Back when I was a young associate, before the advent of electricity, whenever a partner told an associate to jump, the only questions were how high, what’s my hang time and where do you want me to land? If a partner “requested” that an associate devote the next 24 hours to a project (known as pulling an all-nighter), the only question was what’s the client billing number?
For several years now, I’ve talked to beleaguered old-timers who bemoan the fact that young whippersnappers are no longer so eager to totally forego a life in order to serve their firm masters. I remember one friend relating the story of a conversation he had with a young associate where he assigned the associate a memo to write that would require him to stay at the office an extra couple of hours.
The associate informed him that he had plans for the evening and would be unable to comply. Puzzled at the response, the partner probed further. He wasn’t a monster after all, he thought, and if, for example, the associate’s family was in town for the day and he had made plans to spend time with them, that would have been an acceptable excuse, if only just barely. But no, the associate responded, he was getting together with friends to hang out and he wasn’t available to work late that night. Totally flummoxed, the partner meekly walked away, questioning his sanity and the future prospects of the law firm structure.
That conversation was about nine or 10 years ago, and what was then anecdotal evidence of a trend has burgeoned into a movement that has been firmly established: many young associates are simply unwilling to devote the number of hours and the loss of control over their lives that the traditional law firm model requires.
And now surveys are showing that work-life balance is ranking higher than compensation by millennials in law firms. Twelve hundred such associates were surveyed by Major Lindsey & Africa, and two-thirds said they would consider taking a job with fewer hours even if it meant less money; and they ranked the importance of work-life balance as 7.7 out of 10 in terms of importance to those surveyed.