Work-life balance: ladies only?

Work-life balance is one of the main buzz issues – but does it matter to men? By Richard Collier

The recent Woman Lawyer Forum conference ‘Balancing a Legal Career’ echoed concerns expressed in the 2004 Law Society report ‘Equality and Diversity: Women Solicitors’. If the legal profession does not tackle its problems, it argued, the flow of skilled women out of the profession will continue.

Many law firms now make explicit reference to the ‘quality of life’ agenda in their recruitment and promotional materials. Yet how do men feel about work-life issues?

There have to date been few studies of the attitudes of male lawyers towards work, family, fatherhood and, increasingly, elder-care commitments. One recent project, Male Lawyers and the Negotiation of Work and Family Commitments, supported by the British Academy, sought to address this absence. The aim was to investigate how a group of men working in an area of the profession marked by a long-hours culture and strong organisational commitment seek ‘balance’ in their lives.

Interviews took place with salaried and equity partners, assistant solicitors and trainees. Interviewees spoke about the damaging impact of long hours on their health and relationships with partners, children, wider families and friends. The tensions were particularly acute in the run-up to partnership – a time when, it was felt, more men were increasingly becoming fathers for the first time. As one fee-earner put it: “Well, I want to see more of my kids than my father did of me.”

Men were under pressure from society, the media and especially from women. “You have to be this ‘all-singing, all-dancing’ dad. A kind of superdad,” says one respondent. Considerable effort was made by some to ensure that they did see their children during a typical working week. This involved at times complex practical arrangements, the difficulties around which were exacerbated in the case of dual-earner households.

Yet did these men still feel that it would continue to be women in the profession who would be more interested in taking up opportunities available for flexible working? The answer lies in how law continues to be seen as a ‘masculine’ profession. Whatever difficulties existed in their own lives, men felt they could, if they struggled hard enough, “make it work”, says one male lawyer. It would be “career suicide” for a man to “play the quality of life card”. Men who did so would be “weak”. There was an acceptance that women would continue to take on the primary responsibility for childcare, allowing a man to “carry on in the race”. Women partners in City law firms were routinely described as “driven, very focused and ultra-competitive”, “more aggressive” and “more masculine” than other women.

These comments illustrate how entrenched the long-hours culture can be within firms. They also raise questions about the prospects for change. Some thought change would take place as more men with family-friendly attitudes worked their way through the promotion structures of the firms to senior partner level. The demands and expectations of clients were also seen as drivers for change.

The research suggests, however, that some men might be resistant to change. It was felt that long hours and inflexibility would remain “a price worth paying” for high financial reward and future partnership, says one male lawyer. Those who complained about work-life issues missed out on the “buzz, the excitement” of the work. Nevertheless, it does appear that the “carrot” of partnership may be waning for some. Changes are taking place in men’s lives which may be opening up a space for further reform of working practices in the profession. If that is so, then there is a pressing need for further research to explore such issues – and what they might mean for the future of the legal profession.

Richard Collier is professor of law at Newcastle Law School