October 23, 2012

Ask Bill

Issue Cover Law Practice Magazine Logo


How Do You Get Inspired?



Ask Bill

By K. William Gibson

Q: Bill, a decade ago I heard a lot of talk about lawyer dissatisfaction and the need to balance life and work in the legal profession. I don't hear so much about that now. What's happened?

I recall attending a program titled "Lawyers at the Crossroads" at an ABA meeting more than a dozen years ago. The program drew a standing-room crowd, and the lawyers in the room all nodded in agreement as speakers discussed lawyer burnout and related issues. It was the first time I had heard such frank and candid remarks on the subject. You are right, however, that the topic hasn't been discussed as much recently. It may be because the legal business is good and law firms have become so profitable that the partners are finding true happiness through unprecedented earnings. Or, it may be because associates making $200,000 per year don't feel that they have the right to complain. But it may simply be that lawyers have realized that our profession, like most, is going to be slow to change and that it is up to individuals to find their own balance and fulfillment.

George W. Kaufman wrote one of the first books on this subject, The Lawyer's Guide to Balancing Life and Work , in 1999. It was a ground-breaking work, offering his views based on several decades of experience in the law, including time as of counsel to Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C., and as president of that firm's subsidiary, MPC & Associates, Inc. An updated, second edition of his excellent book has just been published by the ABA Law Practice Management Section. I was pleased to have a recent chance to hear George speak and to sit down with him afterward. I took advantage of the opportunity to get a response to your question.

How Then Stacks Up to Now

In the 2006 edition, Kaufman writes that his updated book is about "selftransformation" and "supporting individual, not institutional change" for lawyers. While pointing out that "we could more rapidly alter the landscape of how law is practiced if we could shift the attitudes where we work," he concedes that "history has demonstrated that institutional change has only been marginally effective." He says this is so because most organizations are wary of change. Moreover, he believes that "professionals find little support among their partners, peers and juniors" and that "one of the by-products of professional practice groups is the struggle for power and authority within them."

Since the publication of the first edition, Kaufman has found that "the issue of balancing life and work within the law has not gone away, the problem has not been solved, and levels of dissatisfaction remain high. What has changed over time is that a conversation is now taking place," in books, on Web sites and on blogs. This conversation, particularly online, he says, makes raising the subject safe and public, and some law firms are now addressing the issue more directly than ever before.

In recent years, Kaufman has seen changes both for the better and worse in the legal profession. On the positive side, he cites the following trends:

  • Flex-time has become more common.
  • Parental leave has become more generous and better accepted..
  • Part-time employment is a growing and more frequently used option.
  • Associates expect (and get) more varied and more frequent skills training.
  • Billable hours have trended down over the past five years.
  • Pro bono hours have trended up in the same time period.
  • Legal employment has become more of a seller's (lawyer's) market than a buyer's (employer's) market.

Trends for the worse include:

  • Growing profits per partner remains a primary focus at major law firms.
  • Mandatory retirement and removing equity-partner status redistribute equity shares in a way that degrades overall firm goodwill.
  • The majority of associates joining firms have low to nonexistent expectations of partnership.
  • Plus, the issue of balancing life and work, while a major concern of associates, is not a major theme addressed at most law schools.

Where Balance Wins Points

On the upside, things are slightly better in small and midsize firms, says Kaufman. Some "are in the forefront of legal institutions that include as part of their core values an appreciation of a well-structured work-life ratio." This attitude helps attract associates who are seeking such a lifestyle and partners tired of political pressures at the largest institutions. It also attracts clients by demonstrating high levels of personal service.

In concluding our conversation, Kaufman reiterated that his work is focused on steps that people can take that are within their control. Why? Changes initiated by the law firm side of the equation, he says, depend on actions and decisions outside of our control.