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Phoebe Taubman's picture

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Change is in the air this year. For the first time in a generation, young people are galvanized in record numbers by the presidential campaign and have devoted themselves with renewed energy to the democratic process. If they vote in numbers similar to those we have seen on the campaign trail, they could change the political landscape for years to come.

These same young people are also poised to make a major impact on the legal profession. Today, working at a large law firm means long and unpredictable hours. New associates quickly learn to dread the Friday afternoon phone call saying that they need to cancel their plans and work through the weekend. They joke with each other about whether they are going to "seamless web it" each night, i.e. stay late into the evening and work through a take-out dinner, paid for by the firm and billed to the client. And they commiserate in the wee hours of the morning as they wait at the printer for another corporate document.

Law students who are about to embark on their careers are looking at this reality with concern. My colleagues and I at A Better Balance: The Work and Family Legal Center recently surveyed students at the NYU School of Law and found that worries about balancing work and family weigh far more heavily on the minds of top law students than other career concerns including compensation and job prestige. Seventy-two percent of male and 76 percent of female students said they were very or extremely worried about being able to balance work and family. That's more than twice the number of law students who were worried about earning top pay, doing high profile cases or working for a prestigious firm.

Young lawyers are also willing to make tradeoffs in order to put family first. Seven out of 10 survey respondents, including both men and women, expect to make career sacrifices in order to have a satisfying personal life. Eight out of 10 indicated a willingness to trade money for time, that is, accept reduced earnings in return for flexibility and reduced hours. Over the past 10 years, law firms have been competing for talent by raising associate salaries exponentially, but the sterling salaries often come hand in hand with increased billable hour requirements and the expectation of 24/7 availability. Our survey shows that many young lawyers would happily trade those sky-high salaries in exchange for more personal time.

Furthermore, the lawyers of tomorrow do not see work/life balance as exclusively a women's issue. In our focus group discussions, one male law student told us, "I wouldn't like sending my kids to child care all day, and I'd rather be around for them." Another said, "With what firms pay nowadays . . . the paid leave isn't as important as the respected leave . . . it's not the money." A third male focus group participant didn't mince words: "It's the hours, stupid."

Our survey confirms that the generational gap around balancing work and family is finally beginning to exert pressure on the legal profession, which has lagged far behind other client-driven industries on the work/life front. Young lawyers who were raised by dual-earner couples working longer hours, and who witnessed the growing tension between work and family in their parents' lives, are unwilling to prioritize professional success at the expense of personal fulfillment, particularly when it comes to caring for their families. They want to see a cultural shift in their profession. As one student put it, "[Law firms] will change not because they care, but because they want the best and the brightest to come. Showing that we care [about work/family balance] and making a decision based on that is what is going to change the culture."

Law students are beginning to do just that. Over the past year, several student-run organizations (including Ms. JD and Building a Better Legal Profession) have sprouted up and dedicated themselves to changing the culture of the legal profession. But they face real resistance from an industry that has agreed to put family-friendly policies on paper but has failed to realize them in practice. This year, as young people show their strength at the polls, we hope that a similar wave of youth-generated change will finally turn the tide in the legal profession.

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"A Peaceful Revolution" is a Huffington Post blog about innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with MomsRising.org, read a new post at the Huffington Post and on MomsRising.org each week.


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