Purpose to the Toil – The Inadequacy of a Balanced Life

By Max Rae
Originally appeared in August/September 1999 OSB Bulletin

There was a time when no one talked about balancing family and career. There was no distinction, no separation and therefore nothing to balance. Living and making a living were one and the same.

On the family farm and in the family business, kids and adults all contributed to the common enterprise. My mother recalls leading the big draft horse to pull the hay up into the barn. As a child, I drove a tractor on our farm from the age when I first had the strength to hold in the clutch. Whether it was my grandmother with her family picking hops, my mother in-law picking cotton or my dad growing up in the family slaughter house, participation by all was just assumed. Our experience stood in stark contrast to that of my wife, working for the cannery. Our family was not alienated from the means of our existence. Indeed, the enterprises that we were a part of helped to define our identities. And so we lived.

With the Industrial Revolution and the advent of large scale employment, the family enterprise gradually became more the exception than the rule. The worker sells a portion of his or her life each week to the factory, office or other institution in exchange for resources with which to live and maintain a family. More significant than any fueling of class struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie, this need to sacrifice time and labor away from the enterprise of living has left workers of both classes to struggle within themselves.

Many folks learned to sell their services to try to make a living. Institutions dependent on our complacent participation taught us to measure our success and self-worth in terms of monetary rewards. Many were duped. A few dissented. But most folks simply went along because there seemed to be no other viable alternative. And so they have existed.

Lawyers have been by no means alone in this predicament. Most workers feel trapped in their jobs. Young people without much apparent reason hope, long for identity. They do their time, filling our schools and our jails. Alienation permeates our society. However, lawyers do have alternatives. We can choose our sacrifice. Some of us are now expecting better and realizing that our lives can be changed.

The recent fad of demanding a balance between family and career has its roots not just in a growing awareness that the institutions have not played fair, but more significantly, in this sense that change is now possible. Our firms have too often demanded that we give up most of our lives in return for the trappings of prestige and monetary rewards that cannot guarantee happiness. More and more mature lawyers are counting their costs and questioning the bargain that they made. Young lawyers are increasingly distrustful of the promises and increasingly unwilling to abdicate their lives to meet the demands. They are, instead, demanding that firms provide alternatives; but those alternatives are only, in their essence, the same old bargain on different terms. Although progress is being made in securing more flexible commitments, the more basic problem is with the nature of the bargain itself.

When dissonance confronts us, whether boldly in frustration, anger or hopelessness, or more subtly in guilt or discontentment, do we choose to hear that message and adjust our lives? The sense of a lack of harmony in life may masquerade as a need for balance, when, in reality, it stems from conceding to balance at all and compromising one’s self in the process.

How would our lives change were we to refuse to “balance”? To begin, we would each need to find our own identity. We would no longer be captive to the formula for success by which the law schools have promoted themselves: adversarial competition for academic standing, law review and judicial clerkship, followed by the prestige of indentured servitude at a large firm in a tall building, leading to wealth and large gifts of gratitude to the alma mater. We lawyers often get so caught up in trying to make ourselves feel dignified that we sell those aspects of our identity from which true dignity might otherwise flow. Our true identity is as human beings, not as objects to be consumed in the process of production for its own sake.

We need to reclaim our humanity and bring our lives, including our professional lives, into line with who we really are.

We need not wonder at what has happened to the dignity of our profession. We have no right even to refer to ourselves as professionals if our participation in the law is only as a business for profit. How did you come to be a lawyer? People ought not to choose a profession; but rather, joining a profession ought to be our response to a calling for vocational service. Now that you are a lawyer, it is not too late to consider what you are called to do.

On the family farm, the work was hard, but it had a purpose that extended beyond one’s self. There is nothing easy about practicing law either, but working and living in a way which furthers justice, brotherhood and a more humane ordering of social relationships gives purpose to the toil. It ceases to be alienating, but rather becomes life — something to invite family members to support and partner in, as we support and partner with them in the shared enterprise of living. There is no need to balance.

How can anyone put such radical standards into consistent practice as a lawyer today? Indeed, the only real standard in some firms seems to be the requirement for a set number of billable hours. Balancing only adjusts that expectation. Some clients think that they have a right to zealous advocacy, and sometimes they need to be told otherwise. Your income may drop. You may be fired or have to quit to salvage your self-respect. But you may also help to make the world a better place for others. You will certainly be able to stand with your family as heroes, rather than slump into old age as a once profitable, but now worn out, piece of junk.

Max Rae is a Salem sole practitioner, who assists injured and disabled people with Social Security and workers’ compensation claims.