Why I hate the term “work-life balance”

Resharing a Twitter thread.

  1. Yesterday, I tweeted that it annoys me when young lawyers talk about wanting work-life balance (WLB). I thought I’d explain why in a thread. I’ll bookmark this to share when people ask me about WLB. This’ll seem repetitive to the people I’ve explained this to over the years.
  2. IMO, the term “work-life balance” is damaging. Firstly, different people use WLB to mean different things. The term has so many interpretations that it ends up not meaning anything. This includes the other re-framings such as “work-life integration/harmony etc”.
  3. The term WLB is damaging because it forces people to separate “work” and “life”. “Work-life integration” sounds better, but still separates work and life. IMO everything we do is just “life” — it’s the way we live, and it’s how we fill our days. This naturally includes work.
  4. “Work-life balance” creates a false dichotomy. Adopting this artificial construct of “work me” and “life me” sets a lot of people up for disappointment and frustration. This is where concepts like “TGIF” and “Monday blues” come up.
  5. TGIF means “Yay, it’s the weekend and I can switch to ‘fun me’ or ‘chill me’ or ‘happy me'”. Monday blues comes up because “Argh, it’s Monday and I now have to switch back to ‘serious me’ or ‘work me’ or ‘miserable me'”.
  6. This separation creates a narrative that “work” is diametrically opposed to life. Or that work is the enemy of life. This to me is a barrier to improvement and mastery, because it makes work seem like a bad thing.
  7. If you find yourself hating the work you do, check whether the mindset you’ve adopted towards work is to blame. Also, audit your circle of influence. If you surround yourself with whingers who think the world is always to blame, you’ll think so too.
  8. I also tweeted that mentioning WLB in an application/interview is a red flag. When someone says that their reason (or one of their reasons) for applying to the firm is because it provides work-life balance, it’s a warning sign — what do they mean?
  9. There are some good intentions behind wanting WLB (autonomy, control, independence, meaning, reasonable workload etc). There are also poor ones (wanting to clock off at 6pm everyday, not check emails outside the office).
  10. I won’t go into the reasons in point 8 in detail. I’ve had many conversations with fresh grads and YLs over the years, and there are as many of those with poor intentions as there are those with good ones.
  11. I’m interested to have these conversations, but only because I’ve seen how beginning to talk about WLB can lead to discussions of more interesting topics. A chat about WLB usually brings to the surface threads we can pull on.
  12. Digging a little deeper, we usually find that we can talk about things like “how do I become a good lawyer”, or “what does success mean to you?”, or “how do we find fulfillment in our jobs”.
  13. Going back to WLB, I don’t think the beginning of your career is the time to be overly-focused on WLB unless you really give it proper thought, and have the right mindset. Otherwise it can position work as a bad thing, and be a damaging concept.
  14. WLB really only comes up when people are dissatisfied with their current situation. Happy people don’t dwell on WLB. And when people say they want WLB, it means they want to work less. You don’t often find someone wanting to work more.
  15. While putting in the hours and hard miles early in your career is unavoidable, it saddens me when people in their 30s/40s/50s still feel that constantly working long hours and weekends is inevitable.
  16. It’s sad when people who have been in their careers for 5++ years feel burnt out, and say they “wish” they could live another way, choose another path, but have “no choice”. We always have a choice.
  17. Obviously there isn’t a simple one-size-fits-all solution for everyone. But, as with many situations in life where we feel that there’s no choice, asking “why?” or “why not?” often helps.
  18. When you’ve been in your career for 10 years yet feel you have “no choice” it often means you’ve trapped yourself in a prison of your own making. The “why not” for working less or changing jobs is usually tied to your own definition of success or wealth.
  19. If we don’t properly think about it, we will never be successful enough, or earn enough money. Society ensures we always want more. There are all sorts of financial and psychological elements— comparison, keeping up with the Joneses, lifestyle creep.
  20. Everything is iterative. You can design a life that works for you, unapologetically. You don’t have to conform with what society thinks a “lawyer” or “legal practice” should be like.
  21. You can do whatever you choose, but you have to want to. And “wanting to” means being willing to put in the hard work to make it happen. Being willing to experiment, make mistakes, learn, and put up with the inevitable brickbats or critics.
  22. I’m not saying spending long hours in the office is bad for everyone. There are as many worldviews and life philosophies as there are humans on this planet. Open yourself up to as many ideas as possible, unpack and ruminate, and then make the decisions that best suit you.
  23. And of course, constantly experiment and correct course where necessary. You’re not the same person you were 10 years ago, so you shouldn’t feel compelled to hold the same views or be committed to the same career path and ways of working.
  24. This thread has veered a bit from work-life balance (see, I told you discussing WLB always leads to lots of other threads to pull on). In short, it’s a bad thing to overly focus on at the beginning of your career. Focus on learning as much as possible instead.
  25. And this commitment to learning and putting in the hours isn’t unique to the legal profession. Look at the best entrepreneurs, craftsmen/women of any kind — anyone who is great at what they do. The alternative is mediocrity.
  26. But as your career progresses, keep thinking about your why. Your reason for doing things. Otherwise, you’ll end up just being pushed along by the current, and end up doing what society tells you, and think you have “no other choice”. Enjoy the ride.

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Branding, reputation, and compatibility with the legal profession — some quick thoughts

This is a compilation of a Twitter thread in which I shared my quick views in response to a post by my friend Fahri Azzat on his blog on branding, reputation, and lawyers: Branding and Reputation. I highly recommend you read his post and subscribe to his blog. You can also read my original thread by clicking here.

A delightful and thought-provoking read, eloquently expressed as always by my buddy Fahri / @LBminion1. And seemingly at odds with his earlier post about the future lawyer and embracing of technology. /1

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The Rise of the Specialist Litigation Firms

This article traces the trend of specialist boutique disputes firms. This will cover some examples from the UK, Singapore and Malaysia. This article sets out some trends and how boutique disputes firms are also establishing their foothold in the market.

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What I learnt after leaving legal practice to pursue an MBA

Guest writer Janice Tan Ying has been on quite a journey since she first wrote for us in October 2017 (“5 things I learned from pupillage that law school didn’t teach me“). In this article, she shares some of the many things she learnt from her recently-concluded two-year MBA.

Two years ago, I left legal practice at one of the largest law firms in Malaysia to pursue a full-time MBA at the Asia School of Business (ASB) — a partnership collaboration between Bank Negara Malaysia and MIT Sloan School of Management. This was a decision that felt incredibly daunting at the outset. 20 months (and an MBA degree in hand!) later, I dare say it was one of the best decisions that I have made.

Here are some of my reflections from my business school journey:

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Law Firms in Malaysia Face Tight Cashflow and May Downsize

Law firms in Malaysia are facing challenging times. Based on the recently released Bar Council survey results on 5 June 2020 (report available from the Malaysian Bar website to members only), almost half of the law firms replied that they would be downsizing, closing their law practice or ceasing practice. Close to 60% of the law firms responded that they were not intending to hire due to financial issues from the movement control / COVID-19.

I highlight the key points from the Bar Council survey from the perspective of hiring trends moving ahead.
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Lessons from Lockdown: How COVID-19 and remote working have changed the way we work

2020 has been the year of COVID-19. The pandemic has affected every aspect of life in almost every corner of the globe. Apart from the devastating impact on health and lives, and the effect on economies everywhere which may take years to recover from, COVID-19 has changed the way we work. Malaysia’s Movement Control Order (“MCO”) meant that from 18 March, most businesses had to cease on-site operations. Many other countries also enforced similar restrictions.

As a result of restrictions, people the world over have had to get used to working from home. While the concept of remote working isn’t new (it may come as a surprise to many that Tim Ferriss’ classic “The 4-Hour Workweek” was published 13 years ago), before these restrictions most industries had resisted the shift to working away from the office. The COVID-19 restrictions have forced even the staunchest luddites to adopt remote working.

We sought the views of the following four individuals with links to the legal industry across Asia-Pacific to hear about their work-from-home experiences:

  1. Crystal Wong, a partner in the Energy, Infrastructure & Projects and International Arbitration Practice Group at LHAG.
  2. Gaythri Raman, the Managing Director, Southeast Asia at LexisNexis.
  3. Jeannette Tam, a Senior Managing Associate at Bird & Bird Hong Kong.
  4. Zamir Hamdy Hamdan, the Asst Vice President for Stakeholder Management in Astro Malaysia‘s Human Capital Division.

We’re sure you’ll enjoy reading their insights.

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