A Big Law Lesson From the Business World

, The Am Law Daily

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Steven Harper

The current issue of the Harvard Business Review includes an article by Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams, “Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life,” that every leader of a large firm should read. Unfortunately, few will bother.

It’s not that big law leaders are averse to thinking about their firms in business terms. To the contrary, the legal profession created its currently prevailing model by importing concepts embraced by their corporate clients. In the process, running firms by maximizing simple metrics—billables, leverage ratios and hourly rates—has made many equity partners rich.

The downside of this approach is that the myopic focus on near-term revenue growth and immediate profits comes at a price that most leaders prefer to ignore. Values that can be difficult to quantify often get sacrificed. One example is the loss of balance between an individual’s professional and personal life.

Looking at the Same Things Differently

The HBR article's central theme contradicts a popular narrative, namely, that balancing professional and personal demands requires constant juggling. Over a five-year period, the authors surveyed more than 4,000 executives about how they reconciled the competing demands of their personal and professional lives.

The results led to a simple recommendation: Rather than juggling to achieve “work-life balance,” treat both work and life with the same level of focused determination.

According to Groysberg and Abraham, the most successful and satisfied executives (those descriptors, it turns out, are not mutually exclusive) make deliberate choices about what to pursue in each realm as opportunities present themselves. In other words, they think about life as it unfolds.

The authors write that the executives in the survey recounted stories that “reflect five main themes: defining success for yourself, managing technology, building support networks at work and home, traveling or relocating selectively and collaborating with your [home] partner.”

Professional Success

Defining professional success is the key foundational step. It's no surprise that not everyone agrees on its elements.

But the survey uncovered some fascinating gender distinctions. For example, 46 percent of women equated professional success with “individual achievement,” compared with the 24 percent of men who felt that way. Likewise, more women than men (33 percent versus 21 percent) defined success as “making a difference.”

The gender gap was even greater among those defining success as “respect from others” (25 percent of women versus 7 of percent men) and “passion for the work” (21 percent of women versus 5 percent of men). (Respondents could choose more than one element in defining success, so the totals exceed 100 percent.)

On the other hand, more men than women defined success as “ongoing learning and development and challenges” (24 percent of men versus 13 percent of women), “organizational achievement” (22 percent versus 13 percent), and “enjoying work on a daily basis” (14 percent versus 8 percent). More men than women also saw success in financial terms than did women (16 percent versus 4 percent).

Personal Success

Among both men and women, the most widely reported definition of personal success was “rewarding relationships” (59 percent of men; 46 percent of women). (Surprised that more men than women picked that one?) Most of the other definitions gleaned from survey participants revealed few gender-based differences (“happiness/enjoyment,” “work/life balance,” “a life of meaning/feeling no regrets”).

But big gaps between the genders again emerged among those who defined personal success as “learning and developing” and “financial success.” In fact, zero women equated “financial success” with personal success; 12 percent of men did.

Putting It All Together

Once a person defines success, the next steps seem pretty obvious: master technology, develop support networks, move when necessary and make life a joint venture with your partner if you have one. But few law firm leaders create a climate that encourages such behavior. Short-term profits flow more readily in environments that a recent Wall Street Journal headline captured: “When The Boss Works Long Hours, Do We All Have To?” In most big law firms, the short answer is yes, even if the boss doesn’t.

In general, the strategy that Groysberg and Abraham offer amounts to tackling life outside your career with the same dedication and focus that you apply to your day job.

The HBR article offers a few examples:

Are you becoming a prisoner of technology that allows others to have 24/7 access to you? Then occasionally turn it off and spend real time with the people around you.

Are you concerned that you’re missing too many family dinners? Then treat them with the same level of importance that you attach to a client meeting.

These and other ideas aren’t excuses to become a slacker. After all, those who responded to the authors' interviews were high-powered business executives. Rather, the suggestions are a way to anticipate and preempt problems. As one survey respondent said, people tend to ignore work/life balance until “something is wrong. But,” the authors continue, “that kind of disregard is a choice, and not a wise one. Since when do smart executives assume that everything will work out just fine? If that approach makes no sense in the boardroom or on the factory floor, it makes no sense in one’s personal life.”

That seems obvious. But try telling it to managing partners in big law firms who are urging younger colleagues to get their hours up.

Here’s a thought: Maybe attorneys should record how they spend their hours at home, too.

Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author of "The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis" (Basic Books, April 2013), and other books. He retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis in 2008, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.

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