisfaction with work-life balance has been tied to dissatisfaction with the practice of law and, for some, eventual exit from the practice altogether. According to the National Association for Law Placement ("NALP"), the attrition rate for attorneys who have worked at a private law firm for about five years was 78 percent. 4 While NALP has found that a significant number of departing associates cite performance reasons, approximately six percent cite to billable hour pressures. Given the turnover and costs associated with each associate, it costs firms between $200,000 and $500,000 to replace each associate lost to attrition. 5 Firms would be well-advised to seriously consider steps to make flexible or reduced hours a possibility for every employee.

The work-life balance, however, does not just come from the employer. Those attorneys striving to excel in their career must not only work at firms that supports the dual centric attorney, but must also actively take steps necessary to find a greater balance for themselves. This balance can be achieved by setting priorities and sticking to them.

  • Separate your personal expectations from the expectations other people have of you. By distinguishing these expectations, you can focus on values that are most important to you.
  • Set priorities. Often, time and effort is spent on things that are not important. By finding out what is most important to you, you can stop wasting your precious time on things of little value.
  • Schedule time for those activities that are high on your priority list. Whether it is training for a marathon, having breakfast with your child, or eating dinner with your loved one, set aside time for that activity and do not cancel or postpone it. Despite the need for you to crank out work, you need a balanced life and that means setting aside quality time for things you value most.
  • Do not over promise. When a supervisor asks you when the project will be completed, give her a reasonable estimate, and include some cushion time for unexpected snags. It is always better to complete the project early than having your supervisor wait for your untimely work.
  • Learn to say "no." This emphasizes the principle above. If you realize that taking on another project would cause you to over promise, saying "no" will save you and your supervisor the time, trouble, and added stress that an over promise would cause.
  • Identify when you are unhappy with your work situation. Snip it in the bud by reevaluating the balance of your life. This can be done by redefining your personal expectations , reclassifying priorities, and rescheduling quality time.

Finally, you should educate yourself on the issues surrounding work-life balance. You may have friends or colleagues that you can talk to about these issues to get the support you need in a professional culture that is not very open to discussions about reduced hours. If you cannot find the support locally, look online. There are a variety of online resources dedicated to this idea, including:

Although there is no easy answer for an attorney trying to find the right work life balance, these resources can provide ideas and sounding boards to help you think through the issues, prioritize commitments, and make better judgments. Balance is personal: the challenge is taking the time to decide how you want to spend your time and then committing to making your vision a reality.


1 Stephanie Francis Ward, "The Ultimate Time-Money Trade-off: Associates tell us they'd take a pay cut to work less. Smart deal or impossible dream?" ABAJournal.com, February 2, 2007, available at http://www.abanet.org/journal/redesign/02as.html (last accessed April 4, 2007).
2 Average commute times by state can be located at the US Census American Community Survey 2003 available at http://www.census.gov/acs/www/Products/Ranking/2003/pdf/R04T040.pdf (last accessed April 4, 2007)
3 JDBliss Attorney Work Life Balance Calculator TM available at http://www.envoyglobal.net/jdbliss/test/calculator2.htm (last accessed April 4, 2007).
4 Leigh Jones, "Law Firms Rework Campus Recruiting Wider nets, earlier meetings in offing," available at http://www.law.com/jsp/llf/PubArticleLLF.jsp?id=1155559186650 (last accessed April 17, 2007).
5 The State of "Work-Life Effectiveness" available at http://www.bpwusa.org/files/public/IssuePaperJune23.pdf (last accessed April 17, 2007).

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About the Author

Ellia Ciammaichella is a law clerk for the Honorable Alex R. Munson at the U.S. District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands.

Rachel Blake earned her JD from the University of Iowa College of Law, where she also earned an MA in urban and regional planning. Rachel practices real estate law in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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