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Work-Life Balance: Can the Greedy Associate Have It All?

By Brian Kumnick | Last updated on
Over at Law21, Jordan Furlong has composed an elegy of sorts for the oft-scorned term "work-life balance." He suggests that, though the work-life balance movement was already receiving considerable criticism, the concept as such is a dead letter in the modern law firm, undone by an economy that requires would-be associates to accept pretty much any terms of employment that a firm is willing to offer. The debate ends when associates lack the leverage to make any demands at all of their employers.

To be sure, not everyone has received Furlong's message that the debate is, at the very least, back-burnered in the current recession. As noted here and elsewhere in the past few weeks, Gen Y-ers and Boomers, in the personae of Adrian Dayton and Scott Greenfield, have been engaging in an online slam-fest over why partners don't get Gen Y, how Gen Y is full of "slackoisie," the evils of old-school requirements like face time, and the partners' prerogative to use associates as profit centers.
We do love a good inter-generational dispute -- who doesn't? -- but the Dayton/Greenfield showdown strikes us as ultimately more of a generic, hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn confrontation, notwithstanding its use of the terminology of the work-life balance debate. The crux of the work-life balance issue may have been summed up, though, by a blogger commenting on the feud. Mark Bennett at Defending People noted the fundamental character of law firms, and how that defines associates' work lives: "[A]ssociates are not, as you might guess, labor, but rather capital -- the oxen that drive the mill. The firm exists to turn the minutes of young lawyers' lives into money."

In that light, Furlong may have the right idea about the work-life balance debate; his post goes on to argue that firms, profit mills that they are, were never responsible for ensuring happiness or balance for associates; that responsibility falls squarely on the individual lawyer, who must decide for herself whether the time tradeoffs are worth the money/prestige/whatever.

So the term "work-life balance" may be dying, at least insofar as it was meant to invoke a direct challenge to law firms to act differently towards their associates. But as Furlong notes, whatever name you choose to use, a significant problem remains: law school is really expensive. With all their school debt, what else can new lawyers do but sign up to be oxen? That's a problem that is unlikely to go away anytime soon, recession or no.  The best we can hope for, for now, is that the legal economy turns around, and we can at least get back to being greedy oxen.
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