A Boomer Lawyer Explains It All For You

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Forgive me. I’m about to have a Jerry Maguire moment.

I am 58 years old. That means I’m on the tail-end of the Baby Boomer generation. I’m a lawyer and a partner in a law firm. One of the most common misconceptions held by boomer lawyers is that, “Millennial lawyers want my job.” That is not true. Millennials do not want my job. They want their own job. They want to create, from the ground up, a new definition of senior lawyer.

Let’s face it. The law firm pyramid depends upon denial to all but a few the ultimate measure of success in the profession – partnership. It works only when firms continuously increase competition and demand for revenue, which is measured in hours worked times rates charged plus rain made. (This is not nefarious. All business depends upon increasing revenue and its employees’ desire for recognition and advancement. It is just more pronounced in the business of law.) Only those willing to keep increasing their own pace (with a healthy scoop of skill, mentorship, and luck, of course) make it to the top. Generally speaking, those that cannot or will not don’t make partner.

Why then, if partnership is the Holy Grail, don’t junior lawyers embrace the 24/7 law firm model as Boomer lawyers did? They don’t, I’m told, because millennial lawyers can see that down that road lies the loss of work-life balance. You may get ahead but you won’t know your kids, divorce rates double, heart attacks happen. Plain old unhappiness ensues.

Associates are leaving the legal profession in droves. Women associates are leaving Big Law in numbers that I’ll call “droves-squared.” Boomer lawyers recognize this problem. We just haven’t lit on how to fix it.

Thus far, Big Law’s big fix is to negotiate a truce with associates on what the right work life balance is, as in how much time can be spared from work to actually have a life. The goal is to produce a work-life balance policy that, in most case, is nothing more than a written acknowledgement of the one-size-fits-all status quo. “Sure, you can knock off at 5:00 to help with homework, coach Little League or institute a family mealtime, but there will be a trade off in terms of compensation and professional recognition.” Same as it ever was.

The model may be broken but I don’t think the steps we are contemplating fix it for our designated audience. Why not? Because many firms still don’t accept that it is necessary to be a successful human being and be a successful lawyer at the same time. And why is that? Because few boomer lawyers appear to have achieved the dual goal of financial success and personal happiness. Biggest paychecks? Yes. But highest divorce rate? Check. Problem teens? Check. Alcoholism and drug abuse? Check. Check. Plain old unhappiness? You bet.

Associates don’t appear to want a Band-Aid-balance program. By attrition, they are voting against investing time in a job that’s been super-glued and spackled-over, and may fall apart in their hands. Nor are they waiting for permission to receive work-life balance. As many boomer lawyers note (me included), associates, if not already working fewer hours, are complaining vociferously about working more. Make no mistake, this is a grass roots protest movement that is happening, and some approximation of what we now think of as “work-life balance” will occur as a result.

From my observation point, it isn’t that associates are protesting hard work. They are simply hoping to work smarter, to leverage their time in ways that were not available to boomer lawyers when we were associates. Their work hours are compressed through use of technology and knowledge management. My answer is, “Let ‘er rip.” Find ways to get the same work done in less time, then go home and write the great American novel. And if associate output doesn’t decrease (due to increased productivity), then the compensation and professional recognition should be the same, too. Producing quality work product in less time than it took me twenty years ago should result in applause, not more required billable hours.

My message to millennial lawyers is to take heart. Boomer lawyers will soon be gone. You should rebuild the senior partner job (and the road that gets there) as you see fit. A successful lawyer has an obligation to himself, his family and his profession to also be a successful human being, whatever that means to the lawyer. Think about what that means to you now, at the beginning of your career. It is an individual goal.

That’s the real epiphany, the Jerry Maguire moment. You cannot create a written policy to insure work-life balance if what constitutes the right work-life balance depends on the individual.

Well, that’s off my to-do list. Maybe now I can go coach some Little League.

*The author wishes to note that she is speaking about unhappiness in the abstract. She has been happily married for 30 years, has two well-adjusted kids, and is a shareholder in a very family-friendly firm.

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Comments

  1. Great insights Mary! It will be interesting to see how the traditional firm model evolves. I guess part of the problem is whether millenial lawyers will get the substantive training they need to become great lawyers. Somehow those first few years of working around the clock is what made great lawyers. How do we achieve this goal? Also, as it often happens, many changes will take place as our clients change. They really are the ones who drive demand. Maybe once the millenials takeover as clients we will start to see true work life balance because our clients will appreciate and understand when we go home at 5pm. However, boomers still drive the client base so I’m not sure we will see too many changes anytime soon. It will be interesting to see how this all evolves. Excing stuff!

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    • I guess, then, that lawyers are like doctors? 36 hours in the ER translates into round the clock in the library? I think that lawyers will still have to hit the required minimum hours (1800-2100 depending on your law firm) but they will “return to work” from home or other remote location. I’m not sure we will ever change the mindset of lawyers in general which is (paraphrasing Mamet) “ABW” — Always Be Working. The first time I was tempted to bill for time spent standing, lost in a daze, in the shower, was when I realized I needed some perspective.

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  2. Mary,

    I think this is true of all Millenials and not just lawyers. I changed my mind and decided I didn’t want my bosses job. He sold his soul. Worked crazy hours and in my mind was a corporate robot. What’s the fun in that. I didn’t realize the chose I was making was to choose a different path entirely. I just knew there was a better way, and you are right that the job and roles need to be re-invented. I think the conversations need to collectively happen so we can coordinate our efforts and keep from hurting one another.

    I see this true in my role as a social media influencer and consultant. There is always someone who will speak or blog for free. They work unbelievable hours towards a goal that might or may make them happy only to find that there is no money. We need to set a bar and personal standard to re-invent our roles, work lives and responsibilities in whatever it is that we are supposed to do.

    Thank you for this. I love it and I especially love your disclosure at the bottom. Context is important.

    JMM

    Reply
  3. Thanks Jessica. I have a real love/hate relationship with being a lawyer. I love and admire many in the profession. It has given me untold opportunity for personal growth and professional recognition. I wish I was a millennial (not because I desire eternal youth, well…not much) but because technology and knowledge management multiply the opportunities beyond anything I could have imagined as a law student. My job now would be vastly different had I had the same opportunities then. Where’s the “way-back” machine when you need it?

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