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Balance can be a misnomer

|Written By Heather Capannelli

The pursuit of the elusive work-life balance has taken many lawyers from private practice to in-house positions in search of greener pastures. The perception that going in-house offers a less demanding professional life — no billable hours, unreasonable clients, or managing partners — is often just a perception.

Lawyers do not get sick. They do not get stressed out. They do not become drug addicts or alcoholics. Lawyers are not affected by depression and anxiety, nor do they have financial problems or troubled relationships. 

At least that’s the front they put on.

The pressure on lawyers, both in-house and in private practice, to constantly perform at an exceptionally high standard, to not make mistakes, and certainly to not admit them, creates a culture of secrecy in the legal profession about the struggles of life that others often talk about freely.

It’s a culture that goes from the courtroom to the boardroom, which forces in-house lawyers and those in private practice alike to wonder why they’re the only ones coping with money troubles, relationships,  aging parents, and raising kids. The result is often a soul-searching journey to find the holy grail of the new millennium — the “work-life balance.”

The pursuit of this elusive prize has taken many lawyers from private practice to in-house positions. The perception that going in-house offers a less demanding professional life — no billable hours, unreasonable clients, or managing partners — is often just that: perception.

On the surface, the hours are regular and the work is always there. But the experts say the pressures are very much the same whether you’re a Bay Streeter, a sole practitioner, or in-house counsel, and achieving work-life balance is always  challenging.

“I have not found any measurable difference in terms of the impact of lawyers’ struggles on their lives, whether they’re in-house counsel, in private practice, in legal publishing, or researchers,” says Doron Gold, a case manager with the Ontario Lawyers’ Assistance Program.

He says that billable hours are just one issue that lawyers deal with, eliminating them by taking an in-house position removes only one stressor among many.

OLAP is a confidential provincial program, for judges, lawyers, law students, and their immediate family, that provides professional counselling, peer support, assessment, and referrals to specialized programs and centres. “We sometimes like to think that lawyers can keep it together in a way that others can’t, and it’s not true. They just hold it in tighter.”

As a former family law lawyer and civil litigator, Gold says he left the practice of law after 10 years because he wanted to be involved in something that would lift people up, rather than tear them down.

On average, he says, OLAP can get from 10 to 30 new clients in a week, with issues ranging from drug, sex, and gambling addictions to people coping with poisonous work environments, marital issues, financial crises, anxiety and depression.

He says the notion of “work-life balance” is often a ridiculed term, a quaint thought where counsel don’t have to be responsible for billable hours or final decisions.  “Many people think it’s about paying your dues, and people in the legal profession are willing to put up with a lot of garbage for the sake of what they think is career advancement,” he says.


The flipside, of course, is that personal lives often suffer and the whole idea of balance goes right out the window. Where lawyers in private practice have a common thread in meeting targets and dealing with seniors and juniors, says Gold, the stressors at the top of the in-house counsel list are the politics of the corporate world, the constant pressure of considering the bottom line, and working in a poisonous environment.

Three weeks into her maternity leave from a Bay Street firm, Aimee Israel saw a position advertised in the Ontario Reports for an in-house position that would only require her to work three days a week.  For her, the arrangement proved to be a good one, but she still felt many of the parental pressures associated with going back to work.

“It was around this time that I started to realize that working parents needed support when they returned back to work,” she says. Soon after that, LifeSpeak Inc. was born.

It’s a company that offers a series of workshops (at your place of business) through three programs focused around parenting, vitality, and caring for aging parents. The sessions are highly customized for each client and are often used by employers to assist in recruiting and retention initiatives insofar as they try to enhance employee satisfaction and commitment to the organization.

“A lot of our clients ask us to do something on work-life balance,” says Israel. “But all of the sessions we do are on part of what’s causing the imbalance at any given time. Whether it’s choosing the right schools, working out finances, dealing with parents, or staying active and healthy, those are the stresses that are causing the imbalance a lot of the time.”

The sessions are usually 90 minutes long and can be arranged at any time of the day. Israel says LifeSpeak only uses leading authorities and experts to deliver its workshops, out of respect for the people who are taking them. “These are highly educated people, and they want to learn from leaders, not from generalists who might give them the top 10 reasons why they should do something.”

The 800 or so employees of CIBC Mellon have been benefiting from LifeSpeak’s workshops for about the last year and a half. One of the most unexpected benefits has been the different communities within the organization that have formed as a result of bringing some of these life issues out in the open.

“[The sessions] really bring people from different areas of the organization together,” says Rajesh Uttamchandani, CIBC Mellon’s senior vice president of human resources. “In a lot of cases, you can tell they’re questions that the people have been struggling with,” he says, and once they start sharing experiences, unlikely relationships form.

CIBC Mellon holds a LifeSpeak event four to six times per year. “In the beginning it was an unusual thing for a company to do,” says Uttamchandani. “We’d have to drum up people to attend. But over the last 18 months, the sessions [about 150 seats] have been filling up right away.”

His personal feeling about work-life balance is that “it’s not split between work and life. It’s all life and there’s a lot of things you have to manage and balance in your life.” Offering the LifeSpeak sessions to the CIBC Mellon employees (in-house counsel as well), Uttamchandani says, “gives them the tools to live a little better.”

“I think the word balance is a misnomer, especially in law,” says Israel. “I don’t think anyone will find the perfect state where it’s half life and half work. As long as people are having satisfaction in all areas, although perhaps not in equal percentages, that’s closer to what’s attainable.”


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