Nov. 2, 2022 – What does work-life balance look like at your firm or organization? What can firms do to help lawyers find balance while still meeting revenue goals?
In the most recent episode of “Bottom Up,” a WisLawNOW Podcast produced by the State Bar of Wisconsin, four attorneys dive deep into answering those questions.
The second episode in a two-part series on work-life balance for young lawyers, Emil Ovbiagele (co-host), a small firm owner in Milwaukee, and Kristen Hardy (co-host), an in-house counsel at a large company, lead the discussion with mid-sized firm partner Ryan Woody and Emily Stedman, a senior associate at a large law firm.
Each had different perspectives on what work-life balance can look like, but all agreed that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. In part one, the group came to some common understanding of work-life balance concepts for the legal profession.
In this second episode, the group dove into the realities in practice. For Stedman, who works at a large law firm in Milwaukee, it starts with empowering lawyers to choose what’s best for them, but also communicating expectations at the outset.
“Firms have to over-communicate about their expectations and attorneys have to over-communicate about their needs,” she said. “Firms and individual attorneys have to be extremely intentional about building relationships with one another.”
More attorneys are working from home, for instance, and firms have developed hybrid models that create more flexibility. But what does that mean for young lawyers, who may want more facetime with partners, or are seeking mentorship opportunities?
“If firms are really serious about it, they’re going to create those opportunities for people. But life is a two-way street. The firms can create those opportunities, but people have to take advantage of them too, and there’s always going to be people that don’t.”
Stedman’s firm, a large law firm, has built firm-wide systems for virtual practice. But Woody, based in Hartford, says that approach may not work for all firms.
Woody’s firm of about 25 lawyers has six offices in six states. “Different offices have different ideas of what’s best for them,” Woody said.
“California doesn’t agree with Texas, and Louisiana doesn’t agree with Boston. We can’t just put a system or a policy in place that will blanket all the offices.”
What about the truly solo and small firm lawyer? Ovbiagele runs a three-attorney firm in Milwaukee. He said smaller firms can be the hub of innovative solutions.
“We just have a culture of collaboration in terms of people being in the office at some point in time. Lawyers are not expected to be there at any specific time, but we expect people to be around at least a couple of times a week because we want to be there.”
Some lawyers want flexibility, but it may not be in the form of working remotely, according to Hardy, who works at an international company based in Milwaukee.
“Emil and I have had this conversation ad nauseam. We don’t love the fully remote,” she said. “We don’t love this idea of being fully remote, especially as young attorneys.
“One, you cannot shut it off. I found it very difficult during the quarantine phase of the pandemic to stop working. Also, it never ends.”
When Hardy’s company reopened its doors, she was back in the office full time, to create more separation between work and home.
“That’s what works for me,” Hardy said. “It may be different for someone else. But at every company I’ve worked at, I’ve always had flexibility and people who understand that we have lives outside of work.”
Hardy also places high importance on things like exercise and volunteerism. So she values company policies to promote volunteering, and access to a gym.
But these conversations were just the tip of the iceberg. The group also discussed diversity as an aspect of work-life balance and lawyer wellbeing, the billable hour and firm billing expectations, paid leave, and the pace of change for the legal industry.
“For the first time in the legal industry, we’re willing to explore these options,” Ovbiagele said. “In four to five years, we might say ‘that didn’t work.’ But for the first time ever, the law has changed, or at least has grown by leaps and bounds.”
About the Bottom Up Podcast
Bottom Up is a WisLawNOW podcast dedicated to examining today’s challenges for lawyers, especially young lawyers. Produced by the State Bar of Wisconsin and co-hosted by Emil Ovbiagele and Kristen Hardy – both with 8 years of practice experience – each episode features frank discussions and relatable stories that highlight the interests and opportunities for attorneys working to establish their practice, their way.