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Sotomayer and the Cost of Success--Stuntz

A couple days ago, David Brooks had a wise and interesting column on Sotomayor and the price of professional success. (Link: here). Plainly, Sotomayor has paid a price for her achievements—according to Brooks, her marriage appears to have been a casualty of her work habits. Equally plainly, the point applies to a great many lines of work, not just to the legal profession. 

This is the aspect of my job and of legal jobs more generally that has most surprised me over the years. When I started in law teaching in 1986, the universal expectation was that workloads would diminish, that workplaces would grow more family-friendly as women populated the higher reaches of the professions in large numbers. Instead, Sotomayor’s experience increasingly has become the norm. High-end professional jobs have grown LESS family-friendly, as men and women alike sacrificed their marriages and relationships with their kids in order to put in the hours needed for success. My job seemed leisurely in the 1980s; by the beginning of this decade, most of my colleagues were routinely working evenings and weekends, as I was. When I was a kid, I remember jokes about doctors playing golf on Wednesdays. You don’t hear those jokes anymore; nearly all the doctors I know work very hard indeed. Again when I was young, the phrase “bankers’ hours” meant something akin to a 30-hour work week. No bankers work such soft hours today—nor did they do so before last fall’s crash. The list goes on and on.
I’m not griping here: I love my job; working long hours has often been a pleasure. Still, an awful lot of my friends work too hard, as I did before I got sick and was forced to ease up a bit. Why is that? I wish I knew. Is it a good thing? On balance, I think not. Will it remain so after we come out of the current recession? Stay tuned.


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Comments ( 6 )

This is interesting; I've heard and thought many conflicting things about the amount of work hours we put in.

Many have told me that people once worked much longer hours. Though never quite clear, I'm sure at least some of this was during the infant stages of the industrial revolution or in pioneering days. (Which, even if both periods had equal working hours, aren't quite equal: at least when pioneering, one wasn't constantly away from one's family.)

Your testimony and a brief survey of the Wikipedia article seem to indicate that work hours did decrease in the 20th century pretty significantly, but have lately begun to increase again.

I suppose, in the end, it's less a question of "how many hours ought one work?" and more of a question of "how do you balance work, life, faith, and family?" Unfortunately, it seems that the only answer acceptable for one to be successful isn't a balance at all.

I initially had two thoughts: demand for disposable income and increased competitiveness in the workforce as a greater percentage of the population is engaged in full-time employment.

I did, however, come across this interesting graph. I was surprised by the trend starting around 2000. I have no idea if this is confounded by other variables, so it may be nothing.

Table was generated at www.bls.gov

I read the column as well. As a rare law student with children (as if having a single child while in law school isn't strange enough) the work hours in the profession definitely concern me.

I have no problem with things blowing up at work and a couple of 70-hour weeks being required, but I'm not interested in signing up for that on a weekly basis. I can't imagine that such hours, if consistent, could be anything but corrosive to family life.

I think most people aspire to a lifestyle that costs a lot of money. Trips to exotic locations are more commonplace now, as (I am guessing here) as luxury cars and larger homes. We spend more money on electronics as there are more genres of products. Fixed household costs have increased as cellphone and interest expenses have been tacked on.

People, in my generation perhaps more than others, have a very hard time "downgrading" in life, and working less for less pay will be perceived as downgrading. I don't think hours will be appreciably affected by the recession.

David, you're right: there is little balance in the way in which professionals balance our work lives with the rest of our lives. Steve, you're right too; that graph is fascinating. Perhaps those of us left in the workforce took on more hours as more women left the workforce. And Taylor makes an excellent point about downgrading expectations, especially about pay.

Re that last point: My lawyer friends have told me many times that law students interviewing for jobs do not realize what bad news it is when law firms raise pay scales. No free lunches in this world. Once those students become lawyers, they'd rather make less and work less. But when they're still job-hunting, the ones who have multiple alternatives tend to go for the firms that pay best over the firms that pay less. It mystifies me. Of course, the reason I'm mystified may be that I'm part of the problem: I cut back on working hours only when I have no choice.

Today's WSJ has an article on some folks who blog at their site and recently became re-employed. Most of them took a pay cut, but not by choice. They were just glad to be working. One investment-banker changed careers to get away from the hours and stress but it reads like he was just in the wrong profession to start with and the long hours were only part of the issue.

Some interesting work on this issue for attorneys in particular has been done by the positive psychology program there at UPenn. Guy named David Shearon who is the MCLE Director for state of TN has been doing a "lawyer satisfaction" survey and recently got his MS from UPenn in positive psychology using that work for his thesis I believe.

That folks expect that the cultural pendulum will not, or should not, swing back and forth, and that Newtonian physics are not applicable to life, is fascinating. Elected officials come with all points of view, and represent the full spectrum of values. Why shouldn’t the people who they appoint? "You Can't Always Get What You Want."