Happiness includes work and life

Sybil Dunlop, The Daily Record Newswire

In 2007, I interviewed with law firms as part of my law school’s on-campus interview process. In each interview, firm representatives proudly touted their firm’s unique “work-life balance.” I wasn’t quite sure what the firms meant, although the repeated use of the phrase made me nervous. I assumed firms must be telegraphing that I wouldn’t have to work all the time. Seven years into my practice, folks in our profession continue to toss the phrase around casually and frequently. I’m still not quite sure what it means. But I know I don’t like it.

At the threshold, I reject the phrase’s implicit premise — that work and life are two distinct concepts. The phrase assumes that both cannot co-exist, suggesting that living only happens outside of the office (or courtroom). Ergo, work should be minimized to ensure sufficient time for life. (And, the time you spend at work is “dead” time).

If I accepted this premise, I would be pretty depressed about my existence. Most lawyers, myself included, can work long hours. I spend my days in the office and frequently spend evenings thinking about a case or tinkering with a brief. Despite this particular balance, however, I am generally happy as a clam.

My life and work exist in one sphere; one doesn’t make me happy while the other does not. I frequently have fun at the office, but I always hate housework. And, I don’t want to subtract work from life because work is a meaningful part of my life. As a child, I knew I wanted to find meaning in my work; my father served as my example. He’s an artist — he paints landscapes for a living. I once wondered what he would do if he retired. My dad thought about it and finally answered, “I guess the same things I am doing now; I would paint and I would garden.” I thought his answer was perfect. I wanted to find a profession that I loved as much as he loved painting. And I have. Without my work, I would be less myself. I would feel less alive.

There are, of course, times when work can be too much. Lawyering can become all consuming. When I don’t get enough sleep or don’t see my family, I crave a different balance. But there are other times when a big case settles, and a few days later I have already begun to get antsy, craving a new challenge. Finding the right balance between work and not-work is no different from finding the right balance with respect to anything else in my life. If I work all the time, my work will suffer. If I eat cheese all the time, my body will suffer. Balance in all things makes more sense to me than ennobling a false distinction between work and life.

Balance in all things makes more sense to me than ennobling a false distinction between work and life. Frequently, articles discussing “work-life balance” are trying to get at this point. A recent piece by Dr. Shawn Healy (“For new associates, work/life balance may be toughest trial of all,” Minnesota Lawyer, April 20, 2015) opines that fulfillment comes from making “real, meaningful choices in how to work, and how to live.” Dr. Healy suggests that associates may feel that they “don’t have a choice,” when it comes to their work and advises that associates choose to respect non-work time and set boundaries at work and with work. This advice applies in every aspect of our lives, not simply between work and personal life. To this end, I aim to be present in each moment and set boundaries in all aspects of my life to support my aims.

But while I reject the premise that something called “work-life balance” exists, our profession seems to have an insidious obsession with the phrase. “Work-life balance” has become the flag that gets waived during discussions of women and the law. Where are the women rain makers? Where are the women partners? Why are women fleeing big law? The answer frequently returns to a discussion of “work-life balance.”

“Work-life balance” is not a women’s issue. My husband stays home with our daughter and writes. I have the freedom to work late when I need to. Several of my male (and female) peers have daycare pickup responsibilities and need to leave at five. And some people — during different phases of their career — need different kinds of flexibility. Flex time, part-time, and job sharing can help men and women continue their professional advancement while staying sane. I am in favor every person identifying the balance that works for them; and I am in favor of employer policies that help people make their balance work.

Focusing on work-life balance as a women’s issue, however, implies that if women could just work fewer hours, equality would prevail. Evidence suggests this is not the case. In fact, a recent Law 360 article noted that “[w]hile the percentage of women serving as general counsel to a Fortune 500 company has more than doubled since 2000, the percentage of female law firm leaders and equity partners has stayed basically the same.” And, over the same time period, “managing partners at top U.S. law firms have remained more than 90 percent male.” I doubt these new female general counsel achieved their success because their employers emphasized “work-life balance” or supported flex-time arrangements. Something else is at play in law firms and our focus on “work-life balance” seems to be distracting us from identifying and discussing those issues.

What to do in the meantime? I would love to chat with you about my work, my daughter, my husband, and even our goldendoodle. But I will side-step conversations about work-life balance. It’s just not my issue.


Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in 2010. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation. She can be reached at sdunlop@greeneespel.com.


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