Time to do something about unhealthy legal workplace

First the CBC aired its radio documentary this summer “Mother’s in Law” about the increasing exodus of women lawyers from private practice.  Now in an address to lawyers at the 2007 Canadian Legal Conference held in Calgary last week none other than Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin has spoken out against the unhealthy legal business model in a panel presentation entitled “Supporting Women in the Law”. 

The Globe and Mail on Wednesday August 15 offered the following quotes from Chief Justice McLachlin:

 “The reality is that women entering the profession in droves have suddenly found themselves confronted with a very difficult, inflexible model of practice.”

“The strict, inflexible business model is increasingly questioned by men,” she said. “This is the question, I believe, for the future. How do we structure the way lawyers – women and men – work; the way they live, the way they serve the public?”

As a lawyer coach I see many of my clients grapple with these issues.  The expectation in many big city law firms is that lawyers will work 70 to 80 hour weeks.  The billable hour target for lawyers has steadily climbed, as have the demands that lawyers invest additional non-billable time in marketing and business development activities.  Many male and female lawyers are no longer interested in sacrificing parenthood to their legal careers and are leaving private practice.

The lawyers I know aren’t afraid of hard work.  They are not against putting in long hours.  The issue is that the demands of the profession have become extreme.  How will the legal profession respond to this central question raised by Chief Justice McLachlin:  “How do we structure the way lawyers – women and men – work; the way they live, the way they serve the public?” 

There is an opportunity here for the Canadian Bar Association to get involved by convening a task force.  This is an issue that deserves to be discussed by Managing Partners and Executive Members of law firms and indeed lawyers of all year of call around the country.  The legal profession will always be a hard working profession, but there are ways to adapt the business model such that it becomes more flexible, more supportive of lawyers who parent, and healthier for legal professionals in general.  Law firm clients should also be involved. What are the expectations and needs of Corporate Counsel from their lawyers? The Corporate Counsel subsection could be invited to take part in these discussions.  

As for making time for business development, there are many innovative ways to bring family life into the picture.  Lawyers with young children can connect with other professionals and business people with children.  Instead of going to a hockey game, arrange for tickets to the children’s festival.  Or ask your client to bring his/her children to the game.  Hold social events for parents and their children.  Your clients with young children face similar time challenges.  Since one of the primary goals of client entertaining is to build trust and deepen the relationship what could be better than to make the focus of these events the children who are such an important part of your clients’ lives?  I know one firm that holds a large skating event for clients, lawyers and their children in December each year which is hugely successful and greatly enjoyed by all.  But entertaining of this kind needn’t be so large scale, smaller scale events for key clients and contacts can be held throughout the year. 

The answer to the very important issues raised by Chief Justice McLachlin and others isn’t to accept the status quo.  It’s time to begin the discussion and truly explore the opportunity for revamping an old and outdated business model.

About the author

Allison Wolf

I am the founder of AWAL and one of the most senior coaches for lawyers in North America. I have helped countless clients over the past fifteen years, develop thriving legal practices and before that served as director of marketing for award-winning law firms. My specialty is uncovering the thinking traps and gaps holding clients back and helping them acquire the mindsets, skills, and habits for growing successful and rewarding legal careers. After a career in legal marketing and business development with law firms in Beijing, New York, and Vancouver, I was trained as a coach in 2004 at Royal Roads University and now coach clients from across North America. You can reach me at allison@shiftworks.ca or learn more about my coaching practice from the coaching section of the Attorney With A Life Website.