Last Word: The Fall of the Creative Lawyer
Lexpert, July 2007
When the Statistics Canada study that proclaimed Canadians a nation of workaholics made its rounds around Canada’s law firms, the response was typical. “Underslept? Working 50 hours a week?” said corporate, project, finance and other lawyers racing through the busiest times in their careers. “Whiners! Pussies! You call that working too much? I haven’t been home in 10 days! Don’t believe me? Here, smell this suit!” And back they turned to their telephones, computers, Blackberries, and stacks of oh-so-critical documents that needed their immediate attention, RIGHT NOW. Except, of course, unless the Blackberry buzzed, in which it became what needed their immediate attention RIGHT NOW. Unless, of course, they happened to be at their desk and the landline rang, requiring their immediate attention RIGHT NOW…
Now, the pace of deals these days is pretty quick, no question about it, and all these 24/7 technologies do mean that clients want an answer at the speed of e-mail not courier, and never mind Canada Post. But are all these buzzing, racing, instantenously responsive lawyers more efficient, more productive, more creative?
Somehow, I don’t think so. Underslept, stressed out, and unfocused lawyers—with failing family lives, because how do you maintain a healthy relationship with spouse and children if you’re in the office 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., and at home only to sleep?—strike me as doomed second and third stringers, relegated to doing the labour-intensive grunt work that may be necessary but that doesn’t require the alertness and creativity that makes or breaks a deal, and brings to the architect accolades and glory.
Now, no matter how necessary the grunt work is, nobody wants to be a grunt, right? At best, people accept that grunt status is a temporary and necessary larval stage—the technical term for it is “associate”—and that once they pupate and grow up—become partners—most of them will leap from the tedious, labour-intensive grunt work to the more exciting, critical and innovative work. They will become the architects.
That’s the way it was supposed to work, right? But something has gone wrong with the system. Overworked associates less and less often transform into creative, selectively deployed partners. The new blueprint seems to lead from students, to whom some type of lip service at work-life balance is made, to associates worked to the bone until the sane ones escape to other opportunities, resulting in partners who are workaholics through and through.
Law firms officially bemoan this and wish they could solve the question of work-life balance. Officially. Secretly, they’re rather proud of it. Because, on the face of it, it sort of looks like survival of the fittest and the billest. I mean, biggest billers. The crazy-working associates become the crazy-working partners, those who can’t cut it fall by the wayside, and the firm’s overall profits go through the roof. Right?
I wouldn’t count on it, boys and girls. If law firms expect great things, vision, leadership and creative solutions to clients’ ever-complicated business and legal problems to come from a bunch of people who hadn’t had a proper night’s sleep in 10 years and who go from one high pressure situation to another without a chance to decompress, they’re in for an unpleasant surprise. They will find themselves peopled with workhorses who can put in the hours, but who can’t deliver the goods.
You know I’m right. Look at the top performers in any law firm of note. You can divide them, at a glance, into two groups. First, the ones who think they should be at the top of the heap, because they are the ones who burn the midnight oil incessantly, who race from meeting to meeting, who always have an in-box chokful of stuff, 11 projects on the go, and for whom “working too hard” is a badge of honour.
Then you have the ones who really are at the top of the heap. They do the occasional crazy stretch when they live on nothing but caffeine and adrenaline, to be sure. But for the most part, they’ve got a comfortable rhythm going. They sleep, they eat, they go skiing, they drive their kids to soccer. They take a year off to sail around the world. They write books (not on law), run marathons, travel for fun, live a life. And, they essentially write their own rules, because they’re indispensable to law firms. They’re the sources of solutions, the springs of innovations, without which professional services becomes a commodity you can buy from a vending machine.
So… which one would you rather be when you grow up?
Unfortunately, you’re much more likely to become—or already be—the other. Because compensation and work distribution models at most law firms favour the 60+ hour treadmill, despite evidence that the superstars almost always bypass it.
Marzena Czarnecka is a freelance writer who values sleep, time with her family and frequent vacations, all of which goes some way towards explaining why she’s not working at one of Canada’s major law firms.