Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Work-Life Balance is Just a Number (of Clients)

One strain of work-life-balance thinking seems peculiar to lawyers. It's the idea that lawyers' duty to their clients is absolute and therefore any attempt to "balance" something against this duty is fundamentally illegitimate. According to this view, lawyers should know when they enter the profession that "life" must always take a backseat to "work."  Here, for example, is lawyer Scott Greenfield blogging along those lines:
But you have things you like to do, prefer to do, more than practice law?  That's cool, but then you've chosen poorly. Law doesn't happen at your convenience. Judges rarely ask whether the brief they demand tomorrow will interfere with a great band playing at a local club. It's not wrong that you want to go, but that you enter into a responsibility thinking your good times trump duty.  The client, who sits awake at night believing that there is a professional working diligently to save him from ruin, has things he would rather be doing too.
I agree it's reasonable and correct to expect that lawyers will not let their "good times trump duty." I agree with this because everyone agrees with it. It's banality masquerading as straight talk. No one actually thinks "work-life balance" means asking a judge for an extension on an overnight brief (which, in real life, happens only in the middle of trial) to make time for partying, or even for junior's soccer game.

The work-life balance problem is not a battle between noble lawyers demanding duty to clients and feckless lawyers fighting for their right to party. All lawyers agree that direct conflicts have to be resolved in favor of the client. The disagreement, really, is about how many clients a lawyer should have, and how often those conflicts actually occur.

This is especially true at bigger firms. Associates who demonstrate competence will quickly find themselves in high demand. Partners will find more and more work for them to do. Usually, the culture of the firm will make it hard to turn down work without harming your prospects for partnership—even for associates who are meeting their billable hours requirements. This culture creates many lawyers who really just have too many clients. They aren't working 80 hours a week because it's what's required to professionally and properly represent a client or because it's required to earn a decent living. No, they're working 80 hours a week because it's required to properly represent 20 clients, all at once.

The solution when that happens is pretty obvious: get two lawyers to represent 10 clients each, and they'll each get to work 40 hours a week. The push for work-life balance in law firms is essentially a push for that sane solution. It is a push against a culture that rewards those who hoard work and punishes those who refuse to represent too many clients at once. That's all. I also happen to think that it is a pro-client movement, because overworked lawyers are less likely to produce top-notch work.

Lawyers have a duty to zealously and competently represent their clients, and this sometimes requires sacrifice. But there's no duty to have 20 clients at a time. In fact, there's probably a duty not to have so many clients. When I hear stories about lawyers with two hearings scheduled at the same time—offered as an example of how hard a lawyer has to work—I can't help thinking that one (or both!) of the clients is getting screwed. But I have to agree that it sounds pretty macho.

What's driving this? Simple greed. What really pushes big firms to require their associates to take on too much work, and what pushes solo practitioners to take on too many clients, is just lust for money. A solo practitioner with two or three good clients can make a very good living. In-house lawyers tend to do quite well for themselves representing a single client while punching a clock. But many lawyers want, and feel they deserve, more than a decent living. They want, and feel they deserve, to be rich.

I have a saying: getting rich is the easiest thing in the world—you just have to work all the time. This applies to lawyers as much as anyone else. A good thing about being a lawyer, though, is that if you're smart and organized you can be quite well-off without having to work all the time. In practice, this means making sure you never have too many clients.

Or, like me, you can go with Plan B, which is to marry well.

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