Work-life balance and its place in the current economy is a familiar topic to this blog (see “The “Sandwiched Generation”, Work-Life Balance Issues At Risk in the New Economy?, and Should Gen Y Abandon Any Hope for Work-Life Balance?). Law 21, which describes itself as “Dispatches from a Legal Profession on the Brink” recently posted a well-written and thought-provoking blog on this topic, which concluded that “we’ll soon be closing the book on one of the legal profession’s most-used and least-understood phrases of the last decade: “work-life balance.””
Most commentators in this area seem to agree that—at least in the legal profession—any discussion or concern about Work-Life Balance is a thing of the past. A past when the economy was good, attorneys were in great demand, and law firms competed for the best and brightest by offering whatever they could to attract them. This included at least engaging in discussion of, the now-verboten Work-Life Balance topic.
Few would disagree that economy drives this discussion. Law firms (or any employers, for that matter) are never going to promote Work-Life Balance because of their generosity or genuine concern for the well-being of their employees. However, they will consider it when they believe it ultimately benefits their bottom line. In good economic times, some employers bought into the notion that promoting Work-Life Balance (or at least uttering the words during the hiring process) would make them competitive in recruiting the top candidates. And that retaining these qualified employees would also mean saving on the bottom line by not having to retrain new employees to replace those who might decide to leave the workplace as a result of inflexible work policies.
What is being overlooked in the current Gloom-And-Doom forecasts, however, is that “flexible” (or reduced) work-schedules can also benefit the employer’s bottom line in a very direct way. Typically, reduced or flexible schedule means reduced compensation. In the legal world, reduced work-schedules means the attorney is “off,” or at least seriously derailed from, the partnership track. Nobody wants to share the partnership pie in these trying economic times for firms. The old model of law firms who desired associates willing to do whatever it takes, in exchange for partnership on a 7, 8, or 9-year track, is no longer such an appealing one.
At the same time that people are declaring the end of Work-Life Balance, law firms are delaying start dates for new associates, paying associates a portion of their salary to take a year off to spend time with their family or pursue non-profit endeavors, and some are even apparently considering reducing attorneys to four-day work-weeks. While these employer-driven, sometimes mandatory reduced schedules with accompanying reduced pay is certainly not ideal for many, it beats the alternative (layoffs). And in the end, it continues to redefine the “model” of the perfect lawyer. When the economy begins to improve, I believe this rethinking of the old standard will help, not hurt, the Work-Life Balance cause.