Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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What Lawyers Want (or Associates are from Mars, Partners are from Venus)

Did any of you have to read Chaucer in an undergraduate English course? I was an English major in my pre-law life, and our program mandated a survey course covering English literature from the Middle English to the modern period (which isn’t modern anymore, but that is a story for another day.) In my class, we studied Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from the fourteenth century. It was like reading a foreign language as far as I was concerned—give me an abstruse legal decision about standards of review any day!
One of the tales we studied was the Wife of Bath’s tale. The Wife of Bath was a pilgrim who had been married five times and her story attempted to explain to the mostly male group of pilgrims what women want. Her tale involves a knight who must discover what women really want in order to redeem himself after an egregious wrong, and he encounters many different answers (which Wikipedia tells me included fame, money, clothing, sexual pleasure, flattery and freedom—I hope no one thought I was going back to Middle English to refresh my memory!) before being provided with the correct answer to his quest: that women want sovereignty over their husbands. The fourteenth century was rather sexist, not surprisingly.
I always think of the knight’s quest to determine what women want when I hear about law firms trying to figure out what associates want. When I was an associate—not quite as long ago as when Chaucer was writing—I remember being at a national associates’ meeting where a partner was telling us how much effort the firm’s Associates Committee had put into trying to figure out what the associates wanted (without just asking us!). He talked about how they had considered gym memberships and all kinds of perks. The associate sitting next to me kept saying in a stage whisper “money” every time that the partner said, “what is it that associates want?” I laughed, but I didn’t want money or gym memberships or other fancy perks. I wanted to do engaging and interesting legal work but not on the 1800 billable hours per year model. I ultimately got what I wanted, becoming a reduced hours associate. But did the other associates ever get what they wanted?
This week, I read an article in the Canadian Bar Association’s National magazine called “The Law Firm Destination Workplace” which reminded me of both the Wife of Bath’s Tale and the “what do associates really want?” meeting. According to this article, law firms are concerned that lawyers are reluctant to return to central offices after two years of working from home and are looking at what they can provide to their lawyers to induce them back to the office without lowering the hammer that everyone must return full-time.
Here is a sample of the initiatives mentioned:

  • Bistro-style cafes
  • Wellness rooms with a green wall (plants) and a small gym with bicycles and treadmills
  • A religious observance space
  • Rooms for nursing mothers
  • A family room for lawyers’ children to hang out in if a lawyer needs to come to the office
  • Yoga classes before, during and after the workday (however that is defined)
  • A neutral colour palette, and natural wood that is not dark oak or walnut
  • Open areas where lawyers can sit in large chairs by windows to work on their laptops

I also read an article in the ABA Journal titled “Warm Welcome: Law firms are using wellness programs to recruit new lawyers” which described even more law firm initiatives to entice lawyers to join their firms under the well-being banner, including:

  • flexible workday hours
  • free gym memberships or onsite gyms
  • free or subsidized mental health counsellors
  • variety of food onsite
  • career coaching
  • special interest groups, like new parents’ support
  • a Peloton riding group
  • lawyer-led mindfulness or meditation sessions
  • physical competitions
  • custom-built training
  • a bike-sharing discount program
  • seminars on health issues
  • mental health and wellness days off
  • a full-time burnout advisor
  • permission to leave early if your work is done

I am impressed with the myriad of ways law firms on both sides of the border have approached supporting lawyers, and staff, well-being.
The fact that law firms, who historically resisted the idea that their lawyers may be struggling with any kind of personal issues, or that lawyers would value well-being measures, are recognizing that well-being programs have recruitment and retention value is a significant development. Kudos to the forward-thinking firms who want long-term relationships with the lawyers they hire!
But I wonder if they asked their people what they want. Just as my colleague kept whispering “money” every time the partner described wanting to know what associates wanted, I wanted something different from both my colleague and what the partner was outlining. We are not all the same, and we may have different needs and strategies for our well-being.
Many items being proposed by firms featured in these two articles have hefty price tags—like a full-time burnout advisor or outfitting an inhouse gym. Before spending this money, have firms asked, “what do associates want?”
As a long-time work-life balance advocate, I believe in measures that allow associates (and all staff and partners!) to have time for themselves, their families, their hobbies, and their friends (outside of the firm.) This is important because law is stressful, and lawyers need to be resilient to ride out the stress storms. There are many strategies for building resilience, but one theory is that we need more positive emotions than negative emotions, and we can increase our positive emotions by expressing gratitude, giving to others, and engaging in activities and with people who recharge our batteries. While you can express gratitude while you walk down the hall to the coffee room, and you can donate to causes online out of altruism, it takes time to interact with your family, friends, and hobbies in order to reap the resilience benefits. Leisure and leisure activities are independently sources of resilience.
Do you have the same quality of interaction with the people you value when you are checking your phone regularly to see if anyone has texted or emailed you about work? Can you lose yourself in a creative activity or a complex task related to your favourite hobby? Or do you find that you just don’t make plans on weekday evenings or weekends in case someone emails you a question or an assignment?
What I think associates want—based on my conversations with Alberta lawyers—is boundaries so that they can perform high quality legal services but also have an outside life that is protected when they need or want it to be. Associates want permission to turn off their tech at a certain time of evening on a regular basis or perhaps for specified evenings or weekends so that they can relax without being “on the clock” in case a partner has a question at 9 pm and they would really like to go to a movie with their cell phones turned off.
Law is a business, and all law firm decisions must pass a cost-benefits analysis. There isn’t a direct line-item cost associated with supporting downtime for associates, but some partners (and senior associates, for that matter) are used to assuming that juniors are available 24/7. Incidental impacts arising from allowing associates to have boundaries could be managed through clear communications. If associates had permission to log out at a set time, they could relax and recharge during evenings. And firms could balance the need for accessibility by asking that partners and senior associates telephone juniors (or use another agreed-upon communications mechanism) if they need to interact with them. This is important since associates will feel that they must check their emails and respond to evening (or nighttime) emails unless they are told specifically say that a response the next day is fine, interfering with their ability to relax and recharge.
Having a boundaries policy does not mean that associates aren’t available to senior lawyers or that urgent work will not get done—it just flips the onus to the senior lawyer to identify work or emails that need to be done immediately rather than having associates assuming that everything that comes in merits an immediate response.
This type of policy recognizes that associates’ well-being is enhanced through downtime for enriching activities and work-life balance, and this message may communicate the firm’s commitment to supporting its lawyers more effectively than gyms and comfy chairs. Because what I think associates want is the right to be off-duty, and to have their off-duty time respected, to the greatest extent possible.
There is nothing wrong with law firms wanting to make their workplaces friendlier or to provide perks to associates, but not all initiatives achieve their goals. I have heard stories about spa days that backfired as appreciation and wellness gifts because associates ended up working half the night before to clear their desks so they could enjoy the spa day, which detracted from its value. And there can be issues associated with inhouse gyms: lawyers are already overachievers, and it is easy for unhealthy competitions and comparisons to arise, or for lawyers to feel like failures if they can’t lose the weight to look good in the firm gym.
“Mental health days” or flex days are wonderful, but they must be managed correctly to be effective. A day off is only a mental health day if you have boundaries that protect it. If you are expected to respond to calls and emails, it is just a day where your presence may not be required physically in the office (until someone decides that, yes, in fact your bum must be in an office chair or that your face must be on a Zoom screen.) It can be more stressful as you rush to your doctor’s appointment, talking to the office on your Blu-tooth and rearranging your plans in order to accommodate something that is now being assessed as urgent. Would you get a mental health day off to replace one that gets eroded?
It may feel counter-intuitive but encouraging lawyers to take time off work can result in enhanced productivity, so it is a win-win for both the individual lawyer and the firm. One of the firms featured in the ABA Journal article offers annual leave of 25 days and says that people still reach their targets--sometimes we need time away from work in order to bring our A game the rest of the time. Before the pandemic, I heard a senior lawyer speak at a conference where she shared that she takes one week off each month, and that it did not cause a decrease in her billings because she is focused and motivated when she is in the office. I ran into a law school classmate not long after who told a similar story, taking one week of vacation every six weeks or so. We need to share these stories that lawyers are able to manage their practices so that they can access rejuvenation as needed, and that taking time off does not necessarily equate reduced productivity.
It is exciting that well-being initiatives are being used as recruitment tools, ideally allowing prospective hires to ascertain if the firm’s values align with their own. Let’s continue the  conversation about what lawyers actually want and how to get there, recognizing that lawyers are not a one-size-fits-all commodity but are individuals with different interests and priorities. Ideally, well-being initiatives should allow for a degree of individualization, so share with your firm your ideas about what associates want.
If you are a law firm lawyer, think about what you need to make the pressures of your job more manageable, and advocate for yourself. If you are applying for a position at a firm which offers a version of “well-being perks,” ask how these perks are supported to make sure that they are truly accessible.
Alberta may be a leader in this area—we have law firms in Alberta who are introducing policies to ensure that associates have access to downtime, which may be the answer to the age-old question of “what do associates want?”
Remember that you can call me to talk about what you need for well-being and how to advocate for yourself. Do not be afraid of putting your own spin on well-being benefits—if it doesn’t work for you, it isn’t a benefit, and you may need to communicate about what works for you.