Dalton Conley, a sociologist at NYU, has an op-ed in today’s New York Times arguing that something novel has happened to the life of leisure: it isn’t very leisurely anymore. “[I]t is now the rich who are the most stressed out and the most likely to be working the most. Perhaps for the first time since we’ve kept track of such things, higher-income folks work more hours than lower-wage earners do.”
Conley hypothesizes that this intriguing development is the result of greater disparity in incomes at the top end of the scale — what he calls an “economic red shift.” That is, the richer you are, the faster people at the wealth level just above you seem to be pulling away. Combine that with the fact that people usually define their socioeconomic status in relative terms — i.e., how they compare to the Joneses — and you have an explanation for why hours increase with income. Or, as Conley puts it, at higher income levels, “the opportunity cost of not working is all the greater ( … since the higher we go, the more relatively deprived we feel).”
Law students in particular should pay attention to Conley’s article, because the phenomenon he’s describing — long hours of work over holidays such as Labor Day weekend — describes the life of most lawyers I know. And I can also confirm from my experience that, somewhat counterintuitively, the more senior lawyers if anything work harder than their junior associates. The old joke is true that law firm partnership is like a pie-eating contest in which the reward is more pie.
But I disagree with Conley that this is due primarily to relative income disparities, at least for lawyers. I think the explanation is due more to the internal status rewards that come from working.
For one thing, based at least on my anecdotal evidence, the hours lawyers work seems uncorrelated with income. Many public defenders, prosecutors, government attorneys, and public interest lawyers rival or exceed their private practice colleagues in terms of hours worked. When I was in practice, I worked alongside in-house counsel (the Nirvana for hard-worked law firm associates) that matched my efforts hour for hour. Most federal judges work long hours, even though they gain no extra pay by doing so. What explains the heavy workloads of most lawyers?
No doubt a desire for more income is part of the explanation, and possibly the sole explanation for some attorneys. But I’ve long thought that there is a different explanation for why most lawyers work so hard, that goes beyond income or relative wealth — lawyers are a self-selected group that tend to define their self-worth by how hard they work. If you listen closely to a group of attorneys complaining about their workloads, there’s a strange dual quality to it. On the one hand, they really do wish that they had more free time. On the other hand, lawyers often tend to get into a bit of a bragging contest about who is working harder. The person whose life is the most insanely unbalanced wins.
My hypothesis, then, is that there is an internal reward, at least for lawyers, that comes from having a lot of work to do — the amount of work confirms the importance of that person’s role in society. Some large corporation’s future in part depends on the attorney’s efforts, or government liability, or some criminal defendant’s time in prison, or some crime victim’s desire for resolution. The lawyers I know tend to both be outwardly cynical of these efforts, but I think inwardly proud of them. Like predestination theorists, they view the amount of work that they have as a signal of their professional status as lawyers.
This is why I warn law students that striking a proper work-life balance will be one of the most difficult aspects of their careers. That’s partly because it’s difficult to say no to senior attorneys or clients making demands on their time. But that’s also partly because it’s difficult to say no to themselves.