What does work/life balance actually mean?

19 Aug, 2016

What does work/life balance actually mean?

“What’s the culture like?”. “Is there an expectation to stay late in the office?”. “Are the firm flexible about lawyers working from home?”. As Legal recruiters I would say these are amongst the most common questions we get asked when talking to lawyers about alternative employment.

As a result, and given the increasing importance of these issues to junior lawyers, this is something that we regularly talk about at Think Legal Recruitment. Which firms get the balance right? Are there any particular teams that excel? Which Partners do we think are most interested in engaging on this subject?

Up until now, research has suggested that it is best to ensure a clear distinction between home and work – ie. Under no circumstances should one check work emails after a set time in the evening or “I don’t look at my phone until after I’ve been to the gym in the morning”. Many firms have sought to encourage this. Everyone understands that being a commercial lawyer is a demanding job but, particularly after feedback in recent years, many Partners have been keen to reassure prospective recruits have their team offers a work/life balance and is resourced to allow for fee earners to have clear and distinct down time.

Of course in practice this doesn’t work. Clients want direct access to lawyers whenever they feel they need advice. Jobs and contracts are so big that it simply becomes unattainable to switch the phone off for 12 hours and deliver proper client care. This results in happy clients but more often than not dissatisfied lawyers. Not because they’ve had to work late or from home but because they were promised something different. I don’t believe for a second that hiring managers didn’t mean what they said at interview. Partners know that work/life balance is important to millennials and want to address this. They just don’t often have the tools to address this while delivering for the clients that keep everyone in a job!

What can be done? A recent article from the Harvard business school analysed new scientific research which stated that setting impossible goals to separate work and home life may actually add to stress as people try and inevitably fail to achieve clear boundaries. The article goes on to say:

“Because these cognitive transitions require effort, most previous advice on managing them has suggested minimizing them through disciplined boundaries. Researchers from Ball State University and Saint Louis University have now found the opposite might be true — that blurring the boundaries and integrating work and life might better equip us to handle cognitive transitions while limiting the drain on our cognitive resources.”

Anecdotally this seems to make sense. At Think Legal Paul and I can’t afford a drain on our cognitive resources!

Having recently started our own business, we have found that the blurring of lines between home and work life has become the norm. We regularly think about the business, our strategy for the future and undertake various tasks, outside of office hours. On top of this, the nature of the service that we provide to our clients and candidates means that we are always available to speak when they need us. We’ve actually found that starting our own business and further integrating work and home life has been liberating.

The practical benefits mean feeling ok about having breakfast together and wandering in to the office at 10am, safe in the knowledge that we can and will work as hard and for as long as we need to in order to deliver a personable, high touch service. It means Paul can walk his dog in the day while catching up on phone calls. Or I can attend family functions in Ireland without much trouble, safe in the knowledge I can work from anywhere and not constrained by office norms.

I appreciate that we are a growing, entrepreneurial, small business. Large law firms require different resourcing strategies and that impacts on the flexibility they can offer employees. Nonetheless if firms can offer practical, flexible solutions which allow people to work in a more bespoke way, suited to their needs or lifestyle maybe we could work towards reducing a perceived lack of fulfilment some lawyers feel in the modern workplace?

For more information or a confidential chat, please contact Joe Gregory – joegregory@thinklegalrecruitment.com