“So, where do you come down on this issue? Do you favor work-life blend, work-life balance, or another formulation?”
I recently posed this question to a panel of three attorneys (one Millennial, one Gen Xer, and one Boomer). Each panelist offered a thoughtful, insightful, and elucidating answer. But before we jump to their responses, let’s first preface this question by focusing on the integration of work and life.
Work-life balance became the rallying cry of Gen X professionals who sought to bring “balance” into the law practice (among many other professions). Proponents of work-life balance believed the pendulum had swung too far away from “life,” and the solution was improved balance.
However, despite two decades of well-intentioned “balance” initiatives at law firms, lawyers are not measurably happier with their work — and this is especially true of Millennials. According to a 2019 study co-sponsored by Above The Law, half of all young attorneys believe the law firm business model is “fundamentally broken.” So why haven’t we seen a measurable improvement in lawyer satisfaction accompanying work-life balance initiatives?
The answer, in part, is that Millennials are not interested in balancing their work against their lives. Rather, to a young professional, work should be an interesting and enhancing aspect of life. When the once-separate spheres of “work” and “life” begin to blend and intersect, many Millennial associates feel more comfortable and ready to contribute to their law firms. In a sense, when we try to balance work against life, we unintentionally tend to short-change both.
So, returning to my question to the panelists: “Where do you come down on this issue? Do you favor work-life blend, work-life balance, or another formulation?” The panelists’ answers, as paraphrased below, provide the basis for an important inter-generational understanding.
The Boomer attorney explained that, when she began practicing law several decades ago, no one in her office shared the details of their personal lives outside of work — and certainly no one discussed the concepts of balance or blend. To succeed in the workplace as a young lawyer, she believed it was necessary to maintain barriers between work and life. Simply put, she never had the opportunity to contemplate “balancing” or “blending” work and life when she began her career.
The Gen X attorney said she felt comfortable with balancing work and life — and would be uncomfortable blending her work and life together. For her, balance is achievable and works well. She likes being 100% focused on work at work and then being 100% focused on her life outside of work.
The Millennial attorney embraced work-life blend, explaining that she is a lawyer 24-7 365 days per year, and she’s herself 24-7 365 days per year. She appreciates the flexibility of working from her office on occasion and feels most comfortable and productive in a blended environment.
In this discussion, the panelists (and this moderator and the audience too!) reached an important understanding: members of different generations may feel more comfortable in different work environments and mindsets — and that’s OK!
If we are to work harmoniously with each other, we must first understand and accept each other. The solution is not to force a Boomer to implement work-life blend in his or her practice, nor is it to force a productive Millennial associate to ditch his or her blended practice.
Rather, by accepting each other’s generational perspectives, we create a culture whereby each attorney can access his or her most productive self. For many Millennials, that may mean treating the law firm as a work center and a social center with opportunities to work in communal settings.
The goal is not to make Millennials more like Boomers or Gen Xers (or vice versa). Instead, the goal is to create a law firm culture that grants its lawyers the flexibility to manage their work and personal lives in a productive manner. As the multi-generational panelists proved, lawyers can be highly productive while reaching differing conclusions on how to integrate work and life.