You deserve much better
Both in BigLaw and throughout corporate America, one of the most poorly conceived wellness concepts is that of ‘work-life balance.’ We all say it. We all say we want it. The HR departments at BigLaw firms are even starting to encourage us to pursue it. But what is it that we are being encouraged to pursue? What is ‘work-life balance’ and is it what we really want? Is it what we really need?
To understand the limited and uninspired meaning of ‘work-life balance,’ consider some examples of BigLaw attorneys who have achieved it. We’ve all heard about the senior associate or partner who goes offline for a couple of hours most evenings to have dinner with the family. Or the working parent who takes a short break at night to tuck the kids in. Or the fitness buff who finds an hour in the afternoon to sweat out some of the toxins accumulated during that morning’s fire drill. Or the millennial who has a standing 4pm calendar invite with herself to meditate for 15 minutes. These are the stories of BigLaw attorneys who have achieved ‘work-life balance.’
We don’t mean to belittle these accomplishments. In our industry, even a small victory to put oneself first for just 15 minutes a day can be a significant achievement. We encourage these victories. But, on the other hand, should we really be celebrating a 15-minute break as an example of work and life in holistic and harmonious balance?
A balancing act
The tragedy of calling the ability to fulfill basic human necessities ‘work-life balance’ is that we normalize being satisfied with the bare minimum of the ‘life’ component of the expression. We settle for a ‘life’ that is but a tiny fraction of the full human experience, and call that ‘balance.’ Being able to spend a couple of work-free hours with your family at night or exercising a few times a week is great, but nobody should think of that as balance.
At the end of the day, should we be satisfied with a ‘life’ that adds up to a collection of a few 30-minute pockets on non-work time per day during which we frantically scramble to attend to our family and physical health while also monitoring e-mail and battling creeping work thoughts?
In our view, the problem with ‘work-life balance’ is that it isn’t particularly concerned with ‘life' or with ‘balance.’ ‘Work-life balance’ is about work. Or, more specifically, it’s about getting you back to work as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s about tending to your basic necessities of connection with friends and family, exercise and mental health so that you don’t completely flame out. It means paying just enough attention to your personal needs to avoid a catastrophic mental breakdown. Work-life balance is not a harmonious balance, but a teetering balance. To have achieved ‘work-life balance’ is to be hanging in the balance.
Don’t get us wrong: work can be great and, for many of us, hopefully even meaningful and fulfilling. It feels amazing to be challenged, to learn and to grow. But:
Work is not supposed to be our identity or entire existence. We all know this in principle, yet so many of us are satisfied with a crisis-averting amount of attention to our personal goals and desires.
We call this ‘work-life balance’ but are we really living a balanced life, or merely subsisting? At some point we have to ask—what kind of life do we really want for ourselves? Is life really meant to be to be spent in a perpetual state of busyness, stress and not having enough time? If your work strips you of your ability to experience life to the fullest, then perhaps it’s time to rethink whether you’re giving up too much.
From work-life balance to life-work balance
Naturally, when we started out in BigLaw, the scales tipped heavily towards work. When friends and family would ask us how we’re doing, the response was often ‘busy.’ When we had to introduce ourselves to strangers, the description began and ended with ‘lawyer.’ When asked how we liked to spend our free time, we struggled to answer the question. This was palatable for a short while—we were grateful to have landed a highly coveted job that allowed us to quickly extinguish our student loans—but, at a certain point, ‘BigLaw lawyer’ just wasn’t enough. It started to feel one-dimensional. The typical BigLaw lifestyle that we previously thought of as success began to look an awful lot like failure.
Over time, we realized that the antidote to an unfulfilling ‘work-life balance’ is to instead choose life-work balance. Life-work balance is about recalibrating the scale. It’s about restoring balance to the often neglected and yet obviously more important side of the equation—the side of life. If you’re interested in achieving life-work balance but don’t see a path to get there, then you may have to start thinking radically differently. Redefine the problem. Redefine the goal. Instead of asking yourself how you can fit some pockets of life into your buys work schedule, ask yourself how you can restructure your work to peacefully and productively co-exist with your life.
In our view, life-work balance is about not giving up on your dreams. It’s the type of balance that allows you to do something incredible with your life that has nothing to do with your day job. It’s the type of balance where you meet someone for the first time and can spend hours talking about your shared interests without ever mentioning that you’re a lawyer. It’s the type of balance where at night you dream of your passions rather than upcoming deadlines, and then wake up with enough time in the day to actually pursue them. Life-work balance allows you the time and space to thrive as a human—not just professionally, but also mentally, spiritually and physically.
How to get there
The key to achieving life-work balance is to stop aiming low and to start designing a life that aligns with your values. While BigLaw work can be fulfilling, intellectual honesty compels the vast majority of us to admit that it’s not the most important thing in our lives. The first step to achieving life-work balance, then, is to allow ourselves the ability to pursue not just a BigLaw career, but also other things that matter more. In other words, life-work balance means that we need more time.
Even though time is the most scarce and valuable resource on earth, fortunately, there are ways to regain control of your time. In our view, the surest way to take control of your time in BigLaw is to take control of your finances. The link between financial health and more time may not seem obvious at first, but understand: if you depend on your next BigLaw paycheck, then you can’t afford to put yourself first. It’s simply too risky. You may feel like a high-roller because of your job title and giant paychecks, but the truth is that you’re trapped.
You may assure yourself that you thrive in a fast-paced environment and on little sleep (we hear people proclaim this often!), but the truth is that you likely can’t afford a less stressful life. If you live paycheck to paycheck or set aside the bare minimum of 10-20%, you will struggle to find the will and time to pursue non-work activities. Your options for designing a more fulfilling life are simply far too limited.
To achieve life-work balance in BigLaw, we recommend you start spending less—a lot less—and saving and investing the difference. Once you’re on a path to financial independence from your BigLaw income, we can almost guarantee that you will start feeling the stress of the job slowly fade into the background. You will find it much easier to say ‘no’ and to prioritize things that are important to you. You’ll stop settling for 30-minute pockets of ‘life’ and start giving your life the time and attention it deserves. Now that’s a balance worth pursuing.