Setting boundaries for firm/life balance


“Are you worried about being able to have a satisfying career and family life?” asked Spela Trefalt in a forum sponsored by the Program on the Legal Profession. Professor Trefalt, who teaches at the Simmons School of Management in Boston, explained that a recent NYU study has shown that many students are worried.

This general worry prompted Trefalt to examine how attorneys perform boundary work, the process through which they construct, negotiate, place, maintain, and change the boundaries delineating work and life outside of work. Her three-year research project involved interviews with seventy lawyers working at an AmLaw 100 law firm.

During these interviews, Trefalt explored how attorneys reacted when work and non-work demands conflicted. She found that their reactions were influenced by work relationships, and, in turn, affected those relationships. Attorneys, her research revealed, engaged in four types of boundary work, depending on their decisions to either speak up or remain silent, and to either accept or oppose the work demand.

Attorneys made decisions in pursuit of two goals: setting the desired boundaries and preserving their relationships at work. For example, the decision to remain silent and to accept the work was in order to avoid conflict or because they felt that it was fair to give work priority. In contrast, the decision to oppose the demand and to speak out was to facilitate the sharing and gathering of information and to ask for help and accommodations.

Her study also found that attorneys tend to make their decisions based on the nature of the competing demands and on the nature of the relationships with the person imposing the demand. On average, speaking up led to better relationship outcomes than remaining silent. Relationships, if they were well established, were rarely negatively affected by speaking up and opposing the work load. Unsurprisingly, disagreement about what is fair to demand was more common in new relationships.

Trefalt found that many attorneys were cognizant that relationships were central to managing competing demands. As a result, attorneys revealed two patterns of behaviors. First, they selected partners to work for that had a similar understanding of personal demands. For example, if the associate runs marathons, she will try to find a partner who also runs marathons, with the hope that the partner will be more understanding of her training schedule.

Thus, attorneys diligently gathered information and skillfully pursued certain partners to ask for work. An unintended consequence of this “partner shopping” was specialization in a field that was not the attorney’s passion.

The second behavior pattern regards strengthening relationships with people. Trefalt found that most attorneys felt that in the first two or three years of practice they should not create boundaries, prioritizing work above all else. After developing a good reputation, they could then start to ask for accommodations. The problem with this approach, Trefalt found, is that the transition to creating boundaries after two or three years was very difficult for most people, since they believed that others had started depending on them to always be available. The transition also usually did not occur without some kind of external shock, such as having a baby or taking care of sick parents. The alternative strategy that a few attorneys used-imposing boundaries from the beginning, and strengthening relationships by making sure to meet client demands and do high quality work-seemed to have worked better.

Trefalt stressed that it is crucial for a young attorney to build a good reputation for hard work and high quality of work. Only with a good reputation can an attorney successfully pick certain partners to work for and ask for accommodations for her personal life. In addition, associates should think about the situation from the other’s perspective and should try to avoid making assumptions about what people are thinking and what information they have.

Responding to questions, Trefalt remarked that all the attorneys she spoke with worked a lot, but that those who were successful in setting boundaries had more control over where and when they did the work so that they were able to attend to their family as well.

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