Lazy? Lazy? Are you talking to me?

Asleep on desk

Last Word: Lazy? Lazy? Are you talking to me?

Lexpert, September 2008

by Marzena Czarnecka

I once made a crack to the managing partner of a national law firm that the reason I was reluctant to get a “real job” was because the thought of dragging myself into the office at the crack of 9:15 a.m. was repugnant to me. The look he gave was part contemptuous and part pitying. The contemptuous part said, “I’ve been at my desk since 6:30 a.m., just in case someone from New York decides to give me a call.” (These days, he might say Atlantic Canada, but back then, Newfoundland was a have-not province, and if someone from there bothered to call here, well, they could damn well leave a voice-mail, eh?)

The pitying part said, “And that’s why you’ll never get ahead in life.”

Since then, I’ve listened with great interest to the growing crescendo of complaints, by partners, particularly partners of a certain vintage—you know who you are—of lazy associates. “They’re not at their desks at 7 a.m. You’re lucky if they’re in at 8:30. Joe—do you know Joe?—he gets in at 10. No earlier than 10. I swear to you, it’s true. And then he’s off to work out at noon, and back home by 5:30. To eat dinner with his family, he says. Can you believe it? We’d never have gotten away with it in our day, eh? But what can you do? This generation—spoilt. All they want to do is make lots of money and drive fancy cars, but without working particularly hard.”

I paraphrase. But I bet you’ve said. Or heard it. The lazy associate litany. The bane of today’s law firm. Atop the agenda of the aging executive committees everywhere: How do we motivate our young people? What can we do to make them perform the way we want them to perform? What can we do to make them stay and not complain that they’re overworked? The self-declared “enlightened” Executive Committees put it like this: “What can we do to reconcile their values with the values of the firm?” The values of the firm being, generally speaking, some combination of client service and profitability.

And the values of these “lazy” associates? A relentless production factory is spewing out articles and books on this topic, without successfully enlightening the older vintage.

So I’ll tell you. It’s actually really simple. Sometime in the 1990s, law firms started talking about work-life balance. They recognized that stressed, burnt out lawyers weren’t good for firms (in the long run). They realized that on the one hand, they wanted their lawyers to be client-service oriented, available 24/7, totally wired and connected road warriors… and simultaneously, they wanted them to enjoy the finer things in life, hobbies, vacations… families. Just without compromising client service and billable hours.

And for some odd reason (“We want you to have work-life balance. Just remember that the client comes first. And make sure your billables don’t drop.”), they just couldn’t do it. They agonized, they debated, they struck committees, and they even sponsored studies—especially when the “woman problem” became so acute. What was happening to all the female partners? Why were they leaving the profession in droves? What could we do to accommodate them? We’ve tried everything! (“We want to accommodate you fully. Spend as much time with your family as you need to. Just remember the client comes first. And don’t let your billables drop, because that’s a bad sign, I mean, if your billables drop, what can we do?”)

Now say what you will about lawyers, on the whole they’re not dumb people. They observe. They learn (eventually). And they come up with solutions. Creative solutions that work. Like the work-life balance solution of the lazy associates. Are you ready for it? Do you see it yet?

Partners come in a variety of vintages, and the youngest among them have caught onto this solution too, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s keep the paradigm thus: partners have talked and agonized about work-life balance.

The lazy associates the partners bemoan? They’ve simply taken it. They live it.

And if you don’t like this, venerable partner, you’ll like this even less: it’s your fault. They believed your propaganda—without the caveat. You said, “At our firm, we strive for work-life balance.” And they heard you, loud and clear. “Awesome,” they thought, and they weren’t listening when you mumbled the “client first, I don’t care who died, jeezus, don’t you have a nanny to take care of the kids” and “whatever you do, don’t let the billables go down, that’s death” caveat.

Now, I’m not saying there are no lazy associates. There be lazy partners too—even among those who put in 12 solid hours in the office six days a week boom, bust or Christmas party. But as a generation, to say that today’s young lawyers are less hard-working, less ambitious, less driven, less motivated or less client service focused than the silverbacks who came before them? Pure and utter drivel. Slander, really. (Especially when you consider that “client service” as a focus and definition of certain law firms is about 10 years old—and there are still some venerable partners who could use a bit of a refresher course in what it is that those two words really mean.)

Their billable hours may prove to be different. More of the 2 a.m. rather than 6 a.m. variety. More contentious—is it right to bill a client for a series of conversations on the Blackberry that take place “on my time,” while I’m hanging with the kids in the evening? It’s going to take another decade—well, five years, maybe—to work that out. And in another two decades, these lazy associates will be the senior, top-performing partners.

And I’m immensely curious: how badly will they misunderstand the generations that come after them? And will those generations be seen as psychotic workaholics… or indolent sloths?

Marzena Czarnecka sleeps in, when her children permit it, in Calgary, and does much of her most inspired work at beaches, lakes, mountaintops and campgrounds. Or in the middle of the night.

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