Why Your Firm Shouldn't Strive for Work-Life Balance

Is your firm focused on work-life balance?  If so, you’re not alone.  A google search of “work-life balance” turns up nearly 100 million hits.  Clearly, people are mighty interested in balancing “life” with “work.”

But it’s the wrong mindset, especially if you’re looking to hire and retain the best millennial associates.  Your firm’s pursuit for “work-life balance” actually risks alienating those young attorneys. 

Simply put, millennial associates do not wish to balance real life with work life.  To them, life does not stop at work.  It’s not about balancing a professional career against life’s other dreams and ambitions.  

It’s about blending everything together — career, friends, family, travel, leisure, and all the rest.  It’s about work-life blend.

To understand why millennials opt for blend over balance, consider this seemingly innocuous statement capturing the paradox of work-life balance: “[Millennials] want to be great professionals, but they want to have a life.” - Lacy Durham, Chair of the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division, quoted in Alex Wolf, 4 Ways Millennials Are Changing Big Law, Law 360 (Sept. 17, 2015) (emphasis added).

At first blush, there is nothing exceptional about Durham’s statement, but then you see that “but.”  Being a great professional is somehow at odds with living a great life.  It’s as if “work” and “life” are perpetually at opposite ends of a delicate fulcrum.

As lawyers, we’re language sleuths.  So, let’s make a simple but profound change to Durham’s statement: “Millennials want to be great professionals, and they want to have a life.”  Now that’s work-life blend.  Work and life are not diametrically opposed concepts.  Life does not stop where work begins.  Life and work happen together.

When the lines between work and life blur, a millennial feels most at home, most inspired, and most ready to make meaningful contributions. As the D.C. Bar's Washington Lawyer magazine astutely noted, "Thanks to millennials, the notion that an office can be both a workplace and a social center is becoming de reigueur, even in law firms." Sarah Kellogg, Law Office Design: Envisioning a New Archetype, Washington Lawyer (June 2016).

But what does work-life blend look like? It starts with a mindset change — training ourselves to stop viewing “work” and “life” as weights to be balanced against each other.

Work-life blend is about the freedom to bring life into work.

It’s about the freedom to work outside the four walls of an office when efficiency and effectiveness demand it.

It’s about the freedom that comes with young associates collaborating with each other, paralegals, secretaries, and, yes, partners.

It’s the freedom to work in a professional yet collegial atmosphere where doors are open, people are trusted, and creativity is appreciated.

It’s about the recognition that a professional’s career can and should enhance lives.

It’s about realizing that, when you trust your millennial associates to work in a blended environment, you and your firm will get their very best effort.