Biglaw, Law Schools

Has Work-Life Balance Toppled Over Thanks to the Teetering Economy?

Work life balance battles.jpgRemember the days when junior associates thought that work-life balance was important? Remember when people thought that law firms could be forced to change to accommodate associates who wanted to be lawyers and have personal lives?
Those days are seemingly over. An interesting post on Law21 suggests that the quest for work-life balance (WLB) is pretty much dead:

[T]he market has changed just a little. After 10,000 lawyer and staff layoffs at large US and UK firms, even the most active WLB boosters have toned down talk that might earn them the dreaded “entitlement” label. Articles and posts that reference the term “work-life balance” now do so in an environment of cold pragmatism: Ashby Jones at the WSJ Law Blog and Dawn Wagenaar at The Complete Lawyer provide good recent examples. Realist observers like Dan Hull and Scott Greenfield have gained the upper hand in the WLB discussion — check out this slam-bang debate at Legal OnRamp about “work-life balance” generational expectations.

We have mentioned before that law students and junior associates have lost any kind of leverage over law firms. People are desperate for jobs, and firms feel they can pretty much do what they want. But some people think that the work-life balance attempt was doomed to fail:

Where proponents of “work-life balance” went off-track, to my mind, was that they argued the duty to ensure a satisfactory proportion between a lawyer’s work and the rest of her life was an institutional responsibility — that it was up to the law firm, basically. The firms disagreed, and all they had to do was wait for the marketplace to turn their way to make that clear.
Law firms aren’t going to unilaterally change their business models for the sake of WLB. No law firm ever budged an inch on its billable quotas or offered associates more money and perks because its partners genuinely felt they should be nicer employers — appeals to conscience at partners’ meetings don’t have a roaring record of success. Firms change their working conditions as the talent market dictates. In a seller’s market like the one we’ve just had, they play nice; in a buyer’s market like this, they don’t.

But just because the movement towards better working conditions has been stalled, it doesn’t mean that many young lawyers don’t still need better working conditions.
Let’s remember how this all got started, after the jump.

As usual, the problem starts in law school. Law21 notes:

But here’s the caveat, and here’s where “work-life balance” proponents were right – most lawyers in their first several years of practice don’t really have that choice. There are two institutional flaws in our system that hurt our newest colleagues. First, there’s the unspoken symbiosis between law schools and law firms — the former charge students huge amounts of money and provide little practical lawyer training, allowing the latter to hire low-skilled and heavily indebted graduates to fill virtually the only positions lucrative enough to pay off their loans. And secondly, billable-hour targets for associates at more than a few firms simply can’t be achieved without damage to one’s health or ethics, or both. These problems are neither natural nor inevitable — they result from our neglect of the system, and they annually damage our profession’s standards and morale.

I’d go even further and say that the “symbiosis” between law schools and law firms doesn’t really benefit law firms. Sure, law firm management loves to have hungry and desperate lawyers willing to work thousands of hours doing uninteresting work. But firms don’t really want to pay the going rate for the grunt work. And they can’t give junior people anything meaningful to do because quite simply, junior lawyers don’t have the skills.
Reform, if it is ever going to happen, needs to come from the bottom up. But unfortunately most law schools don’t pay a whole lot of attention to student concerns after they’ve secured the tuition check.
Maybe we should look at the only thing law schools really seem to consistently care about: the U.S. News Law School rankings. If the rankings could be changed to reflect practical student training, or student and employer satisfaction, maybe law schools would change?
That sounds like an impossible battle. That sounds like a fairytale. But perhaps its no more of an impossible fairytale than getting a law business to suddenly care about whether its employees have time to read their children a bedtime story?
The legacy of work-life balance [Law21]
Are We Closing the Book on Work-Life Balance? [ABA Journal]
Earlier: Building a Better Legal Profession Students Still Dream of Power

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