I did a podcast a while back with the American Bar Association Journal. The topic was “work/life balance.” You can listen to it here.
It was a weird experience – like living on another planet.
I was the sole male. The other panelists and the moderator were women. That’s fine, but somehow, faced with the topic of “work/life balance” everyone turned into Gloria Steinem circa 1971.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a shrill, strident feminist committed to full equality for women, and I have no beef with Gloria Steinem.
But how is work/life balance in the legal world strictly a gender issue? Women are admitted to law schools, and graduate from them, like men. They go to the same law firms, make the same money and take the same abuse.
I have tangential experience with this stuff since I’m gay. When people talk about homophobia at Sullivan & Cromwell I roll my eyes. Homophobia wasn’t the issue. Humanophobia was the issue. Some of the partners and plenty of the associates were openly gay. Homo or hetero, male or female we were all in the same boat.
The unspoken “women’s lib” angle on the “work/life balance” at law firms is this: women give birth to children, and it’s impossible to raise a kid if you are a partner at a law firm, so women are less likely to become partners. If they did, they wouldn’t have time to raise a kid. It’s also impossible to meet anyone you want to have a kid with when you’re working 70-hour weeks.
These are incontrovertible facts of law firm life.
Plenty of male partners have kids. They become absentee fathers, and their kids never see them. Nothing new there. But a social stigma kicks in when your kid tells his friends he only sees mommy an hour a week.
You also have to find time to be pregnant. If you put it off until you make partner, you face fertility problems. That’s a fundamental bummer about being a woman who wants a kid – when you’re mentally prepared your body gives out. At sixteen, anyone can get pregnant. At 39, you can only get pregnant if you don’t want to. If you’re trying, it never happens.
The solution to all this is obvious – have a kid while you still can, and let your husband do the raising.
That’s more or less where the other panelists ended up, but only after spouting “women can have it all” slogans and fabricating visions of “part-time partners.” The law professors on the panel had no concept of law firm reality. The young lawyer running an internet-based T&E firm receded politely when I pointed out the obvious: plenty of women would rather stay at home with the kids than work at a firm. Hell, I’ve worked with couples where the husband and wife fight over who has to do law for a living. They’d both rather stay home and play with junior. Wouldn’t you?
A second yawning gulf between me and the other panelists came with their determination to defend law as a profession. They were “pro-law” and I was “anti-law.” That’s understandable, since the ABA Journal represents the official propaganda ministry for Law, Inc. Law professors need to herd eager young things into school – that’s how they earn big bucks. And the internet lady was trying to drum up business, too – she has loans to pay.
I’m not from that world. I’m a psychotherapist who cleans up the wreckage of young lives decimated by the law school/law firm machine.
Here’s a little scandal for you: at least 10 minutes of the podcast – the final 10 minutes, where I stopped sitting back feeling out of place and came out swinging – were deleted from the recording. You hear a fadeout as I’m about to come on.
What did you miss?
You guessed it – a whole lot of me talking about the reality of law firm life – and lawyer unemployment – including the fact that “work/life balance” is a myth for most lawyers because they work insane hours and hate their jobs.
In other words, a cool, clear blast of truth.
A headhunter called one of my clients last week. Familiar with the routine, she picked up for the heck of it, wondering how they’d manage to spin an obscure mid-level firm into a paradise where no one worked past 6 pm and the furniture was made of chocolate. The sales reptile on the phone didn’t disappoint.
“You’ll love this place – it’s a lifestyle firm. They only expect 2200 hours per year!”
My client had to smile at how far things have come. 2200 hours per year, with two weeks vacation equals 44 hours per week of billables. Which means you’re probably working a 50 hour week.
So that’s a “lifestyle” firm – you’re only there 10 hours per day. And that’s if you believe a headhunter. In real life you’d be there weekends, too.
My client told me another story, about a friend who woke up and realized she had to quit law – she was failing as a spouse, failing as a mother and failing as an attorney. She called it the “three failures theory.”
Then my client got up early one recent morning to crawl back into the office. On her way out the door she stepped – wearing new pumps – in a massive puddle of cat pee. That’s because, working 2200 hours or more per year, she hadn’t changed the kitty litter. That was her one household undertaking – her husband, who worked a normal job, did all the other chores. She screamed in frustration. Her husband came rushing to her rescue, asking why she hadn’t changed the litter. She lost her temper, yelled “I don’t have time for this crap!” and, of course, was late for a meeting at her firm.
The theory of three had been fulfilled: failing as a spouse, failing as a kitty mommy, and failing as a lawyer.
It was time to get out.
Here’s my bottom line. Work/life balance is impossible so long as the billable hour remains the holy grail of law firm life. Working “only 2200 hours per year” makes it impossible to have a family or any sort of personal life.
Sorry. That’s the truth.
And that’s what I was saying in those missing 10 minutes of tape that got cut.
In years to come, you’ll be treated to a few hundred fresh hours of Richard Nixon’s disquisitions on the racial inferiority of blacks and Jews – but if the ABA Journal has its way, you’re never going to hear those last 10 minutes of why it sucks to be a lawyer.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book.