Blazing trails

By Lyndsie Bourgon October - November 2012

Will a new generation force the profession to finally take work-life balance seriously?

Blazing trails Photo of Nicole Howell, Hamilton Howell Bain & Gould, Vancouver
by Venturi+Karpa.

The pressures of working in the legal industry are well-known: 12-hour workdays, demanding clients and constant sacrifices in one’s personal life are par for the course. Examples of burnouts are common in most offices. Studies have shown that, as a profession, law has one of the world’s highest substance-abuse rates. And the industry’s answer to all this has been piecemeal; the cold, hard truth is that, for private practitioners and in-house counsel alike, work often trumps life. Sure, promoting work-life balance commands lip service, but lawyers remain beholden to the long-held habits of the profession. And you’ll hear them complain that compared to accountants and bankers — and even some doctors, depending on the practice — lawyers have failed miserably where other professions have succeeded.
 
Old habits die hard

The reasons for this are both systemic and cultural. Practising law often comes down to helping clients in crisis or rushing to help them meet critical deadlines. Those clients will always be demanding.  What’s more, our legal and regulatory environment is growing more and more complex by the year, adding a further burden to a lawyer’s continuing work.
 
Other practices are holdovers from an earlier era — such as the pressure to put face time in at the office, never mind that the lawyer can be just as productive, if not more, at home.
 

"If you pay lawyers for hours, they will give you hours." Jordan Furlong Edge International, Ottawa

And then there’s the oft-discussed billable-hour culture that has left law firms in a truly inescapable bind. “If you’re at a firm where you have a 2,000-hour billable target, that’s your albatross,” says Nicole Howell, a founding partner at Hamilton Howell Bain & Gould, a boutique employment law firm in Vancouver. “That’s why you can’t go home, or to your kid’s concert.” Hamilton Howell Bain & Gould has ten lawyers, four of whom work three days a week.  The majority of the firm’s lawyers are contractors, and are paid on an hourly basis for their billable work — a straightforward structure that also frees up time for employees, most of whom are parents, one who is a musician, and another who is writing a book.
 

Photo of Jordan Furlong, Edge International, Ottawa, by Mike Pinder.

“The billable hour encourages an environment of ‘up or out’,” echoes Nicole Garton Jones, managing partner at Heritage Law, also in Vancouver. And that attitude is exactly where the systemic problems lie, according to Linda Duxbury, a researcher and professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business. “As long as they continue to reward, and have a model based on billable hours, (law firms are) not going to change,” she adds.
 
Today’s legal work environment, says Duxbury, was shaped back in the early 1990s, when companies in all sectors were downsizing and restructuring. Many firms, and their law­yers, were feeling the squeeze and were thus working incessantly. The “jobless recovery” which followed gave law firms had little incentive to pay attention to work-life balance and human resources management.
 
Then came boom times, and by the turn of the millennium there had been a complete about-face. Law firms, faced with impending labour shortages became preoccupied with recruiting and retaining “knowledge workers.” Suddenly, human capital and its perks were the key to better business.
 
Since the financial crisis hit in 2008, law firms have seen spending on legal services decrease. But generational demographics continue to shift, and have stubbornly refused to adapt to a bust economy like in the 1990s. Baby boomers are retiring, Generation Y is beginning to move into partnership positions, and new recruits from the millennial generation don’t consider the recession a hindrance to their idea of work-life balance. “Frankly, younger people don’t believe in this concept of hours equaling loyalty,” explains Duxbury.
 
Samantha Prasad, a partner at Minden Gross, says that when she does job interviews for articling students, she sees the shift in action: “I think there’s more of an expectation to have it all, and law firms have been forced to become more flexible or open to those discussions,” she says. “And that’s not such a bad thing.” Prasad herself has benefited from an alternative work arrangement with her firm. In 2004, she lived in New York City for six months, during which time she continued to work with the firm, flying between meetings in both cities instead of giving up her position. She jokes about her tiny apartment in the city — de facto, a 500 square-foot Minden Gross satellite office.
 
But Jordan Furlong, a partner with Edge International and former editor-in-chief of National, calls talk of “work-life balance a relic from the excess days of the early 2000s.” The subject has become taboo in some quarters, as older partners don’t remember the term fondly at all.  “It’s a brave law student who goes into an interview these days talking about the need for work-life balance,” he says. “The cycle has run its course.”
 
And indeed for now, recent graduates across Canada and the U.S. are being told that they ought to consider themselves lucky to have a position in a firm at all. But how millennials will end up adapting to the current law firm ecosystem remains to be seen.  When the economy picks up, firms may have to accommodate the expectations of a younger generation filling the jobs left by retiring boomers.
 
What men (and women) want

Traditionally, work-life balance has been defined as a women’s issue, and law has followed suit in prioritizing it as such. In Ontario, the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Justicia project has made an effort to retain and advance women lawyers, who are more likely to leave private practice for corporate law or boutique firms. Other law societies in Quebec, British Columbia, and Manitoba are following suit.
 
But work-life balance is about more than “motherhood and apple pie,” says Garton-Jones.
 
Increasingly, the best and brightest new recruits include men looking for balance. Men who want to be more involved in their relationships and family lives, and who are looking for a little quality time for themselves have catapulted work-life balance issues out of the women’s-only realm.
 
For instance, Mark Virgin of the firm Stevens Virgin in Vancouver wanted to get his employees involved in a work-life balance measures after he spent the time to get fit and change his diet. So he hired a fitness instructor to teach a private, noon-hour boot-camp class. The firm found that, as most employees participated, the workplace atmosphere lightened. Now, they take part in lunch-and-learns about health. It’s a small gesture to get employees active, but one that appeals to both genders.
 
Another lingering misconception is that balancing work and life is a challenge only for lawyers who work in law firms. Bernadette Corpuz, a senior associate at Borden Ladner Gervais in Toronto, begs to differ. Years ago, she made the switch from private practice to a corporate law position hoping it would give her more time to spend with her daughter. But “in-house can’t be painted with a single brush,” she says. “It really did look like the grass was greener, but I didn’t achieve more balance.” She ended up returning to private practice.
 

"I choose the dividing line,and that’s because of the paperless office." Donna Neff Neff Law Office, Stittsville, ON

With the addition of young twin boys to the family, one of whom has autism spectrum disorder, Corpuz negotiated an alternative work arrangement with Borden Ladner Gervais. She works a four-day week with 80 per cent of her target and 80 per cent of her normal pay, for a fifth day off. But instead of taking that day off away from the office, she stretches it between five days, taking an hour off here or there for doctor’s appointments or other meetings, as need be.
 
Counter-intuitively, Corpuz says the billable hour can actually work in favour of alternative work agreements. “In some ways I think it’s the root of all evil and I sure wish we could get rid of it . . . and other parts of me say thank goodness for it, because at the end of the day my [hours clocked] will tell the story.”
 
Not everyone, however, is prepared to negotiate an arrangement like the one Corpuz sought from the partners at her firm. A recent survey from the American Bar Association, which looked into the career satisfaction of young lawyers found that young lawyers who took advantage of workplace programs believed that they were ultimately stigmatized and experienced a decrease in quality and quantity of assignments.
 
Making change within traditional occupations is never easy, but the legal industry could learn a lot from other high-stress industries that made a commitment to alternative work arrangements. Canada’s big banks have embraced telecommuting, investing in secure networks to help their employees work from home. Consultants and accountants, who have similarly demanding positions, are branching off into smaller, more specialized offices, or turning to self-employment as an answer.
 
It doesn’t have to be this way

Donna Neff

Photo of Donna Neff, Neff Law Office, Stittsville, ON, by Mike Pinder.

For some law firms, technology provides one way out from behind the work-piled desk. Donna Neff, founder of the Neff Law Office in Stittsville, Ont., has become known for pioneering her paperless office — an innovative weapon in the war against inefficient, time-consuming work.
 
At the Neff Law Office, all incoming and outgoing documents are converted to PDF and stored on servers that can be accessed from around the world — which she recently took advantage of on a trip to South America. The point, says Neff, is to make it easier to work efficiently — and quickly — outside the office. Now, she doesn’t have to set foot in an office each day to access files — and she doesn’t waste time tracking them down from lawyer to lawyer, either. If she needs a document at 8 p.m. after washing dinner dishes, she can find it easily. “I choose the dividing line, and that’s because of the paperless office,” she says.
 
It’s hard to make all these options stick, though. Across industries, company-instated work-life balance programs have shown mixed results. In a 2009 study from the Corporate Executive Board, nearly 60 per cent of human resources staff felt satisfied with the work-life balance options their organization provided. In contrast, only 16 per cent of employees felt the same — illustrating the huge disconnect between employers and employees. One size does not fit all. 
 

"It’s hard to make all these options stick, though. Across industries, company-instated work-life balance programs have shown mixed results."

Jacqueline King, a litigator who left Miller Thomson LLP in 2010 to join a mid-sized firm, and is also Chair of the CBA’s Supreme Court Liaison Committee, says that to truly change the culture there must be buy-in from the clients. And that means getting them to understand that it isn’t always appropriate to contact lawyers 24-7. She proposes implementing set timeframes, schedules and checklist protocols as a way to achieve this.
 
But changing client perceptions also means getting lawyers to agree to deliver a different kind of value proposition. “If you pay lawyers for hours, they will give you hours. That’s what they’ll consider to be their unit of productivity. Clients want more value, more communication, and more understanding of their business,” says Furlong. Partners, he says, will have to implore their lawyers to work better, not longer — quality of service, not quantity of hours, will lead to a workplace where not only clients are happy, but lawyers are too.
 
More importantly, Corpuz says, partners of her generation have a responsibility to reexamine their own expectations of junior associates and their perceptions of work-life balance. Just because they’ve burned the candle on both ends isn’t a reason to insist that that’s just the way things are. “Sometimes there’s a feeling of climbing the ladder and pulling the rung up after you,” she says. “You haven’t helped change the culture; you’ve become successful for being part of the culture.” 

Lyndsie Bourgon is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
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