True flexibility: Work/life balance is customizable for each lawyer

  • James Rossiter

We know from his diaries that in 1956, Frank Manning Covert, then a lawyer with what is now the Halifax office of Stewart McKelvey Stirling Scales, worked 333 nights, 50 Saturdays and 52 Sundays. “The only way he could relax,” said Barry Cahill, who edited Covert’s memoirs, “was by working.” In 1982, Covert was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, which, I’ll bet, was not in recognition of his work/life balance.

The Covert model might not be yours, but one lawyer’s work/life imbalance is another lawyer’s work/life balance. Lawyers with whom I’ve spoken who keep Covert’s hours (or something close to those hours) view their personal lives as rich and fulfilling. Covert himself declared his love for life. Who are we to judge?

The fight for work/life balance is against a workplace culture, not unique to private practice or the legal profession but historically prevalent in both, that recognizes and rewards only that lawyer for whom living life to the fullest means taking the occasional Saturday off. Work/life balance is about flexibility at the firm, accommodating both those who want to keep traditional long hours and those who don’t or can’t.

For tomorrow’s lawyers interested in a little more life and a little less work, I have good news. What I have seen, read and heard suggests that firms are… well, I won’t say embracing, but they are accepting conventional work hours (“conventional” by other industries’ standards) and even unconventional practices, like flex time and sabbaticals.

In this lifetime, you will find your work/life balance in the profession. You will find it at your current firm or — if it’s important enough to you and you want to stay in private practice — you will find it at another. It will cost you in reduced pay, but that’s to be expected when compensation is tied even only loosely to billings, and billings are tied to hourly rates.

If you want to know why firms are increasingly accommodating work/life balance for those who want it, just follow the money. Back when Covert was carrying the bags, a lawyer left the firm when he (it was almost always a he) retired or died — more often the latter.

The last 20 years have seen unprecedented mobility in the profession. Lawyers leave firms for other firms, private- and public-sector employers and NGOs. A departing lawyer costs a firm more than the bill for a send-off lunch. Catalyst Consulting pegs the price of a departing associate at $315,000. Out the door goes the firm’s tangible and intangible investment in training, experience and client knowledge.

One of the reasons given by those associates, as the door swings behind them, is a pursuit for better quality of life, the kind that can be found in the mundane (and here, I’m speaking from personal experience) of changing a baby daughter’s diaper or wiping a three-year-old’s snotty nose.

The antidote to mobility is retention. Firms most successful in retaining lawyers have, among other things, implemented flexible workplace scheduling practices. Sometimes the accommodation is across the board and the form of a policy, as with paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers. Other times, the accommodation is tailored to the individual lawyer — as it was with Jeannine Bakeef.

Bakeef, 33, is a 1999 call and associate in corporate finance with what is now the Halifax office of McInnes Cooper. Since October 2001, her firm has accommodated her professional acting aspirations by acceding to her requests to work half time, then take a leave, then work projects on contract, and then return full time at reduced hours.

Jeannine, a friend and classmate, gets to indulge her passion for acting, and McInnes Cooper keeps an associate who — by just her third year, when she left to formally train as an actor — had more experience and education in corporate finance and securities than most associates in the city.

The news is also good for tomorrow’s Covert, the private practitioner for whom life is work. The economy is robust and quality files are in abundance. The firm will always value the quick turnaround on a file and the high billings that come from the 25-hour workday and 53-week work year. That won't change, so long as private practice is customer service and so long as customers will pay for a lawyer by the hour.

James Rossiter is an associate with the Halifax firm Wickwire Holm, father of three and secretary-treasurer of the Young Lawyers-CBA (