Restoring The Balance

Work, Personal Life Are Out of Kilter

Some would say that linking “quality of life” with “law practice” is the mother of all oxymorons. Based on recent surveys, that would seem to be true. For example, The National Law Journal recently found that 83% of lawyers report that law practice has changed for the worse, especially for the ever-elusive work-life balance: nearly 73% of men and 83% of women report that their workload prevents them from spending enough time with family and friends.

In addition, newspapers and magazines frequently describe how overworked, overstressed, and dissatisfied many lawyers are with law practice. And, many lawyers today often experience conflict trying to serve both professional standards and business realities.

But the conflicts which undermine the quality of life for many lawyers are part of a larger set of issues within our culture which affect the workplace and personal lives. Knowing what they are and how they play out in the law firm environment can open the door to new, constructive actions.

The Current Environment

Successful law practice today requires that law firms and their members function more cohesively and with greater sense of community. If management practices can address in practical ways the stress, business and career pressures and conflicts, and the fragmentation of work relationships that often accrue within law firms, everyone benefits. The result will enhance collegiality, build longer lasting loyalties, enhance individual performance, and improve the overall quality of the services to clients.

The trick is achieving this in today’s business culture. Economic downsizing and cuts in corporate spending for outside counsel make the work atmosphere in law firms necessarily more pressured and stressful, as law firms are hard pressed for revenue and crowded by competition. In addition, there are internal problems, such as the diminished possibility of a an associate becoming partner. Current data show that no more than 10% of today’s big-firm associates can expect to make partner. But partners, too, are also affected by the profound economic changes which threaten the stability of law firms, and, in turn, the long-term job security of established attorneys. Partners to work ever harder just to stay in place.

As one partner at a major Washington law firm told me, “I entered law to practice a challenging, rewarding, profession, not to be a rat on a treadmill. Yet that’s what I feel like, more and more.”

In order for law firms to respond positively to the pressure to become cohesive, high-functioning work environments, profit-centers, they must address the inevitable consequence of staff conflicts, work-related stress, management and staff relationship issues, and a range of conflicts regarding values which affect the quality of life for both associates and partners.

For example, current data regarding mid-level associates shows that they are beginning to defect from law firms in favor of corporate counsel, government, or other positions. Many associates leave because they conclude that they are toiling away for no discernable reward. Attrition of these attorneys weakens the infrastructure of firms, rendering them less competitive. Corporate clients who have invested in the training of these associates are understandably reluctant to repeat the process again, when concern about cost and efficiency is of paramount importance to them.

Another increasing phenomenon is corporate law firm raiding of partners or whole departments from other law firms. Partners are much more focused on their own career development opportunities, and are more likely today to leave a firm when it is not functioning cohesively; when it is insufficiently competitive externally, while too competitive internally; or unable to raise partnership compensation. Today, loyalty to the organization is second to loyalty to one’s own career and personal development.

All these issues affect a firm’s productivity and long-term success. Unfortunately, the impact of current competitive business conditions and work pressures within many law firms today is often misunderstood or denied, outright. The hierarchical structure of most firms can make it all the more difficult to admit to their existence. At the same time, the culture of law practice can generate a side-effect of bringing out the worst in its people — and then bury the consequences through intimidation, denial, or massive rationalizations.

A Workaholic Culture

Research consistently shows that workaholic activity is actually less productive and efficient than more moderate output. And, a recent study of senior executives’ career paths found that failure to balance work with nonwork life is one of the five major factors in derailment or failure. Yet, a workaholic culture continues to predominate in most firms — to the firm’s as well as the legal staff’s detriment.

All very ironic, because these conflicts, whether they impact the person’s mental health, relationships, creative energy, or attitude, directly affect the internal functioning and economic success of the firm.

Hoping to stem the tide of defections and improve the firm’s work environment, some firms address the quality of life problems in ancillary ways, Some of these efforts include in-house day-care, or part-time / flexible hours for attorneys who have families. Such efforts are useful, but are of limited value to the extent that they fail to address the core issues: those concerning the culture, management, and values of the law firms. These are manifested through stifled communication, lack of collegiality, and absence of common purpose beyond revenue.

The unique pressures, culture, and values of law firms often combine to bring out a more extreme version of what many — perhaps most — career-oriented men and women experience regarding the link between careers and emotional conflict, and regarding work-life balance, That is, we find that people who are relatively “normal,” psychologically — not particularly neurotic, can become emotionally disturbed by successful adaptation to their career or workplace. The attitudes, behavior, and values that are “necessary” for success have a downside for many in the form of feelings of self betrayal, debilitating trade-offs, and anger. This can create psychiatric symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, and unexplained physical ailments.

This is a paradox of today’s workplace: normal people who look sick. It results from an increasing gap between our outer, public self, and inner, private self, “required” by career success. Many men and women have described this to me as the feeling of “living a lie.”

In the years since I first researched this for my book, Modern Madness, this gap has widened because of the experiences of the baby boomers’ entry into midlife and midcareer. That is, the previous downside of successful adaptation to many career environments now intermingles with a new set of midlife conflicts. The new midlife generation — men and women from about 35 onward — are dealing with the key tasks of adult development, which only kick in during the middle years. These concern the more “spiritual” concerns for meaning, purpose, moral vision, human connection and community.

These issues underlie much of the conflict over work-life balance, probably the most prevalent complaint today, especially among hard-working lawyers. But the desire to “balance” the demands of a successful career with the less material demands for a richer personal and inner life contains a built-in contradiction. That is, achieving work – life balance is not possible, because our culture values putting life, human development, in the service of work, of economic development.

Law firms didn’t invent this. They simply reflects it, in a more extreme way. But recognizing the source of the problem enables us to face what it is we choose to live and work for. Work-related conflicts will continue until we shift towards putting work in the service of human development, both as individuals and as a culture. This, in fact, is what the multimillionaire philanthropist George Soros has raised in his public discussions about the role of capitalism, now, after the downfall of communism. It also relates to the issues raised by Ted Turner in his decision to contribute heavily to the UN. And it is part of an ongoing dialogue by such groups as the Social Venture Network and others, who are rethinking the purpose of wealth in relation to society’s purpose and goals.

The there is old Buddhist saying, that if a person wants to see into the future, look into a mirror: The way of life we engage in each moment, each day, steadily shapes and determines our future. If we recognize that our conflicts always reflect our choices, values, and decisions — our overall “practice” of life — and that these, in turn, reflect the larger society’s values and definition of a “successful” life, we can use that awareness to rethink and perhaps redirect the “path” we choose to be on.

For law practice, this leads to a two-tiered strategy. Actions that attempt to deal with the source of conflicts must include, on the one hand, commitment to specific services, programs, and practices that will enhance greater well-being, community, and quality of life. Enhance, not transform, because the latter cannot occur unless new programs go hand-in-hand with a larger-scale shift regarding the purpose of law practice within larger society.

Training In Stress Management Practices

This addresses the unique career and life stresses which affect lawyers, as well as support staff. It should include:

  • Education regarding the mind / body experience of stress; good and bad kinds of stress
  • Self-evaluation methods which enable ongoing self-monitoring regarding the presence of likely stress factors.
  • Teaching specific techniques relevant to lawyers’ career and life-style circumstances that help manage, channel, and control unhealthy stress re-sponses.

Support Groups

These have been effectively used in a variety of business organizations for joint problem-solving of a range of management, career, and work-related conflicts. For law firms, support groups should combine emotional support and understanding, psycho education, learning through shared experiences, and application of learning to ongoing conflicts, all in a safe environment. Four kinds of support groups are relevant to law firm issues:

  • For new associates, to help them adjust to the law firm work en-vironment; deal with conflicts between expectations and realities; and explore issues of career and personal goals.
  • For mid-level associates, to help them deal with anxieties regarding forthcoming partnership decisions, and conflicts regarding career goals.
  • For partners, to help them deal with midlife and midcareer conflicts, questions, and challenges in positive and productive ways.
  • For outplaced partners, or those in need of retooling their practices, to help them clarify career direction, and deal with the stress and anxiety that accompanies this process.

Enrichment Seminars

These teach new practices and provide information about areas relevant to career and personal issues affecting lawyers. They provide stimulation and support for intellectual, emotional, physical, and creative development, and contribute to a greater sense of community and collegiality, as well as team-building. Examples include:

  • Work and mental health issues that typically arise within law firms, including how the culture of the firm can generate hidden conflicts which undermine effectiveness and well-being.
  • Midlife issues related to law practice, including the impact of value conflicts, life transition issues, shifting life goals, and changing definitions of success.
  • Mind / body health practices known to enhance optimal health, including nutrition, breathing, meditation, and Tai Chi.
  • Literature and life, a seminar, focusing on works of literature which teach useful and stimulating perspectives about significant issues of adult life.
  • Leadership development of women and minorities in law firms.

Supporting Volunteerism

A highly useful activity for law firms is the active support of volunteerism. Volunteer activity, especially not pro bono legal work, can be a significant source personal growth and development because it directly affects peoples’ values, perspectives, and life goals. Many lawyers say that their volunteer work provides a strong sense of meaning and human connection. It also helps address many of the midlife conflicts which impact lawyers.

Research shows that the key challenge of adulthood is cultivating meaning, purpose, and human connection, a greater sense of integration and balance between oneself and the world. Volunteerism provides this because giving of ourselves is a form of expressing and acting upon our fundamental connection with all livings, Volunteerism helps the other as well as ourselves because it is an affirmation of that connection. Because it involves giving of oneself in ways that are specifically not aimed at material reward or career advancement, it supports our overall development. At the same time, it can enhance work-related skills such areas as leadership, team building, creativity and innovation, and collaborative problem-solving.

The second tier of effort to enhance quality of life concerns the larger purpose of law practice in our society. A few years ago the Harvard Law School Class of 1958 established the Appleseed Foundation, designed to support the refocusing of law practice upon the service of justice — whether for the citizen or the corporation — and away from serving primarily the financial interests of the players. This, and the kind of reforms proposed by Ralph Nader and Wesley Smith in their recent book, No Contest, represent, at least, a direction for a new dialogue regarding the larger picture: How law practice can contribute to a shift within our culture towards using business development as an instrument of enhancing well-being, democratic institutions, and justice for the human community.

I think the most successfully functioning firms in the new millennium now upon us will be those committed to supporting both the needs of people and business realities. They will be the firms who recognize that more integrated lives are also more productive, in the long run, and help the bottom line. After all, throughout life, whether at the office or at home, our internal and external conduct — the “personal” and the “political” — are really one and the same.