Work-Life Balance at Law Firms: Why It Matters And How to Achieve It
The workplace has experienced massive shifts in recent years, with professionals’ goals altering dramatically in response to the global pandemic and the Great Resignation.
These days, goals extend beyond merely climbing the career ladder. Although pay and promotions still matter, they are only a small part of the equation.
Now, even the most ambitious professionals understand the value of work-life balance. They also realize that they collectively have the power to achieve this once-elusive way of life. This is true even in fields associated with long hours and ample stress.
Legal professionals, in particular, realize they can have it all in a time of labor shortages. Regardless of pay or prestige, many refuse to work for employers who fail to give them sufficient leave, vacation time, or remote opportunities. These professionals recognize that attorney work-life balance improves not only their well-being but also their job performance.
Balance was a clear priority among young professionals referenced in The American Lawyer’s 2021 Midlevel Associates Survey. Over 60 percent of respondents claimed they would gladly leave their current law firm to achieve a greater work-life balance. Meanwhile, just 27 percent of associates were willing to leave to secure higher compensation.
While it’s clear that today’s legal professionals see the value in work-life balance at law firms — and are making headway toward achieving it — the industry still has a long way to go. Bloomberg Law’s Attorney Workload and Hours survey indicates that, despite evolving priorities, burnout is on the rise. Respondents made it clear that they were falling short of their balance-oriented goals, with 72 percent claiming they found it difficult to disconnect from work.
The Impact of the Pandemic
The struggle to achieve an attorney work-life balance is far from new. This quality has been sought-after yet inaccessible for decades. The pandemic merely sped up trends already beginning to take over in the late 2010s. In 2019, for example, the American Bar Association responded to a clear shift in professional priorities by adding a “Life and Practice” section to its esteemed annual Legal Technology Survey Report.
At that time, just over half of the respondents stated that they were able to make time for themselves. Unfortunately, nearly one in ten of these lawyers claimed to “never stop working.” Already, most firms were offering flexible work opportunities, but this didn’t necessarily alleviate the problem. Younger attorneys, in particular, asserted that they struggled to take time away from their electronic devices to relax.
While the ABA has neglected to include “Life and Balance” in its 2022 edition of the Legal Technology Survey Report, many other studies indicate that work-life balance has been a sticking point since the onset of COVID-19. For example, the 2021 edition of the aforementioned Bloomberg Law Attorney Workload and Hours survey revealed decreases in well-being and work-life balance related to the pandemic.
While experts initially anticipated that emerging from the pandemic would ease the struggle, this is less clear in light of the Great Resignation. At this point, it behooves industry leaders to view work-life balance as a long-term priority.
How to Improve Work-Life Balance for Legal Professionals
Despite noble intentions, it’s easy for legal professionals at all levels to get sucked into the rat race and inadvertently destroy any semblance of work-life balance. If this quality is truly to be a priority, it needs to be strongly built into the very fabric of today’s practices. This means developing (or revising) every policy with this key question in mind: how will this promote much-needed balance for hardworking employees?
Implementing long-term changes can feel all but impossible amidst labor shortages. When firms are short-staffed, it’s only natural to lean on current employees to pick up the slack. This ultimately prompts a downward spiral, causing existing staff members to become disenchanted, leading them to either check out or leave altogether.
Still, firms must run optimally in the here and now. However, this can be challenging to achieve while short-staffed. These suggestions may help:
Narrow Your Law Firm’s Focus
Culling your caseload may be an unfortunate necessity if you’re currently short on associates. Assess your firm’s optimal caseload based on current staffing realities. In all likelihood, you could stand to cut back.
Yes, this can be painful. But it will allow you to be pickier about the cases you take. As a result, associates can focus on cases that truly ignite their passion. This could be key to preventing burnout, especially when attorneys work long hours.
This could also be a great opportunity to rebrand your firm or modestly adjust your practice area. Perhaps now is the time to pursue a more targeted niche that fits your background.
For example: if you were previously willing to take on a wide variety of personal injury cases, now may be an ideal time to shift your focus exclusively to motor vehicle accidents or premises liability. Analyze local demand to ensure you can still acquire a desirable caseload once you narrow your focus.
Should you decide to move forward with a revised niche, you’ll want to confirm that all marketing materials reflect this adjusted focus. This means updating your website, email blasts, and social media presence to reflect your new focus.
This may seem like a lot of upfront effort, but it will ultimately create a more targeted, cohesive, and passionate law firm in which associates feel energized instead of burnt out.
Build a Flexible Workplace That Promotes Balance
Industry leaders have long touted remote and hybrid work as the ultimate solutions to burnout. By analyzing the post-COVID workforce, flexible setups are far from a cure-all.
Yes, employees demand remote options, and yes, these can certainly limit the hassle of commuting. But strong efforts must still be made to promote balance. Otherwise, staff members will find themselves working as hard as ever — but from their home office instead of your practice.
Often, the real crux of work-life problems doesn’t center around the actual number of hours worked. Instead, it’s how those hours are allocated and what associates are expected to accomplish off the clock. Associates often feel pressured to take on non-billable tasks, which may not accurately reflect when they work from home.
The Thomson Reuters 2022 State of the Legal Market Survey shed light on this concern. Experts divided practices into two main categories: Stay Firms with an annual turnover rate of just 8.7 percent and Go Firms, where the turnover rate exceeded 18 percent. Lawyers at ‘Stay Firms’ worked more billable hours and, shockingly, saw lower associate compensation increases than their ‘Go’ counterparts.
While experts at Thomson Reuters plan to investigate these findings in more detail, it’s clear that the concept of work-life balance is far from simple. For now, researchers advise that industry leaders begin “rethinking changes in staffing and work patterns” while “centering…[each firm’s] operations and activities around its key value proposition.”
Use Intake and Case Management Software
While tech solutions have long allowed law firms to streamline workflows and cut costs, they were once regarded as a nice option rather than a necessity. At this point, however, these strategies are indispensable. Fail to implement them, and you’ll find yourself quickly falling behind the competition.
The technological status quo compromises not only workplace efficiency but also employee satisfaction. In Thomson Reuters’ Stellar Performance: Skills and Progression Mid-Year Survey from 2021, associates made it abundantly clear that they do not want to spend their limited time on non-billable administrative tasks, particularly when these are not clearly linked to client relationships.
Paralegals and legal assistants can help with many administrative tasks, but they may be stretched even thinner than associates. Instead, efforts to lighten the load should focus on strategic tech solutions, such as:
- eSign. Why disrupt the flow of legal intake by forcing would-be clients to visit your practice in person? eSign streamlines this process, allowing leads to complete the final steps shortly after they’ve gotten in touch with your firm. Intake staff members can guide leads through this simple procedure, which is sure to boost conversion rates.
- Online scheduling. Appointment booking is often a huge area of inefficiency, even for practices that seem technologically advanced. Automated solutions such as Martindale-Avvo’s TrueScheduler optimize this process by providing pre-screening questions to ensure that only qualified leads move forward. It also allows for instant appointment booking at the lead’s convenience.
- Automated analytics. Tracking metrics help to determine where your staff’s time is best dedicated and where morale-destroying inefficiencies exist. However, gathering data and analyzing reports can feel like a chore. Data-driven tools produce valuable insights in record time, allowing you to make immediate adjustments. These analytics could be pivotal when modifying your niche, as they’ll help you see which types of cases or clients can be handled efficiently.
While each of these solutions may seem limited in scope, they offload some of the most burdensome tasks that distract associates from the work they find most fulfilling: building stronger relationships with their clients. By limiting the administrative burden, many will experience greater workplace satisfaction even if their work schedule doesn’t change dramatically.
The modern quest for attorney work-life balance represents both a key area of challenge and opportunity among today’s rapidly evolving law firms. Those willing to embrace changing priorities and focus on building a purposeful, employee-centric environment will quickly see their staff members become more productive and engaged.
The legal workplace of tomorrow may look radically different from its predecessor, but the results could be wonderful for clients, associates, and industry leaders alike.