“You want to change the system? Going home at 5 p.m. is not going to do it.”
Those words — belonging to David Wang, a BigLaw chief information officer, and published in the December 2022 ABA Journal1 — jumped off the screen and hit me like a ton of bricks. After a nuanced, albeit brief, commentary in support of healthy boundaries further down in the article brought me back to my senses, the idea took shape: What an excellent opportunity to take a deeper dive into the connections between workplace boundaries and mental well-being! After all, no less than contemporary rhythmic poet Marshall Mathers has surprised would-be collaborators by treating composition as a 9-to-5 job (complete with a 1 p.m. lunch break.)2 If Eminem is able to maintain success in an industry on par with the legal profession in terms of hostility to work-life balance, then certainly an equity partner can allow associates to use accrued vacation time … right?
To his credit, Wang authored a lengthier essay prior to his recent quote in the ABA Journal, explaining that his aversion to what he termed “quiet quitters” stems from his concern for young workers engaging in their job with a lack of passion.3 I can applaud the sentiment. As someone who also dabbles in the world of lawyer well-being, I can say with confidence that prolonged incongruence between one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions will lead to burnout. Yet I also can’t help but wonder how a term coined to describe boundary-setting with an employer could be conflated with “coasting” — the term Wang used — or why it deserves such a pejorative.
That’s rhetorical, of course. Yours is a profession that has taken the already toxic “If you aren’t 10 minutes early, you’re late” attitude and allowed it to snowball into, as one attorney told me, “Sometimes, we have to work until 1 a.m. on Saturday night.” As surveys on lawyer well-being are conducted consistently by an ever-growing number of respected entities,4 the results remain unchanged: Lawyers experience stress, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse at a rate far exceeding the general population, and these problems are most acute for lawyers who have less than 10 years of experience.5
The term “quiet quitter” means different things to different people, but the ABA Journal defined quiet quitters as “people who haven’t actually left their jobs but mentally have checked out and are doing only the bare minimum.”6 Since checking out mentally is impossible to discern without also referencing observable behavior, we’re left with “doing only the bare minimum.” Put another way, we choose to defy the age-old “above and beyond” mentality that has burned out workers in all professions for decades and join the radicals who understand their job descriptions and deliver to their employer exactly what is required, no more and (importantly) no less.
The number of lateral-moving and newly minted lawyers who expect their employer to respect their time and well-being has radically grown in the past two years thanks in part to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.7 Setting these types of boundaries would have been unthinkable a few short years ago when the legal landscape dictated that prospective associates compete for coveted jobs. However, beginning in 2021, the balance of power began to shift as the world began to open up and as the economy improved, the need for lawyers grew.8 The competition for jobs morphed into a competition to find and retain talented associates; young lawyers, particularly those under 40, began to redefine their definition of a “coveted job” by incorporating hybrid work options; emphasizing well-being; and investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.9 With this newfound leverage, many associates chose to prioritize workplace flexibility and a healthy culture on the same level as financial compensation when considering a lateral move.10
What can we learn from this unprecedented period of movement? One theory is that younger attorneys are cognizant of the idea that once they hit a certain salary threshold, any further raises will have diminishing returns on happiness.11 However, recent research that incorporates real-time mood tracking combined with retrospective analysis indicates that the relationship between salary and well-being continues to show a direct positive correlation well past the $400,000 threshold.12 A 2022 Thomson Reuters study titled “The Go/Stay Report” also supports the existence of several non-financial well-being factors. In this study, the top 25% of firms that had the most turnover during the previous two years were labeled “go” firms, while the top 25% in terms of employee retention were labeled “stay” firms. Among the important findings:
- Associate compensation at “go” firms is roughly 18% higher than “stay” firms.
- Annual billable hours per lawyer is higher at “stay” firms by about 51 hours.
- Productivity is higher at “stay” firms.
- Lawyers at “stay” firms rated their overall satisfaction higher than those at “go” firms, including satisfaction with compensation.13
These findings support the conclusion that something more than money was responsible for the advantages “stay” firms have in terms of retention and productivity.
Wang’s comments have inspired this plea to legal stakeholders to resist the urge to deride wellness-seeking behaviors or attribute boundary setting to yet another generation of blasé youth who expect to be handed their dream job. Instead, it’s an opportunity to recalibrate your sensitivity to the pulse of your workplace. A recent study commissioned by the ABA intended to help define future best practices by polling both managing partners and chief legal officers as well as lawyers “not in top positions.” Among nonmanagement lawyers, 27% indicated that mental health and wellness was “very or extremely important” compared to 22% of managing partners.14 Conversely, 31% of managing partners indicated that designated in-office days for meetings and training was “very or extremely important” compared to 23% of nonmanagement lawyers.15 While research supporting the importance of meaningful connection with others exists,16 I am skeptical that research is the reason for the disparity in responses between management and nonmanagement.
Other reports indicate the market may be moving back to the place where large firms have more leverage than the talent that fuels them.17 Even so, the number of attorneys uninterested in complicating the relationship between work and home continues to grow.18 Some may even insist upon a more platonic, transactional relationship with their employers where they perform their duties (passionately, of course) for a set number of hours negotiated upon their hiring in exchange for a predetermined sum of money. That concept may sound foreign, but I assure you it has already caught on outside of the legal profession.
It remains to be seen whether quiet quitting will be a catalyst for the much-needed cultural overhaul of work-life balance in the legal profession. But with the Washington Post recently reporting that the legal industry is the country’s most stressful profession,19 it bears mentioning that the State Bar of Michigan Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program exists to offer resources, guidance, and support.
Call the LJAP Helpline at 800.996.5522.