Man is suit in Lotus position, fingers crossed

Out of Balance

  • June 01, 2012
  • Danielle Harder

Some say it's a myth. Others say they've found it. Ontario lawyers weigh in on work-life balance. Why is the legal profession still struggling to stem burnout? Is it the nature of the business – or the people who profess it? And, perhaps more importantly, what are some firms doing about it?

Years ago, fresh out of law school at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Rob Hyndman did what so many of his classmates were doing at the time: he made a beeline back to Toronto and the big firms on Bay St. He lasted almost five years before long hours, a lack of support and frustration with his work climate set in.

"I felt like I had no control over my own destiny," he says. "One thing people underestimate is the extent to which losing control can affect deeper issues of quality of life."

He went to a colleague for advice, and his co-worker's only response was, "Frankly, I'm scared of him.

He felt hamstrung, unable to make decisions or practise law without pressure from partners and senior associates, so he left to do in-house counsel.

A year later, he was back to give Bay St. one more try.

"I went back to Bay St. thinking I could do it a different way," he says. "But the one issue was still quality of life."

Hyndman says he was "extraordinarily frustrated" by senior associates and partners "glad to throw you under a bus to make numbers" and not feeling like he could change his situation. He remembers one situation in which he was struggling with what he calls a "profoundly unreasonable" client. When he went to the responsible partner for help, he says the partner removed himself and was "delighted to let that shit fall on someone else's head."

He went to a colleague for advice, and his co-worker's only response was, "Frankly, I'm scared of him."

"You discover pretty quickly you're largely powerless and you'll do anything for money," Hyndman says.

Over time, the lack of autonomy and the frustration gnawed away to the point that it started affecting his home life. Conversations with his wife – once rich and varied – started to focus on one thing alone: work. "You just get into this really self destructive loop," he says.


It's difficult to find statistics on the rate of burnout among Canadian lawyers, but studies have found law to be among the most stressful occupations with some of the highest rates of depression.

While there are multiple sources of stress – long hours, lack of vacation time, client demands, pressure to reach billing targets – it all adds up to a profession that's still struggling to offer the work-life balance many lawyers crave but have difficulty finding.

The 2006 Catalyst study Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Lawyers State their Case on Job Flexibility found that while many in the legal profession want more flexibility, most still perceive it as career-limiting to ask.

Four out of five lawyers felt those taking advantage of flexible arrangements would automatically be sent to "the B team" and a majority didn't believe lawyers who asked for better more flexible working arrangements could ever become partner.

So who or what is to blame? Are lawyers the authors of their own misfortune? Is it the prestige of the profession, or the push to make partner, that creates an unhealthy work environment? Is it cultural? Or, is the profession set up in such a way that it discourages any hope of work-life balance?

Many lawyers will say it's a bit of A and a bit of B.

Darlene, a lawyer now practising on her own north of Toronto, had children early in her career. In fact, she attempted to hide her first pregnancy for as long as she could, afraid she might not get the case she wanted. "When I stood up (at a meeting) and I was noticeably pregnant, I felt like I should be covering my belly," she says. "I could feel them asking, 'Could she do the hours?' Having babies was not a career enhancer."

She came back to the firm between children but found little support. "It was horrible. I felt like I had to sneak out the door in the morning," she says. "Two other women left within the year. There was no mentor for me and, if I left at 5:30 I'd hear, 'Oh, you're leaving early."

Sadness swept over her. While she wasn't entirely satisfied with the work, it was the struggle to be a good lawyer and a good mother that slowly engulfed her. "On Sundays I would always feel sad again," Darlene says. "There wasn't support and asking for help was frowned upon. I felt like I was swimming alone in the ocean.

"It's a choice. There are people who like that and want that. You can't make a lot of money unless you work those hours. But I'd rather make less money."

Long hours are made worse by the very structure of firms, particularly in corporate law, says Jacqueline King, a litigation partner and chair of business development at Shibley Righton LLP in Toronto.

With the focus on billing targets, she says lawyers are forced to compete for, and sometimes make a play for, each other's clients. "What part of that do you think is healthy?" she asks. "That only makes us hate each other. What's happening is we're setting ourselves up in silos and not helping each other as we should. Sharing has become wrong."

Of course, there's also pressure from clients – the people who sign the paycheque."For the most part, you're working with clients who are not sympathetic to your quality of life," says Hyndman, "and they expect you to be there at all times. The legal profession has ensured itself a relationship with clients that doesn't leave a lot of slack."

Karen MacKay, president of Phoenix Legal Inc., a consulting business that works exclusively with law firms, is more generous in her assessment. "I don't know if it's the nature of law – or the nature of those who profess it," she says. "There's such a strong commitment to the client and often senior lawyers commit to service the client but do it before checking to see if the resources are there."

King says another part of the problem is that lawyers waste a lot of time worrying about what others think, whether it's comments from a judge, an exchange with a client or something said by another associate or partner in the firm. "Well, not everything is about you," she says. "Sometimes someone may just be sick or there's some outside pressure or family problems."


Aside from the systemic issues in law, the culture of the profession also makes work-life balance difficult, according to many.

We're lawyers for Pete's sake! We say we need to advocate for the most unsavoury people out there - but not ourselves

Darlene says coming out of law school there was a lot of pressure to make partner, to earn big money, to work long hours. That just wasn't her but it took time to learn that and be honest about it.

"You can't put a square peg in a round hole," she says. "I went to the University of Toronto and I was expected to follow a path but it was not the path for me. I put myself in a position where I set myself up for failure."

But, as much as she feels like she didn't live up to her end of the bargain, she also realizes she didn't ask for much either – partly because of insecurity and fear. She hopes the younger generation of lawyers can be more honest. "I should have said, 'This is what I need' instead of 'I'm so honoured to just be able to work here," she says. But that's exactly how many lawyers feel, especially as junior lawyers. Many in the profession, including Hyndman and King, say while lawyers should stick to what they're good at – law – and get out of the business of managing people.

King says many firms make it difficult for associates to feel comfortable and supported. "We should be saying, let's go down the hall and talk – not how about the three of us get together in a boardroom? Then [the associate] is terrorized," she says. "When you look at studies, often people don't want to earn more money, they just want you to come down the hall and say 'good job.'"

Lack of mentoring and support is an issue for many lawyers, says King. Many firms still call meetings for early in the morning or late in the day, and often lack understanding around issues like child care and maternity/paternity leave."It has to be led from the top but you have to be bold enough to say it from the side. We're lawyers for Pete's sake! We say we need to advocate for the most unsavoury people out there – but not ourselves," King says.

"Women need to stand up and feel good and not feel guilty."

Even with more support at the top, Darlene knows that a lot of that pressure still comes from within. Although she has found contentment as a sole practitioner, she admits there is pressure within the profession to be a career climber. "Over time, priorities change. If you had asked me five or ten years ago if I was in a group of lawyers would I feel inferior, I would have said yes. Ask me today and I'm a lot more secure and confident," she says.

King is quick to point out, however, that choosing a better balance – or a path that's a better fit, as she did – doesn't make people less good at their job. She says that's a myth that still needs to be broken. "It's not a matter if working less hard," she says. "I'm not less excellent or less hardworking. It comes down to cutting down on the nonsense. The bigger the firm, the bigger the bureaucracy that's required. It does nothing but irritate lawyers."


Kattie Ross, a partner with Mann McCracken Bebee Ross & Schmidt in Cobourg, an hour east of Toronto, has found a way to achieve that balance. The mother of three children under four manages to work a four-day week in the summer – with the full support of her all male partners – and she rarely works evenings or weekends.

She deliberately chose to practise in a small town, and made partner before her thirties. "I wanted control of my files. I didn't want someone yelling at me," she says. "I wanted to make my own decisions and set my own hours. That wouldn't happen in a large firm."

She's part of a new breed of lawyers that many predict will change the working environment in the legal profession, partly because they'll demand better work-life balance and partly because they're technologically savvy enough to do it.

Ross says while her life is not always rosy, she doesn't see her struggles to find balance in law any different from those faced by her university friends who are also professional in other fields. "My girlfriends and I are more open to asking for help," she says. "As much as we want to do it all, I also want to be the best mom and I need help with my kids so we have a nanny."

There are other signs that the younger generation of lawyers is changing the workaholic culture of law, adds MacKay. She points to the decline in golf course memberships, once a badge of honour among lawyers. "Men and women with kids want to be there. They don't want to be at work all week, then at the course on Saturday for four-and-a-half hours spending time with clients," she says. "The partners are trying to get as much out of the firm as they can before they retire. The younger generation is just not that interested."

Charles Gluckstein is one of them. He's a partner with his father at Gluckstein and Associates in Toronto, and vice-president of the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association.

The father of three – ages 10, 8 and 5 – is home for dinner and bedtime most nights. He also coaches them at hockey and soccer and squeezes in a run, bike ride or swim workout for himself every day. "There's always enough work that you don't have to work 24/7," he says. "How well does a firm have to do? Where's the utility if you're harming the rest of your life? That's not my goal."

Gluckstein extends that balance to his staff. He takes everyone, not just partners, on a spa weekend once a year, and supports flexible work arrangements where possible. Not long ago, he created a unique role for an associate who had just had her second child and no longer wanted to actively practice. Today she assists with writing and summarizing cases. "People need to have their own life," he says. "We want you to be part of our family but not living in our office."

While many lawyers are finding balance in boutique firms or on their own, larger firms are taking notice and acting.

Lara Nathans is a partner in McCarthy Tetrault's Business Law Group in Toronto, and the mother of a five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son. Through the firm's parental support program, she and her husband were offered one-on-one coaching before their daughter's birth, during her maternity leave and as she transitioned back to work.

In all, the firm provides up to six sessions with Margie Shore, a corporate coach and parent with extensive experience working with the legal profession."The biggest value is that it really allows you to prepare," Nathans says. "She's someone who really understands the work environment and the parenting environment.

At Blakes, named one of the country's top employers, there's a strong focus on helping lawyers manage stress. "You can't get rid of stress. It's also what makes the job interesting and exciting," says Mary Jackson, chief officer of professional resources. "But if you give lawyers the best organizational skills, they can manage better."

She recently brought in a renowned expert to talk about resilience. At other times, Jackson has focused on helping lawyers develop better project management skills or used productivity coaches to assist them with time management. "Lawyers don't like the word 'human resources'," she says. "But there's more to legal talent management. They need a work environment they can thrive in."

Gowlings has also received several top employer awards, in part because of its focus on creating a healthier work environment.

The firm offers flexible time, with many lawyers working three or four day weeks and others telecommuting when necessary. There's also strong professional development and mentoring programs, as well as support for outside interests.

A few years ago, an associate who was a reserve in the Canadian Forces was granted a leave to serve in Afghanistan, an experience he shared with the firm upon his return. "Even though we're a global firm, people recognize lawyers have other interests and it gives them a better experience," says Sharon Mitchell, Gowlings' chief operating officer. "It does make better lawyers. If they're passionate outside of work, they'll be passionate at work."

Gowlings has also made an emphasis on teamwork, encouraging associates to work together and share credit. "We're seeing relationships going deeper and deeper," she says.

Hyndman has also seen a deepening relationship – with his wife. Now in private practice, he pauses to reflect on the change whenever they're heading into downtown Toronto. "We look at each other and say, can you believe how lucky we are?"


Danielle Harder is a Brooklin, ON - based freelance writer.  She's a regular contributor to Canadiana HR Reporter, Canadian Labour Reporter and Canadian Employment Law Today.

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