The Mythical Concept of “Work/Life Balance”


It’s time to wrap up the series on wellness by tackling a concept that has been doing the rounds for a generation now – work/life balance.

The Wellness Series So Far

If you’re just coming in at the end of this series, you’ve missed some pretty awesome stuff so far (if I do say so myself).

First I took a look at some disturbing statistics, and asked the question: is law wrecking your life?

We then had a closer examination of whether you needed to cull some of the excess out of your life if you were going to be able to really thrive in your legal career.

After that, I examined whether lawyers really needed to work extended hours at the office if they wanted to succeed.

Finally, we considered whether your ongoing battle with stress was really necessary, or whether there might be a better way to view stress as a beneficial component of legal practice, rather than something to be battled.

What is Work/Life Balance Anyway?

If you’ve ever tried to find a job, and in the process done some due diligence on the firm you were looking at, then I can be quite confident that one of the things they promised was a dedication to “work/life balance” for their staff.

It’s been the catch cry for the modern generation of lawyers, and in all but the most extreme examples, has become something that we expect law firms to promise to their employees.

But what the heck is it?

From what I can tell, the almighty work/life balance can mean any one or more of the following, depending on who is talking about it, how old they are, when they started work, and what season it is:

  • flexible work hours
  • a day off for your birthday
  • sure you’ll work 14 hours days but we let you go home sometimes to shower
  • you won’t need to work every weekend
  • we close over Christmas
  • we have lots of  parties with free booze
  • we care about our staff’s health, by providing them with the free law society business cards with the helpline number on them
  • the ability to log in to work remotely

We’re Probably Asking the Wrong Question

There was an interesting article recently by Jeena Cho about redefining the question away from language like “work/life balance” and into something like “a balanced life”.

And I have to say, I think she’s right.

Others obviously do too – Nicole Abboud from the Gen Why Lawyer recently tweeted:

not sure why, but the term “work/life balance” is somewhat starting to bother me

I think that fundamentally the problem is that the phrase is inconsistent with the reality.

Work/Life Balance Doesn’t Exist

Here’s a pretty standard breakup of a “traditional” lawyer’s weekday:

  • Wake up, eat etc (1 hour)
  • Go to to work, work, go home (12 hours)
  • Do post-work chores and stuff (2 hours)
  • Check emails, do more work if required (1 hour)
  • Sleep (8 hours)

The chances are high that for many people I’ve overestimated the amount of sleep, and underestimated the amount of work/travel time. I’ve also not included the fact that many lawyers keep ticking over things in their head while at home, meaning they are never really “off” work in a true way – it’s always humming along in the background somewhere of their brains.

But you can see the picture – of our waking time, about 75% is spent at work, or going to and fro from work. Add in to the “normal” work day the post work functions, staff events, early mornings, and the longer than usual days – and all of a sudden the so called “balance” becomes a massive joke.

That accounts for 5 days of the week at least, and 6 days for some people.

So muttering “work/life balance” which gives this impression of a 50/50 split is quite obviously a far cry from the reality of our lives.

Work is Part of Life – Not Separate From It

The biggest major issue with the phrase is that it seeks to separate work from life. This is a falsehood at the most destructive level for a legal career, because it results in us internalising the idea that work is something to be abhorred, hated, and fled from.

Once we have that view, we are on the path to the following problems in our career:

  • losing focus – by spending our energy desiring to be everywhere but work, we will lose the ability to focus on the task at hand (some people would probably use the term “mindfulness” here)
  • losing motivation – although external motivation can keep us going for a time, ultimately if we’re working only to be able to do things other than work (holidays, making money, retiring early etc), we’ll become jaded and dissatisfied;
  • losing zeal – a passionate representation of our clients interests is called for, and if we’re so busy seeking “life” instead of “work” that we come to resent our clients and their interests, then how can we fulfill our ethical obligations?

It’s not that wanting to do things outside work is bad, quite the opposite.

Rather, it’s the mentality that comes along with separating work and life when they cannot really be separated.

An Integrated Approach to Life and Wellness

I don’t really like getting caught up in semantics much, unless it’s really necessary – I’m more interested in the substance of the discussion than the words being used.

But because of the problems with the phrase “work/life balance” I’d encourage you to steer clear from it for a while, and start thinking a bit more about the big picture.

Here’s a starting point: are you enjoying your life, or not?

You don’t need to create an artificial construct around your life to answer that question – you can just tell.  It’s important not to lie to yourself about the answer to this question though.

If you are constantly overwhelmed, then don’t tell yourself you’re not.  If you loathe getting out of bed every day, then you’re not doing fine.  If you cannot stand your colleagues and can’t wait to run out the door at the end of the day – then it’s not going OK. If your personal life is a shambles and it’s affecting your work – then you need to address it.

What can you Do Instead?

First I’d encourage you to really drill down on what it is you’re trying to achieve in your life. What kind of person do you want to be, what kind of life are you trying to build? Revisit the article on essentialism for lawyers, and start to hone in on what actually matters to you.  Because nobody can answer that question other than you.

Next, start making adjustments. Don’t “try” – willpower doesn’t work for this kind of wholesale change that you are looking to effect. Incrementally, steadily, and gradually being new habits which start steering the ship closer towards its destination – if you do otherwise, you’ll just break the rudder.

Finally, modify as necessary – it’s a bit of a process, and you’ll never actually finish (as people, we sometimes change…) – but if you can develop a habit of introspection, evaluation and adjustment, then you’re going to find that your purpose will be clarified, the dead weight will fall away, and overall your sense of satisfaction with your direction is going to significantly improve.

And on that note – Happy lawyering!