Work Life Balance in Australian Legal Firms

Article excerpt

Introduction and Background

Work /life balance (WLB) is an area of human resource (HR) management that has achieved increased attention in the last decade as employers seek to attract and retain skilled employees in competitive labour markets (Barnett & Hall, 2001; Nord, Fox, Phoenix & Viano, 2002; De Cieri, Holmes, Abbott & Pettit 2005; Pocock 2005). WLB strategies are aimed at assisting employees to balance work and non-work aspects of their lives and providing increased autonomy. There are claims that WLB benefits the organisation through greater employee productivity, lower levels of turnover and burnout and increased attractiveness of the organisation as a place to work (Felstead, Jewson, Phizaclea, & Walters, 2002). More specifically, WLB refers to the goal of finding the right balance between working hours and personal time to minimise work/life role conflict (Clark, 2000). A key component of WLB is control by employees of when, where and how they work (Pocock, 2005). Creating WLB opportunities has become an increasingly important element of HR management as more employees seek to achieve a better balance between work and non-work activities, and employers seek to recruit and retain the best talent (Papalexandris & Kramar, 1997; De Cieri et al, 2005).

The issue of WLB is particularly relevant to the effective management of professional service firms in areas such as consulting, accounting and law where organisational cultures which celebrate long hours of work and the importance of 'face time' are common (Lambert & Haley-Lock, 2004; Bardoel, 2005; Pocock, 2005). Such cultures are often reinforced by a strong positive association between the number of hours worked and a successful rise up the seniority ladder for career track professionals thereby making these organisations, axiomatically, workplaces where WLB is unlikely to flourish. In the legal profession, the industry setting for this research, resolving the WLB issue is critical since the industry has high level of turnover and burnout and has reached the mature phase of the industry cycle whereby it must seek improvements in work practices to achieve potential gains in productivity (The Law Institute of Victoria, 2006:3).

This paper explores WLB in NSW legal firms and is organised around four research questions which arise from existing studies that are discussed in detail in the next section. The four questions concern whether a greater range of WLB options offered by a firm leads to a higher take up rate by employees; how important top management support for WLB is in influencing employee uptake; if top management support for equal reward and promotion of employees using WLB options is correlated with take-up rates; and whether the levels of support in the personal lives of employees affect their perception of the value of WLB options.

For many professionals extended work hours often become the rule, rather than the exception, leading to a semi-permanent or even permanent state of overemployment (Pocock, 2005). However, these approaches are being challenged through the increased focus that employees are placing on WLB. A recent survey of legal professionals has indicated a strong demand for WLB with 95% of respondents saying that their personal lives are as important, if not more important, than their jobs (IOMA, May 2006). This survey also found that men want many of the same WLB options available to them as women. Similarly, Sturges and Guest's (2004) longitudinal study of graduates in the professional workforce revealed that whilst graduates were prepared to put in the long hours and face time at the start of their careers in the hope that it would lead to recognition and reward, a longer-term lack of WLB led to low levels of commitment to their firms. Finally, a Catalyst study of Canadian law firms (IOMA, Feb 2006) found that female partners experienced more problems when attempting to balance work and personal time than their male counterparts, and that 70% of female lawyers believed they must put their job before family life to be considered for promotion. …