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Business Case for Work/Life Balance--Really?

Vivia Chen

November 3, 2010

Fotolia_836862_XS[1] Why do I feel that the discourse about work/life balance is taking on the tempo of pep rallies and religious revivals? There's a subtle pressure not to ask too many thorny questions or challenge the sacred cows that drive the work/life balance discussion.

I sensed that recently when I attended a luncheon at Skadden Arps featuring New York Times reporter Lisa Belkin and Flex-Time founder Deborah Epstein Henry, who's promoting her new book, Law & Reorder. Though billed as a Q&A session, there were no hard-hitting questions here. Instead, it was more like a You-Go-Girl chat between chums who work the same circuit.

Nothing wrong with a bit of boosterism, of course. (Henry credited Belkin's article, "The Opt-Out Revolution," with helping her kick-start her business as a work/life consultant, while Belkin noted Henry's leadership role on the balance issue in the legal arena.)

But my beef with those who have taken on the work/life balance mantle is that they tend to put a rosy (shall we say "pink"?) gloss over some fundamental issues. If only people will follow the path, they seem to be saying, everything will fall into place.

Again and again, we hear from Henry--and others in the field--that the business case for flextime and part-time work is pretty much a slam-dunk. In fact, it's become popular to argue that the economic downturn has been a blessing in disguise for those seeking balance.

Because of the recession, "clients are demanding different billing systems," said Henry. As a result, she added, firms are reexamining the hourly rate structure and becoming more focused on efficiency and productivity. And guess what? Lawyers who work flextime and part-time can be more efficient and productive. What's more, she added, firms are experiencing a talent drain because many don't want to work the brutal hours of a traditional law firm. "Generation Y wants to work differently, and they are saying that in a gender-neutral way," she said. Bingo--the convergence of business, client, and individual lawyer interests!

I'm sure Henry worked hard on this book, but I have problems with her underlying assumptions. Why am I not convinced that firms are hurting for talent to fill their partnership ranks? From my vantage point, there seems to be a steady supply of able lawyers who would gladly bill 80 hours a week, plus give blood, for the privilege of being a big-firm partner. And are clients really pushing firms to be more accommodating about work/life balance measures?

I asked Henry these sticky questions during the event. Her response: "The client is the biggest driver of change." She added, "The client support for the book has been overwhelming," noting that she's gotten endorsements from the general counsel of such companies as General Electric, Wal-Mart, and Verizon.

Nice list, but do those endorsements translate into real change in the way law firms operate? Will a company really drop an effective law firm because it doesn't like the firm's work/life balance policy? Do clients really want to get involve in their law firms' management?

Articulate and amazingly at-ease in front of a crowd (she could give Greta Van Susteren a run for her money), Henry did offer one piece of advice that I thought trumped everything else: "Be entrepreneurial. Create your own career path. Be effective at self-promotion."

In other words: Don't wait for that miracle in the legal profession. Make your own deal.

Readers, am I too cynical?

Related posts: Is Kagan Being Attacked by the Work/Life Balancers?,  Are Flex/Part-Time Options Holding Women Back?


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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.



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By labeling someone who merely points out the obvious situation experienced by us lowly jr./mid. level associates a mouthpiece for the status quo, Ms. Henry, you have indeed become the best mouthpiece for the status quo.

The fact that those so-call legal and industries leaders endorse your book is only because it is good PR, a relatively inexpensive act that can be posted on websites, mentioned in dinners, and waived around whenever anyone or any group complaints about the lack of work/life balance.

There is one possible reason why these solutions and new legal models have not been wholly adopted by the so-call industry leaders after so many years, and it may be because they don't want to, and they don't need to.

You are right that there are difficult questions around the implementation of work-family-life arrangements in law firms and elsewhere. But the business case is very strong. Check out Chapter Two of my new book, The Custom-Fit Workplace.


Nanette Fondas

Vivia, You make some great points. I am very tired of the lip service that big firms and corporations give to diversity and work/life balance in the legal profession. Many seem more concerned about getting awards rather than actually effectuating change. The driving force in most big firms is business generation, collections and profits for a single year period. If corporate legal departments really want more diversity in law firms or want the law firm culture to change, then they must start giving business directly to women and minorites. That's not happening enough. And, the client must demand that firm management report who is getting business generation credit for the client's work, because that is what drives promotion and pay at most big firms. High billable hours alone will not necessarily get you promoted (although you may get a nice bonus). Unless we have such transparency, these issues may never get resolved.
But, as Vivia suggests, corporate legal department probably don't want to do this. So, I just expect more lip service, despite all the well-intentioned efforts of Henry and Calvert.

Clients don't determine whether I make partner or not, partners do. I've never understood the business side of the flex-time argument. Your life is easier from doing flex-time - isn't that the reward right there?

Great post Vivia. I don't think you are being cynical at all. You are not saying work/life balance is not a worthy goal; rather the conversations around this issue have been shallow. I applaud you for digging deeper.

I agree with the 10:37AM Guest. Based on my experience, clients have become more demanding over the years, not less. There is little incentive for them to change.

As to Cynthia Calvert's comment that there aren't as many associates willing to work 80 hours week... Yes, the trend is that there is a decreasing number of associates (like me) willing to slave away our youth. But there are still plenty of those, esp. in BigLaw, who willingly gun for partnership at the expense of health, relationship, etc. The million dollar PPP is a powerful incentive.

Vivia - You are correct to focus on the client as the driver (or non-driver). There is a total disconnect between the platitudes that clients (especially big companies) are willing to endorse via, for example, tesitmonials in favor of Henry's book, on the one hand, and the actual demands that these same clients put on law firms (big and small), on the other hand.

Everyone agrees that clients have gained more power in the relationship between clients and law firms during the downturn, but they most assuredly do not exercise that power to any end other than ever more 24/7 availability and performance from their outside counsel at an ever-lower price. Obviously, this is not a recipe for work-life balance.

Vivia, I'm glad you raised the questions. The questions have good answers, which I wrote about this morning on my blog, http://ctcalvert.blogspot.com/2010/11/vivias-challenge.html. Here is an excerpt:

Your first sacred cow question concerns the need to change the legal profession. You say there are plenty of lawyers willing to work 80 hours a week to make partner, making work/life programs unnecessary. Let’s look at where the current law firm chew-them-up-and-spit-them-out system has gotten us:

A legal profession that is overwhelmingly white and male.

A legal profession that allows its partners and those who are looking to become partners only limited time for family, community, and leisure, leading to high rates of depression, alcoholism, divorce, and suicide.

A legal profession that barely registers the tens of millions of dollars firms lose annually from attrition that hovers around 70% in normal economic times – and clients that are damn mad those costs are being passed on to them.

A legal profession that will not be able to sustain itself for the long run as it remains inhospitable to half the law school graduates, blithely ignores clients’ desires for diversity, and is unable to access the benefits of a diverse pool of legal talent.

Fortunately, there are visionaries that understand that the legal profession has to change to remain viable, and a logical place to start the change is at the point that causes so many of the ills: work/life balance. These visionaries include Joan Williams and Project for Attorney Retention, and legal employers such as Walmart, DLA Piper, Sonnenschein, Dupont, Jones Day, Del Monte, Sidley & Austin, Howrey, Allstate, Orrick, Pfizer, Shook Hardy, KPMG, Morrison & Foerster, Accenture, Arnold & Porter, Hogan Lovells, Clorox, Fulbright & Jaworski, Kaye Scholer, Vinson & Elkins, Kirkland & Ellis, Schiff Hardin, Latham, Crowell & Moring, Dickstein Shapiro, Andrews Kurth, Fenwick & West, Beveridge & Diamond, Coupons. com, Dewey & Le Boeuf, Gibbons, Bowditch & Dewey, Munger Tolles, Faegre & Benson, LeClair Ryan, Foley & Lardner, McCarter & English, Finnegan Henderson, Farella Braun, Jackson Lewis, Lowenstein Sandler, Luce Forward, Outten & Golden, Manatt Phelps, Mayer Brown, McCarthy Tetrault, Smith Katzenstein, and Thorpe & Tyde. That’s a lot of heavy hitters that have analyzed the business case and come to the conclusion that flexible work programs make economic sense.

So here is my answer to your question about why work/life balance is necessary if there are lawyers willing to work 80 hours per week: there aren’t as many of those as you suppose. Study after study shows that today’s associates want a life, and also that working 80 hours a week on a regular basis is not sustainable for most lawyers. You observe that law firms aren’t hurting for legal talent to fill their partnership ranks, but if you ask firms (and clients) why they don’t have more female and minority partners, one of the first reasons you’ll hear is that there just aren’t enough candidates. The problem is that the current way of practicing big law developed around a certain set of demographics and assumptions (lawyers were males who had someone at home full-time to take care of family matters, work should be one’s priority), and the demographics and assumptions have now changed (lawyers aren’t all male, 73% of American households have all adults in the paid workforce so most lawyers have some responsibility for family obligations, the younger generation has different priorities). New times call for new ways of doing business.

Your second sacred cow question is whether clients are really pushing firms to be more accommodating about work/life measures. Putting aside the issue of whether work/life programs are accommodations (they are not) or business initiatives designed to ensure the long-term health of the firms (they are), the answer to your question is: a growing number are, but not yet most. I say that based on the anecdotal evidence I hear from firms and on my work with the Project for Attorney Retention – particularly its Diversity and Flexibility Connection program that brings together general counsel and law firm chairs to develop ways they can support each other in improving balance and diversity. Importantly, clients understand that inflexible, high billable hours drive attrition, which in turn damages client service and increases client bills. Walmart, Dupont, Del Monte and others are asking firms to report periodically on the health of their flexible work programs and some are including flexible work programs in their RFPs. Walmart has been particularly vocal on this issue: in its guidelines for outside counsel, it says “We are asking all of our external firms to implement flex-time policies. . . . We believe flexible schedules make good business sense because they promote attorney retention, prevent the loss of institutional knowledge, and create a more balanced and inclusive work environment.” Other companies can be expected to follow their example as they seek to receive better service at a lower cost.

Yeah, Vivia, I am dubious too.

No, Careerist, you are not being too cynical. The atmosphere in bigLaw and midLaw right now for associates is "survival." That means being available 24/7. At the lunch, Epstein first concluded that the "billable hour" was the "friend" of the flex-timers as indeed, an hour is an hour is an hour... no matter where or when you bill it. She then posits that the new fee models demand efficiency and ergo if you are part-time, you are more efficient. Really? Kool-Aid indeed.

It was with great interest that I read this post as it raises valid concerns about the future of the legal industry. And that’s what I told the audience of nearly 200 attendees at Skadden, Arps when Vivia posed her questions to me on Monday at the NY launch of my book, Law & Reorder.

While I am optimistic about the changes facing the industry, I’m not naïve. Had Vivia read the book that I gave her, she would know that the theme of my book is not that we have arrived but rather that we need to make the exception the rule - that there are pioneers in the profession who have created solutions for new legal models and career paths that need to be adopted to become the new mainstream. My conclusions are based on a career of working with law firms, in-house legal departments, lawyers and law students and my book is steeped in endnotes and entirely fact based and data driven.

Perhaps it was Vivia’s own biases that led her to only depict the conversation to be a “pink” one. The book and Monday’s discussion focused not only on capitalizing on the strengths of the talent pool but also on other drivers and solutions for change including technology, the recession, outsourcing, alterative fees, alternative legal models, and increased client pressure to lower rates and deliver value and predictability.

The endorsements for Law & Reorder by 25 legal and other industry leaders including the general counsels of DuPont, Verizon, General Electric, Wal-Mart, Allstate Insurance, CIGNA, and the Association of Corporate Counsel, as well as managing partners, law school deans, leaders of bar and women's associations, legal industry experts, and career and work/life experts, cannot be dismissed as happenstance. Their testimonials that can be found here, http://www.lawandreorder.com/test.asp, reflect irrefutable support for change, not just on work/life balance and women’s issues, but also for structural change and solutions for employers, clients and lawyers that are the focal point of my book.

I think the better question for Vivia is not whether she is too cynical. My question would have been: Is it better to be a mouthpiece for the status quo or be part of the solution?

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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