Redefining Successful Work/Life Practices and Getting to Win-Win

Vol. 16 No. 5


Thomas S. Clay has over 30 years experience consulting to the legal profession and is a principal of Altman Weil, Inc., a legal management consulting firm.

Shelly Clay-Robison has worked in international human rights advocacy and conflict resolution and is currently pursuing an M.S. in Conflict Management and Negotiation at the University of Baltimore.


The root cause of most conflicts, whether at home, in the office, or on the international stage, often stems from unmet human needs. Think back to your college Psych 101 class where you probably discussed Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This stratified pyramid illustrates levels at which people seek to satisfy various human needs ranging from eating to creativity. When a need is going unmet in a lower section of the pyramid, conflict may arise.

In the professional sphere, young lawyers are usually lucky enough not to worry about breathing, access to food, or bodily security, yet as they climb the needs pyramid, they too often see frustrations in the areas of family, flexible employment options, and personal downtime, among others. To illustrate this, conflict between law firm profit motivations, driven by billable hours, and younger lawyers’ desire for an evolving and realistic work/life balance has increased over the last decade. Creating a win/win outcome between these competing interests will only occur when the two parties are able to discuss work “alternatives” that can meet each party’s needs. From a needs standpoint, the firm’s partners need the firm to be economically profitable to support the employees, with 1900 billable hours as the standard. Yet many young lawyers are yearning for a different work/life balance that will answer the needs of their families as well as their own mental health. Once the needs of each party are assessed, a win/win solution can be developed.

Additionally, an increasingly strong issue for consideration is the push by clients for lawyers and law firms to be more efficient in the delivery of legal services. This mandates fewer billable hours without a reduction in quality. In this regard, younger lawyers often view the use of technology in the workplace in a very different way from their older counterparts. They see it as a means by which to be more efficient and avoid tedious work while serving clients in a high-quality, efficient and effective manner. Unfortunately, this can be viewed by partners as detrimental to the profit imperative because of the decrease in billable hours.

Against this background, when both parties can recognize their needs and be flexible and creative about the solution, everyone will win. In this situation, younger lawyers can propose working less and being paid for fewer hours, which will help them balance work and life demands but will also fit into the firm’s new and efficient work scheme. Work is delivered in less time, still at a high quality, and for less cost to the client.

In her excellent book, Law and Re-Order, Deborah Epstein Henry sets forth many of these same issues as well as solutions that should be acceptable to all parties. (Listen to Epstein Henry discuss these issues and her new book.) Only when the law firm’s profit motives, the producers’ career and work/life considerations, and the clients’ needs are truly and collaboratively addressed can solutions be fashioned.



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