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Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Time Squeeze for Lawyers and Others

Orly Lobel takes me to task for drawing parallels in my book, The Big Squeeze, between overworked lawyers who toil seventy hours a week and overworked low-income workers, like hotel housekeepers, who face huge pressures to work harder and faster.

I understand -- and sympathize with -- Professor Lobel's statement: "I am hesitant to accept too quickly the parallels drawn between the plights of these two kinds of workers. " (I am indebted to Professor Lobel for her extremely kind compliments about my book.)

An explanation: I draw parallels between overworked lawyers and overworked low-end workers in order to suggest that far too many Americans, whether those on top, like law firm partners and associates, or those on the bottom, like hotel housekeepers and meat-packing workers, work far too hard and often far too many hours. For those on top, this often results from a workaholic syndrome. And sometimes their overwork doesn't result from workaholic-ism, but from expectations from their corporation or law firm that they are to work at a minimum 60 or 70 hours a week.  In my tenth chapter, Overstressed and Overstretched, I explore this overwork phenomenon and how it stresses out workers and strains family life, leaving many with far too little time with their spouses and children and often leaving workers too stressed when they are supposedly having relaxed time with their families. (Damn that perpetually active BlackBerry and cell phone.) 

I share Professor Lobel's sentiment that workaholic business executives, law firm partners, investment bankers and doctors often take it upon themselves. Oftentimes no one is forcing them to work such insane hours. Moreover, these high-end workers generally get paid very handsomely for their hard work. So in that sense my parallel is far from perfect -- badly overworked high-end workers deserve less sympathy than badly overworked low-end workers.

It seems that some workaholic business executives -- who often see hard work as a fact of business life -- do not hesitate to pressure their subordinates into working incredibly hard. These executives think, "I'm working incredibly hard, so why shouldn't everybody who works for me?" But there are several problems here -- and this helps explain why my parallel is less than perfect. Workers lower down on the economic ladder usually not take it upon themselves to work insanely hard -- they are often forced to do so. And low-end employees who are forced to work extremely hard -- see the section of my book on meatpacking workers and hotel housekeepers -- are rarely paid handsomely. To be sure, many low-end employees work seventy-hour weeks (sometimes working two jobs), but it is not to become masters of the universe or law firm partners or to earn $600,000 a year. They usually do so to try to scrap enough money together to support their families.

Should we feel more sympathy for seventy-hour-a-week law firm associates than for seventy-hour-a-week law firm partners? Probably. Law firm associates often have those crazy hours forced upon them. But they are often halfway happy to endure those hours because of the big, hoped-for prize at the end of the marathon: a partnership. But I generally feel less sympathy for the law associate who is forced to work seventy hours a week than for the low-end worker, like a meatpacker, who is forced to work seventy hours a week.

Still, I believe that my basic point holds -- too many Americans work far too hard and long, whether they are high-end workers who do so voluntarily or low-end workers who have it forced on them, either by overdemanding bosses or by economic exigencies. Whatever the reason, these long, overstressed work lives are unhealthy for workers and  their families -- for lawyers and for nonlawyers.

In counterpoint, I describe Ernst & Young, the accounting firm (p. 194), and how its former chairman grew alarmed that the firm had so female partners. )The main reason: many women quit the firm within a few years of being hired because they saw it as too demanding a place to balance job and family.) In a very laudable and far-sighted way, Ernst & Young's chairman transformed the firm's culture (and its employees' work schedules) so that E&Y became far more family friendly. The firm tried to make sure its workers weren't feeling pressured to work seventy hour weeks. It gave them huge freedom to determine their schedules, often allowing accountants to work just twenty or thirty hours a week -- or to take summers off. Nowadays women account for one third of the people made partner each year. I believe many of us have a lot to learn from the way Ernst & Young has transformed its culture into a family-friendly one.

Posted by Steven Greenhouse on September 25, 2008 at 07:57 PM in Books | Permalink

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Comments

"Fewer clients, less money"

/s/ Jerry McGuire

(Dont hold your breath on E&Y-type policies in BIGLAW)

Posted by: Anon | Sep 26, 2008 9:14:31 AM

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