Juggling It All: Exploring Lawyers' Work, Home, and Family Demands and Coping Strategies - Report of Stage One Findings (RR-00-02)
Jean E. Wallace, Department of Sociology, The University of Calgary

Executive Summary

This Executive Summary condenses information collected from 121 practicing lawyers who agreed to participate in telephone interviews in the fall of 1999 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada in the first stage of a two-stage project. This first stage identifies the demands and stresses lawyers face in their work and nonwork lives and investigates how they cope with them. The second stage will involve a large-scale, mail-out questionnaire that will examine the issues identified here in a more quantitative and representative fashion.

This report documents the amount of time lawyers spend working, their home life and family situations, how they meet their housework responsibilities and child care needs, how they spend their leisure time, how stressful they perceive their lives to be and why, who they turn to for support, and their overall satisfaction with and commitment to the practice of law.

The lawyers who were interviewed included 56 men and 44 women working full time and 21 women working part time. The average age is 38 and length of practice is approximately 10 years. Overall, the majority of women and men (67%) who participated in this study work in law firms either as associates or partners. Throughout the report comparisons are made among female lawyers working part time, female lawyers working full time, and male lawyers working full time in order to explore whether lawyers who differ by gender and/or work status experience different work and family stresses and cope with them in different ways.

The Time Demands of Practicing Law

The lawyers who were interviewed were asked to describe in detail the hours that they usually work in a typical week. Their reported answers clearly illustrate the time demands of practicing law. While lawyers in this study work on average 50 hours a week, more than half regularly work evenings and weekends. Most feel they have to work long hours in response to client demands, professional expectations, and/or billing requirements. In combination with the excessive time demands and workloads, many lawyers feel that they must place work as their first priority all of the time. If financially possible, most male and female lawyers would prefer to work fewer hours than they do now and if they had more time they would spend it with their family or in leisure activities. Many of these lawyers expressed considerable dissatisfaction with the time demands of practicing law in terms of both the quantity and unpredictability of the hours required. The time demands of practicing law are also a major source of stress in their lives.

Combining Work and Family

The time demands and priority attached to practicing law often interfere with lawyers’ family time. Lawyers in this study are generally dissatisfied with the amount of time they spend with their spouse and/or children and they often feel they are too tired to enjoy the time they are able to spend together. A general concern raised by many of the lawyers is the difficulty for women in combining both a successful career and a balanced family life. While some women attempt to combine both a full-time career in law and raising a family, other women attempt to balance work and family by working reduced hours. Most of the women surveyed rely on a nanny to provide care for their children while they are at work. Many of the men in this study have a wife who does not have a full-time career and who stays at home to care for their children.

The Division of Household Tasks

Lawyers were asked to indicate who performs specific household tasks around the house. The division of household tasks appears to be fairly traditional where wives tend to do the “female tasks” and husbands tend to do the “male tasks.” This allocation of tasks tends to be reinforced by the use of paid help. From their responses it appears that wives, whether they are female lawyers or the wives of male lawyers, appear to be responsible for the burden of housework. While about half of the spouses feel the division of housework is fair between them and their partner, one-third feel the women do more than what is fair.

Coping With Stress

Lawyers were asked to identify the major sources of stress in their lives and the ways they cope with these stresses. Most lawyers reported experiencing considerable stress both recently and over the past year, and about half indicated that most of their stress was primarily due to work. Several different coping strategies were identified by lawyers in this study. For example, many lawyers surveyed indicated that they often turn to their spouse and family for support when they are coping with the stresses they encounter in their day-to-day lives and to their spouse and other lawyers when they are dealing specifically with work-related stress. Lawyers’ spouses are often helpful in coping with the stresses of the job by providing emotional support (i.e., by listening and offering support and encouragement) and/or informational support (i.e., by offering helpful advice and suggestions, often because they are also lawyers and also understand). Other lawyers also indicated in their comments that they attempt to keep their work in perspective and recognize the more important priorities in their life. Others try to place limits on their work time so it does not take over their entire life.

Temporary Absences From Law

Lawyers were asked whether they have taken any significant breaks or time off since they first started practicing law. The purpose of the inquiry was to determine if lawyers were using such breaks as a coping strategy to relieve the stresses of practicing law and if so, whether the strategy was effective. If they had taken a leave they were asked the reason for their leave and whether they felt they were treated any differently upon their return. The findings of this stage of the study suggest that men and women take temporary leaves for different reasons and they experience different treatment following their return to work.

Part-time vs. Full-time Work Arrangements

Lawyers were asked to describe their work hours and work arrangements. Recent studies have indicated that while male lawyers seldom work reduced hours, some female lawyers adapt their work hours to meet the demands of their family. The results of this study support this research. Of the 21 lawyers contacted who were working reduced hours or part time, all are women. These women generally left full-time practice to work part time to have more time for their children. An interesting finding of this study is that women working part time report spending significantly less free time in leisure activities and less free time alone with their spouse than male and female lawyers working full time.

Alternatives to Traditional Law Firm Practice

Participants were asked whether they think they will continue to practice law as they do now in their current job or whether they might change jobs in the near future. Lawyers’ answers to this question show an interesting finding in that many law firm lawyers regard in-house practice as an attractive alternative to their current situation. Moreover, the lawyers practicing in-house or in government offices support this view.

The New Generation of Lawyers

Many junior lawyers voiced their opinions regarding the time demands and expectations of practicing law, and their comments have been presented throughout this report. A common theme appears to be that they are not sure they will, and in some cases they indicate they are unwilling to, continue to work the hours that they are currently working.

Satisfaction With and Commitment to Practicing Law

As a broad question, lawyers were asked to indicate their overall satisfaction with their careers in law. Despite the reports of the excessive time demands and stresses associated with practicing law, most lawyers are generally satisfied with their legal careers. Furthermore, most intend to continue working in their current employment situation and many would likely continue practicing law if they were financially independent.

Juggling It All: Exploring Lawyers' Work, Home, and Family Demands and Coping Strategies (RR-00-02)

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