We see an increasing concern and a search for ‘work-life balance’ for lawyers, irrespective of whether they are corporate lawyers or litigators. Some in-house counsels are also facing a huge amount of work.
Law firms and companies are struggling to understand the implications of this on organizational productivity.
Wouldn’t work-life balance reduce productivity owing to the reduction in total number of hours spent on work?
Or would it enhance productivity because lawyers/ other employees will be more productive in less time?
Would a short-term fall in productivity makeup in the end through higher retention rates and increased productivity as the output of lawyers/employees who have stayed longer at work is higher in the long term?
Should law firms and companies ignore this discussion altogether and implement a culture of work-life balance for the greater good, or say, just to faceless criticism?
These are important questions because the direction of our economy will be shaped by our answers to these questions.
I believe that effective answers to these questions might be important for long-term growth.
If we avoid facing them, that is actually an answer in the negative.
Before we proceed to how a challenge about the absence of work-life balance needs to be dealt with, we need to understand our own need for work-life balance.
The concept of work-life balance is ‘elastic’ – for each individual, the division of work, relaxation, learning away from work varies. For the same person also, it varies depending on their immediate goals and stage of their career/ life.
This is one of the reasons that companies can find it hard to arrive at uniform parameters for what a system to ensure work-life balance must provide.
Productivity Phases at Work
A team member may have a ‘lean’ period of learning, uneventful activity, monotony, followed by an epiphanic discovery which changes everything, followed by a series of feverish activities and breakthroughs, which gradually translates into the lull of uneventful activity.
The cycle repeats.
Law firms and companies have a choice on whether to allow individual members to follow their own journey on this path.
On this path, a lawyer may spend time in office, but actual deliverables and productivity over different weeks may vary, depending on which phase you are going through. Every lawyer, irrespective of seniority, will go through this path. Partners and general counsels also experience this.
The question is not about the number of hours clocked in at your desk, or the number of hours spent at home. You may relax or be distracted at your workstation in the office, or work on your computer.
If I take the psychological weight out of a deliverable, and throw the worry of failure out of the window, the colour of the task at hand completely alters. This is a continuous self-development journey in itself as an individual.
Environmental factors have a role to play in this individual journey. If I have an environment of criticism and denouncement all around me (from peers, seniors and bosses), which can often happen in real life, I will find it very difficult to take the psychological weight out of an assignment.
If, however, we bring in teamwork, a common purpose, and the element of learning by doing (instead of failure and obedience), and you might start ‘naturally’ working for 20-40% longer.
There are many team members at Lawsikho who have taken this approach while learning and while building teams. We are still working on this approach.
However, we have seen that when we follow this, new ideas will strike people on their own, even when they are not at their desk (or machine) working.
There is a very natural inclination to one’s work. People start developing a new level of care, maturity, dedication and they grow personally as well.
What is important is that law firms, companies and managers stay alive to this process of individual growth, and respect it.
However, an organization cannot immediately incorporate this in its fabric. Lawyers who are leading or building teams will need to stay sensitive to this part of a team member’s journey.
In many companies, the founders, promoters, managing partners, or salaried partners who have risen through the ranks may not have gone through this journey. This is not the cultural environment they grew up in. Many have grown under pressure, criticism, competition and an environment of threat. Most human beings give in and burn out under such pressure, but they have grown in spite of such challenges.
They survived through sheer strength of character, managed not to implode within. Kudos to them.
However, sometimes they tend to think that this is the only way to identify talent for the future. That is the point where we need to start a new inquiry.
Requirements in the New Economy
Today, lawyers (and employees in companies) are demanding a different way to grow, one which is more meaningful, peaceful and supportive. Some people think this is a generational change, a new standard sought to be imposed by ‘millenials’.
However, there could be an economic justification to this. As the structure of the economy alters, the old assembly-line or repetitive jobs are vanishing, new kinds of jobs are emerging.
Job security is fast evaporating. One really needs to ‘think’, ‘plan’, execute, learn and improve, differently and continuously. Success at these jobs requires a different quantity and quality of work to be done to succeed. Read this article on how advance chess is the future of the legal profession.
If one comes from a place of peace, mental safety and satisfaction, as opposed to an environment of passive threat, there is a space for creativity, time to think and for experimentation. These will be important virtues for the new economy.
We have seen that several senior people who have been successful under the old model of ‘put your head down and work till you succeed’ are unable to adapt to this new economy. This appears to be the case because they cannot handle uncertainty. They cannot come up with experiments. They always want a tried and tested method to succeed. Unfortunately, that is not available. They are not used to channelling their inner creativity and inventiveness when faced with uncertainty.
Ingredients for Success in the New Economy
Success (combined with satisfaction) in this economy requires a different kind of mental effort and actions. It is new, and we are not trained and wired to be this way. Given the necessity of putting such kind of effort in the new economy, more and more people are devoting themselves to their passions and striving to create a living from it, as that is a more meaningful pursuit for them, and it requires a very similar kind of thinking and execution skills.
In this environment, mental well-being, learning, personal and professional growth is critical for success, and for rest.
Full alertness, creativity and peace of mind produce better output than a system of pressure and constant policing, which may have worked for relatively more straitjacketed jobs.
One cannot grow without taking care of oneself. Mental well-being is a necessity.
What does a new work-life balance look like?
Does mental well-being relate exclusively to spending time away from work (i.e. going on vacations), going home on time, or are there other aspects to it?
Not exclusively. To nurture mental well-being, one is required to spend time on learning, growth, psychological development, connecting with friends, working out physically (the impact of exercise on mental focus is underestimated – a 10 minute workout can alter the direction of a bad day into one of unprecedented productivity), strengthening your mind, listening to music (your favourite music, sleep meditations, affirmations, etc.).
It is essential that the ‘balance’ includes time and activities to learn and grow in a different direction and to expand one’s mind.
At the same time, I don’t think that there is a uniform concept of work-life balance applicable to all individuals. There may not be a standardized sense of balance or a one-size-fits-all structure. It varies from person to person.
Everyone has to figure a unique balance and set of activities for themselves and stay conscious of how this requirement is evolving for them. This is the primary responsibility of the individual. The organization is required to provide the individual space, structure and opportunities to do this.
Such growth activities by lawyers need to be undertaken without mentally worrying about the next big project or deliverable. You don’t need an international vacation – you can allocate a few minutes, hours or a day to your growth, but in that time, there must be freedom from worry. It can also happen for a few brief moments (maybe half an hour) right in the middle of work.
An organization needs to be alive to this.
Overlaps between spaces for work and rest
There will also be overlaps in the spaces of work and rest, which is why the traditional demarcation between being at work during office hours and outside office hours will start blurring.
You might not be working on the next client deliverable, but learning more about the industry, and that might be play.
At another level, you might be reading a book on love, friendships and how to grow your personal relationships, and then realise how you can implement some takeaways to improve personal and work relationships simultaneously.
To include this in work culture, there will be flexibility in work timings, possibility of remote work, sabbaticals, periods of training, etc. There may be a moderate reduction in salary which is more than compensated by the space to grow, and high incentives for long-term results.
Encouragement of long-term entrepreneurial initiatives in-house
Imagine that a senior associate wants to develop a new kind of practice in 5 years for which he or she needs to undertake a different kind of learning. Maybe he or she needs to learn some new area of law, a foreign legal system develops a new kind of clientele, learn a lot of technology, a foreign language. The task could require a combination of the above.
He or she needs to invest a bit to travel. Maybe he or she is willing to take a pay cut or partly invest in learning or travel.
Rewards are uncertain. If the experiment works, the law firm could be a leader in a new kind of work. If it doesn’t, the law firm stays where it is.
The organization can give him or her the room to grow and learn and maybe even invest. He or she may not get the increments that a partner gets, but the room to grow and learn can be provided. He or she will deviate from the standard partner track, but what if this effort turns out to be wildly successful? A disproportionate incentive needs to be allocated for success so that if he or she is successful, the rewards for him or her are a match for (or even exceed) the rewards of his or her peers, who would become partners by then.
The practical challenge in implementation of such initiatives is what will happen to immediate deliverables.
This continues to remain a chicken-and-egg scenario. Immediate deliverables continue to remain piled up, owing to which the opportunity for such a shift does not arise.
Proposal for a model
I am proposing a three-step model here. Additional hiring to manage the workload, a moderate reduction in pay coupled with investment on training.
Over the period of one or two years, this can bear very fruitful results, in terms of reduction in attrition, increase in job satisfaction, balanced working hours and a highly motivated team.
The reduction in pay should not adversely impact the workforce, when compared with the benefits in terms of work culture. People don’t value astronomical salaries at the cost of personal health and well-being, as they are unsustainable. If I earn 25% less today but I can work for 10 more years, I will earn more over the span of my career. If I earn 25% more today but cannot work for more than 2 years in this manner, I may earn less over the span of my working career.
The role played by training in this model is crucial. While many big law firms pride themselves on their knowledge management efforts and the marquee names of celebrity lawyers who come to train their lawyers, when we talk to the lawyers who leave such firms, we find that there is enormous scope for improvement in training content and methods. Above all, a system for continuous learning and mentoring, especially for junior lawyers, is critical.
This is connected to one of the challenges faced by relatively senior lawyers, who may benefit from spending more time mentoring their teams, ensuring collective team output through constructive coaching and team building. Currently, there are several partner level individuals in big law firms who have not been able to retain people or build a large team, and that impacts the overall output, as they are left as a one-man army.
Often, the tendency is to take the burden to do the entire team’s work by themselves if the team fails, and to abandon all training initiatives as faith is lost when people make mistakes.
Planning, training and delegation matrix
This actually stems from a combination of failures in planning, training and delegation. Any senior would say that solving this kind of problem falls outside their job description, and understandably so.
How can you delegate to people who are not trained to do the work? No level of creativity and planning will fill that gap.
It could be that we are struggling to transition to the new economy because one of the core elements to solve the planning-training-delegation matrix (i.e. training) is missing in the ecosystem.
As we have realized through our own journey, the scope of training is incredibly vast and complex. Guest lectures, summer schools, exchange programs and credit courses are just insufficient to train lawyers to get real work done. Industry-academia collaboration is not about guest lectures or an additional credit course, or organizing a day-long conference on a new issue where you invite a managing partner from a big firm to share some insights.
A lot more goes into systematic training. Drill-down on basics, exercises, practice, coaching, elevation to advanced problem-solving concepts, etc. We have about 40-people in our team (primarily remote, throughout the country), focussed full-time and exclusively on practical legal education, we have been working at this for 9 years (if you add up the age of the iPleaders blog) and yet we are far from done. In fact, the work has only begun. Read more about what Lawsikho is here.
This is how we are planning to fill the gap and facilitate lawyers in their journey to transition toward the new economy.
Another possible area of development for senior people is around on client-development and cultivation of new practice areas.
It is likely that in these areas there will be some borrowing from other managerial and leadership-related disciplines and their customized application to legal work. As the ecosystem matures, we may see a collaborative effort and a range of arrangements between law firms, professional coaches, legal training companies and even psychotherapists.
The First Step Forward
What can you do to stop the cycle and take the plunge toward mental well-being? Does the past necessarily have to repeat itself, given that the future requires a different kind of lawyers altogether?
Any person at any level in the organization can take the initiative to break this chain. Of course, if someone senior takes the initiative, the change may spread faster. However, do not underestimate your own impact. Start the wave and onboard one more person. Then, onboard one more person.
It takes one person to stop the cycle. Take the time out to learn an area of legal practice so that you are more comfortable with deadlines owing to increased training. Read individual self-development books. Work out and meditate. You can work out thrice a week for 40 – 60 minutes in your own house at any time with this app. You don’t need to meditate in a cave, do a short audio-assisted meditation through an app.
Take the pressure out of deliverables.
Ensure your learnings trickle to your team members. Let them be groomed in a different way.
Also, share victories in an inspiring way with peers and seniors, so that they are inspired to take it up.
Let the movement grow. See the wave spread to the ocean.
If you have a team, or if you want to build a team in the future or if you want to create the space for yourself to operate from these new values, then you might consider imparting group-training to your team.
We understand that in-house training is not a full-time job of a practising lawyer, which is why we stay exclusively focussed to it.
For those interested in learning further, here are the courses open for enrolment:
EXECUTIVE CERTIFICATE COURSES
Students of Lawsikho courses regularly produce writing assignments and work on practical exercises as a part of their coursework and develop themselves in real-life practical skill.