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March 10, 2011 Articles

Not All Law Firms Are Caves

Good firms where lawyers can attain work-life balance do exist.

By Danielle M. Kays

Virginia Woolf recognized the detriment of the crushing pressure of professional occupations:

[This makes] us of the opinion that if people are highly successful in their professions they lose their senses. Sight goes. They have no time to look at pictures. Sound goes. They have no time to listen to music. Speech goes. They have no time for conversation. They lose their sense of proportion—the relations between one thing and another. Humanity goes. Money making becomes so important that they must work by night as well as by day. Health goes. And so competitive do they become that they will not share their work with others though they have more than they can do themselves. What then remains of a human being who has lost sight, sound, and sense of proportion? Only a cripple in a cave.

So many firms discount, or even ignore, the importance of work-life balance to their attorneys, and their attorneys, in turn, are required to make work their only priority. Because of this, after years of sacrificing sight, sound, and sense of proportion, many attorneys reject “cave life” and leave the practice of law entirely—understandably choosing their marriage, personal values, or well-being over their job. Yet, lawyers have options other than working for an inflexible firm and sacrificing their personal lives or giving up on their chosen profession. Good firms where lawyers can attain work-life balance do exist.

<p>Finding the right law firm is crucial for achieving balance and remaining a well-rounded attorney. The right firm culture can eliminate the need for any specific alternative work strategies and allows women (as well as men) to pursue a satisfying professional career while maintaining a fulfilling personal life. Though the quest for the right law firm requires an individual assessment, as a full-time working mother and litigator, I have found five essential characteristics of a law firm where an attorney can achieve a positive work-life balance: (1) superiors value life outside work; (2) women and good leaders are in charge; (3) superiors have trust in employees; (4) leaders genuinely care for their attorneys; and (5) work is interesting and enjoyable.</p>
<p><strong>Superiors Value Life Outside Work</strong> There are reasons for diversity initiatives, including that people relate best to people who are like themselves. That logic applies to work-life balance as well. Only a parent truly understands the importance of kissing a child good night. Only a marathoner knows how it feels to &ldquo;hit the wall&rdquo; and how sore his or her body feels the day after the race. And only a partner that values his or her personal life knows how devastating it is to have to cancel a family vacation. If your family or personal interests are important to you, then you need to work with superiors who truly respect those interests, because they also value the same things.</p>
<p>Often firms may have carefully crafted written policies that attract attorneys looking for balance, but in practice, many of those policies are not honored or respected. The only way to actually achieve balance is if you work for people who &ldquo;get it.&rdquo; How do you know if the people at your firm get it? They will practice what they preach. A firm that encourages its attorneys to write about work-life balance is demonstrating that it genuinely cares about that balance for its attorneys. Also, a firm that employs and retains women with children, and, even better, female partners with children, is doing something right. Your firm should express genuine interest in the things you do outside of work.</p>
<p>If the attorneys in your firm, and more specifically, the attorneys in charge, value work-life balance, then you will not have an uphill battle trying to convince your superiors why your personal life is important. In the end, an attorney will be more productive and give more to the firm, in the long- and short-term, if his or her personal life is respected, and even championed.</p>
<p><strong>Good Leaders Are in Charge</strong> The right firm has good attorneys, starting with the people at the top. When you work for good people, written policies are not necessary. You don&rsquo;t need a written policy that allows you to leave the office a little early so that you can attend your child&rsquo;s Thanksgiving play. You don&rsquo;t need a written policy that allows you to be home for dinner.</p>
<p>Also, written policies can often overlook the many intangible activities lawyers perform for the benefit of the firm. For example, administrative tasks, legal education, and client development can be done during the day (rather than during your child&rsquo;s bedtime) even though they may not be &ldquo;billable.&rdquo; Good people see you as an asset to the team no matter the activity and value your billable and non-billable contributions to the firm.</p>
<p>When you work for good people, they will work with you to provide what you need to succeed, and you will feel comfortable approaching them to talk about those needs.</p>
<p><strong>Superiors Trust Employees</strong> Trust is essential to work-life balance. Good attorneys want to perform good work and please their clients and colleagues. As professionals, they want their firm to trust that they will get the work done. Micromanagement and lack of responsibility take away from that trust.</p>
<p>In our firm, trust comes in the form of our billable hour requirement—i.e., there isn&rsquo;t one. The right law firm recognizes that an attorney can provide excellent service that is not directly proportionate to a pre-set number of billable hours. Performance is measured by client satisfaction and the quality of our work product. These two factors are the firm&rsquo;s priorities. Because of this, there is no pressure to log long hours but, instead, to take the appropriate time to complete each task. Of course, clients appreciate this as well. When the work is done, the attorneys have the ability to focus on their personal lives. This in turn eliminates the need for the firm to micromanage its attorneys.</p>
<p>Additionally, as new generations enter the workplace and technology allows people to be entirely mobile, more attorneys appreciate the flexibility to work outside of the office while being readily available to meet the client&rsquo;s needs. Not all law firms trust that attorneys can do their work outside of the office. However, if the firm has hired good attorneys, it should trust that the work will get done.</p>
<p>While these elements are wonderful perks for an attorney seeking work-life balance, firms also win because they achieve better productivity (and attorney retention). When a firm trusts in its attorneys, the attorneys want to work harder for the firm. The attorneys also feel invested and valued rather than like fungible &ldquo;billers.&rdquo; The better an attorney is treated, the more willing he or she will be to balance work and life and remain with the firm.</p>
<p><strong>Firm Leaders Care for Attorneys</strong> We recognize that a law firm is a business. But it is a business that depends upon the value of its lawyers to achieve success. A law firm&rsquo;s biggest asset is its attorneys; firms should invest in and care for those attorneys much the same way it tends to its clients.</p>
<p>If your firm does not care about you and is not invested in your success and retention, then you are not going to care to spend time away from the things that do make you happy every day. You will always be tempted to focus on whatever it is in your life that makes you happy, whether it be your family, golf game, travel, or charity. The grass won&rsquo;t just look greener, it will be greener. But when a firm cares about its attorneys, the attorneys are more willing to pitch in as a team to sacrifice.</p>
<p>Again, the firm wins when it cares about its attorneys. Clients enjoy long-term relationships with attorneys on a personal level but also on an economic level because it decreases the costs of re-educating the attorneys about its business. Clients also appreciate a change from the typical firm culture. Recently, a client complimented us on the warm atmosphere of our law firm—a trait that he sought out when retaining counsel.</p>
<p><strong>Work Is Interesting and Enjoyable</strong> This trait also speaks to your happiness in your job. If you do not enjoy work, the work-life balance scale is always going to tip out of control. If the type of law you practice does not genuinely challenge and intrigue you on a regular basis, then you are always going to be counting the minutes until you can spend your time doing things that you enjoy. Whether it is teamwork that you enjoy, client contact, researching different nuances of the law, or reading trade publications, you need to identify these elements and make sure you regularly encounter them in your work. If you do not enjoy your day job, that unhappiness will surely seep into your personal life.</p>
<p>If your firm is not the right fit for you, a law firm with all of these characteristics may seem like a pipe dream. Such law firms do exist. Moreover, law firms should strive for these characteristics. Developing these characteristics is worth a firm&rsquo;s time because it will retain better attorneys, generate better work product, and achieve true client satisfaction. Most importantly, a firm with these characteristics allows its attorneys to succeed and balance their profession with their personal lives.</p>