Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Work Life Balance in Law Firms. Two Sides of the Debate.

Juxtapose these two blog posts by two of my favorite bloggers and lawyers, Dan Hull over at What About Clients, and Nicole Black over at Sui Generis.

How do you serve clients and still not burn out faster than a Grucci fireworks display? I'm a certified baby boomer. I am driven, I love the law, and I sacrificed a lot of family time for success. I am here to say that while I enjoyed pretty much every minute of it, I gave up too much. Fortunately I learned my lesson early, not so much for me but for staff. The issues are bigger than one post but I will deal with two of the issues here. One is how do I become a good lawyer. Two is much do I need to earn to be happy.

Now of course the second issue is troubled by what I consider to be ridiculous debt caused by tuition and education loans. A kid out of law school who had to finance the whole thing has to earn at least Sixty thousand a year plus to be able to afford the tuition repayment, rent, a car, and basic insurance. He can forget about saving for his future. Fortunately he can put that off for a few years.

On the other hand, how much can one expect to earn if they work a regular work week. What is a regular work week for a lawyer? How much of an outside life can a lawyer expect when just for development of skills he needs to put in a lot of time.

Learning the law, does not happen between 9-5 or even 8-6. It is the reading and working done when the phones stop ringing and the partners stop screaming that permits the opportunity for learning to take place.

How does a young lawyer learn. Well CLE is part of the equation, but frankly the advance sheets and the daily bar journal is the first thing to turn to. Now I never trained transactional lawyers so I can only speak for trial lawyers, but reading transcripts of trials and issue spotting the appellate issues is a good tool in learning how to put a question, and on how to object and preserve a record.

Reading non legal magazines of the right type help too. Jurors do not usually read the Review of Books. They are not likely to read the Times Sunday cover to cover either. They read the Daily News or Post, a tabloid, People magazine, Ebony, Jet, Woman's Day, Cosmo, Maxim and Playboy, GQ, Time or Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. These are a few of what trial lawyers should be reading each month. Hanging around the office doing work that most lawyers hate doing, like trial briefs and reviewing the Casemap is a good way of prepping too. Of course looking on-line and reading at least a few of the blogs is also important.

The young lawyer should expect that Monday through Thursday will be 10-12 hour days. I like to see them alternate 10 one day 12 the next etc. Thursdays will also be a chance to go to bar and other oganizational meetings. Friday is a day of relaxation...after 4pm. Saturday or Sunday is meant for renewal but a few hours either in the office or at home working on self improvement or on office work should be required. The key to this is that the lawyer should want to do this. Part of the problem of course is that as someone points out (I think it was in Nicole's post) a lot of lawyers only see that the work they do at 25 years old brings a reward of more work after you become a partner. That is where the law firm culture comes in.

In my firm, there is a very low (compared to most firms) requested billable hour standard. I seek One Thousand Two Hundred Fifty Hours (1250) of billed time. I also expect the associate to be active in one or two Bar association activities and be working up the ladder there. After 3 years, belonging to a local business or other networking group (at church, in the community, a PTA) should also be part of the firm supported marketing approach. Writing and lectures are becoming a part of the regime also.

A key to this however is that, as a partner, I do not try to over leverage the work of the associates. In other words, I do not try to retire on the backs of my staff. I expect them to work. I may actually get out less work than they do, because of my rainmaking responsibilities. I cannot and do not want to so out-earn them that they feel every minute they spend working extra is so that I can go home with a fatter wallet.

How do I do this? By keeping a fair ratio between what I earn as a partner and what the lowest paid associate makes. Hence I think a Six to one (6:1) ratio is not only fair but gives the associate something to aspire to. It is also a way to not become a "You make what you eat" law firm. Rain is not over-appreciated and toiling uselessly and becoming a "stacks troll" isn't either. Family time is up held and no one has to worry that because they went to a football game to see their brother play that they are losing a spot on next years bonus roll.

When it comes to women, there is another thing that needs to be addressed and that is their traditional mother role. I would not steal a child from his mother, nor would I want one of my staff to lose the opportunity to become a partner, a lead trial lawyer, or any other opportunity because she chose to have and care for her child. Hence in my office, you do not lose your turn in line for partnership if you take time to have a baby, you are considered at six years out and at least two years with us, even if you had to stop a time or two to have a child. I am experimenting with an in-house nursery idea right now, and of course home-telecommuting.

Men too need time however, and their fuses should not be forgotten. Hence I also look to help my male attorney's take time off with their young ones and if employees do not have children, then childless employees plan for a sabbatical of at least four months after 7 years with the firm. There is no point in not taking it and it can only be put off for good reason and only for a period of 18 months.

Taking care of one's spirit is important. I am looking forward to memberships in gyms and personal training as a perk some day. I am also going to pepper the bonus's this year with Massage and Spa gift certificates.

I think that while dedication to clients is a very important obligation of a lawyer, one cannnot give much to that client, if he has nothing in the tank. I do not agree with Dan, work-life balance is an issue for partners. It didn't used to be. It has led to the sloppy lawyering and the dissatisfaction of so many promising attorneys. It is time we not only ask "What about Clients" but we ask simultaneously "What about Souls."
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