Lawyers and Their “Me” Time: You Have to Keep Them Separated
by David Dorion
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Summary: If law firms are to survive, they need to change how they treat their legal employees.
You, my friend, Mr. Law Firm partner, are quite inconsiderate: How dare you call one of your associates and cancel their time off. That associate’s supposed to:
Go on their honeymoon
Go on their 10th wedding anniversary
Bury their dead relative
How dare you suppose, conjure, believe that a client’s budding legal issue is more important than an associate’s time off for fun and celebration or bereavement and reflection.
Sure, that client is important; they represent millions of dollars you’ll more than likely dip your hand into for your own (uninterrupted) time off.
But to the associate who has budgeted for six months to a year to do whatever they want or have to do, that client isn’t near the importance of a spouse, child or loved one for whom time off from the law firm needs to be taken.
And lowly associate; the one who has agreed to cancel their time off to return to the office to write briefs, research and offer advice on a case that has little to do with their own lives – you’re also inconsiderate of yourself, your loved ones, friends and fellow associates for agreeing to halt your familial responsibilities in lieu of some high-end client who more likely than not doesn’t know your name even though you’re working on their case.
How dare you capitulate, bow your head in subservience, and before you know you’ve done so, become a useless wuss.
In short, you’re both wrong, and here’s why…
No matter how large the case, no matter how prestigious or potentially how lucrative a pending case can be, for most lawyers, it’s simply not worth it – not in the long run at least – to drive those same lawyers into the ground with work while also causing them to lose out on their time off from work.
And just as applicable, lawyers should not allow themselves to be doormats for senior associates and/or partners. If they do allow themselves to be taken by such advantage, it will soon become their own fault that they have more deadline-oriented work than they can handle, and worse yet, consent to a workhorse status instead of a viable part of their law firm.
As things stand, senior associates and partners, etc., should instead encourage their associates to take time off.
Sure, there may be some short-term inconvenience, especially in lieu of a pending case, and particularly if a law firm finds itself shorthanded. But that too shall pass, or at least easily work itself out through other means of getting done whatever needs doing regarding a certain case.
What won’t pass so easily is a good, qualified and strong attorney taking a leave of absence or quitting completely due to not being allowed time off. If that occurs, a law firm may very well have to:
Search out a new attorney.
Go through the rigors of the interview process.
Possibly risk the law firm to potentially lay out more in the way of salary, signing bonus and other perks that the firm would not have to go through had they stuck with their initial attorney.
Find themselves in a desperate situation in which they have to “settle” for the next best thing in an attorney when compared to the attorney they lost.
How attorneys lose out in this scenario
You know, something does need to be said for working within a high-end, prestigious law firm. For many within the legal profession, high-powered big city firms are a point of legal Nirvana. It’s the sort of gig every lawyer will, at some point, consider for him or herself. And once an opportunity like that comes up, those same attorneys would, quite frankly, be fools not to fully investigate what an associate’s position within BigLaw can entail.
This is doubly true if an associate already works at a BigLaw law firm. For the fact is, not many opportunities of that kind is thrown onto someone’s lap. The competition for such jobs is stiff and unrelenting.
Because of this, associates who feel they’re overworked or unfairly treated within their law firms have to think long and hard about:
Who they are as lawyers.
Who the law firm thinks they are as lawyers.
The implications of a lawyer quitting a high-end legal job only because they think they’re being taken advantage of.
Who they are as lawyers
By nature of the job and their undergraduate, post graduate and clerkship training, lawyers are tough, stout individuals. If words, proposals, criticisms and all-out debates and arguments were jabs, uppercuts and knock-out punches, lawyers would be accused of anything but having glass jaws.
Their training has proven them to be warriors of which Churchill would be proud as he compares modern-day attorneys to the warrior in the ring who continually rises after being knocked down.
And while we’d like to think of lawyers as invincible, honestly, they’re not. The last anyone checked, lawyers were for the most part human. They work off one part intellect, and in their own methods, another part emotion.
The work is hard, and the implications from the work usually comprises some pretty rough sledding from case to case.
These lawyers need releases, and vacation or just a simple weekend alone without the pressures of answering the phone, should be a good source of their much-needed downtime.
After all, better that than:
Getting frustrated and angry
Wearing themselves out to complete burnout
Creating family havoc
Turning to bad, often unhealthy habits.
Lawyers, associates in particular, have to consider these facets, as well as possible results, of simply being lawyers. They must understand that there are with being a lawyer, consequences to be considered and dues to be paid.
Most importantly, associates within a large, prestigious law firm who wants that associate to work hard, needs to know that their career will not always be a bed of roses – more like a bed of thorns – and as lawyers, they have to prepare for such a reality.
Who they are as lawyers to a law firm
Honestly, it requires two or more people for a person to be taken advantage of. This can happen virtually in any scenario:
Within a friendship
Within a family
Within a relationship
Within a career
Enablers are the accelerant in any of these all but dysfunctional relationships. And while some poor sap of a lawyer may be “put upon” with each turn he or she takes between friends and family, that same attorney can actually apply some directives to those in their life just by making a stand for themselves within their law firm.
However, many attorneys – especially older attorneys – are shy to say to the law firm that overworks them “Enough is enough!” They understandably fear job loss, demotion or some other insidious way in which their law firm can negatively affect their career.
In short, these attorneys will never speak out, which cause issues throughout the law firm in which senior attorneys can begin to treat other associates unfairly. This is where one associate attorney’s silence against being overworked, or unfairly worked, makes the bed for the rest of the associates.
From that point on, the law firm’s senior attorneys will feel empowered, possessive, while increasingly denying their irrationality toward an associates’ mounting workload.
In other words, because one associate did not speak up against getting his vacation cancelled, missing his kid’s soccer game, weaseling out of their anniversary with a lame-assed, “Honey, work called. They need me in ASAP,” the law firm will now expect that same acceptability to having their lives interrupted by all associates. They will now look at associates as tools, not people; perpetual engines and not human animals who wear out; and/or robots whose lives outside the law firm are filled with other responsibilities, such as a spouse and kids is not given the least amount of thought by the law firm.
So who is to blame in this situation? Both the attorney and the law firm are to blame. Remember, as was said earlier in this section, it requires two or more people for a person to be taken advantage of.
Should a lawyer quit under these circumstances?
If you think or actually know you are being overworked in your law career, you should still try to hang on. Quitting that firm would be a huge mistake.
Honestly, quitting is the last thing you want to do, particularly if you want to continue to practice law. To quit would haplessly impair your legal career to a point where no law firm will want to hire you. As opposed to quitting, what you instead should do is try to negotiate something with your direct report lawyers.
Ask them to ease up with the workload. Yes, we’ve all heard horror stories of law firms that all but fire attorneys who second guess their workload. However, this can’t always be the case. Not every law firm is comprised of heartless asses who believe work comes first and all other concerns a distant second. Try to negotiate some sort of work limit, while at the same time, ensuring your legal bosses that you can, will and remain interested in the tasks you already have.
Don’t entirely cut off all connections if you go on vacation. This is for peace of mind, both for yourself and your legal managers. When you put in for your time off or vacation, do not be one-sided and tell your bosses you will be out of touch for the entirety of your time away from the firm. Compromise; tell your firm that you’ll be in touch, and that they can also reach you. No, you’re not cancelling your vacation, delaying it or anything of that nature. You are simply saying you can be reached if any consultation is needed.
Eminence Front – It’s Not a Put On
Of all the things law is supposed to be, the profession and its practice have to be rooted in professionalism.
Much of the world’s population, particularly in the U.S., know what law is and what lawyers are. Both are respected. Both are held in high societal esteem. And both are needed very much in our day-to-day living.
This is why law and those who practice it need to maintain a strong sense of professionalism. As an associate, you need to show appreciation and care for your job, and of course those same regards of appreciation and care need to be reciprocated by your direct reports.
For both you and they to act respectful toward each other’s needs and wants is to show professionalism as well as consideration. If more of that were to be expressed between overworked associates and over demanding senior associates and partners, there invariably will be less work-life balance issues and complaints, as well as fewer lawyers quitting the legal profession.
All-in-all, the law firm culture will always feel hard pressed to change itself from what it is to what it should be. At the same time, there are law firms which are adopting more of a work-life balance for its employees, and when considering the emerging styles of management that law firms are adapting, and how recent graduates of law school are contemplating those firms with as much interest as established and possibly more prestigious firms, the writing is on the wall.
Simply put, law firms need to treat their associates with respect and consideration, and associates for their part in being overworked, need to stand up for themselves, though in a respectful manner.
This is how law firms and lawyers can mutually get along, if not survive. If not, one of the greatest professions on the planet may suffer not only a decline in future candidates who want to become lawyers, but at the same time the profession of law as a whole may lose its credibility, and with that, its prestige.
It can’t happen. It shouldn’t happen.
After all, what’s a lawyer without even a slight bit of prestige?