What Ever Happened to the 40 Hour Week?


Have I ever mentioned to you guys how much I hated law school? It was such a miserable place. There were many reasons for that, but one of them was that I felt I was in an alternate universe. It was completely alien to anything I had ever known, and I did not belong there. It was also an atmosphere that was wrong and abusive, but I could not call it by its right name. I was immobilized by self-hatred, wishing I could just for one day be good enough to sit among my classmates and talk to my professors.

Later, a classmate of mine compared our law school experience to being in abusive relationship. Abuse victims develop what’s known as “dual points of reference,” which means, as I understand it, that they believe in two sets of standards for what’s acceptable – one outside the relationship, and one inside. Even though they know that what’s going on inside the relationship would be considered outrageous and unacceptable to anyone outside it, when in the company of the abuser they accept and even embrace this second, deviant standard.

I found this a perfect metaphor to describe my law school experience. And now, I find it almost as applicable to the way a lot of people in D.C. (and many other places, I’m sure) think about work, family, and what’s important in life. It’s like I’m Alice and have gone through the looking glass and nothing is recognizable to me.

The simple way to say it is that people work too much. But there are so many important details embedded in that concept, and I feel it is important to enumerate them.

1. Hours. When I was growing up, my parents were home every day by 5:30. (Granted, they also left very early in the morning). When I lived in Mississippi, typical office hours were 8 to 5. It was practically unheard of to be at work after 5:30 p.m. I even talked to a woman who works at a big law firm in Jackson two years ago. She said they told her that “family comes first.” That would never happen here. At my job, I feel guilty – guilty!!! – if I leave before 7 p.m. Leaving at 5 is unheard of, no matter how early you come in. Many of the lawyers don’t come in until 10 a.m. or later. I do not like this later schedule. I do not like working more than 40 hours a week. The labor movement fought for the 40 hour week, and here we are, pissing it away. What a f**king waste.

2. Communication. There is an expectation of being available by phone and email on evenings and weekends. It is quite common to get emails from people I work with that are time-stamped after 11 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays (or both). I find this disgusting – don’t these people have lives?

This weekend my boss called me on Saturday and on Sunday. I have learned not to answer the phone, so I didn’t talk to him. It was not anything urgent. He just can’t stop thinking about work and expects me to be thinking about it all the time too. He has two young children (10 and 7) and a wife who doesn’t work. I guess he doesn’t use his weekends to buy groceries, do laundry, and cook. I’m sure they hire a maid to clean their house even though his wife is not employed. What kills me is that we do sex discrimination work on the plaintiffs’ side. What kills me even more is that none of the associates in our office have children yet. This job is utterly incompatible with having children – even day care requires that you pick up your child by 6. Sorry, I’m getting far afield here. I’ve been dealing with these frustrations for a long time. My laconic tone may convey how sick I am of dealing with them.

3. Vacations. There is an expectation that you will be checking and responding to email while on vacation. I have been told as much. I’ve taken to saying that I will not have access to email, as if I am out in the woods, even when I am in a place where I could check email if I wanted to. Is it just me, or is it not a vacation if you’re working? I thought the point of a vacation was to get away. These people are insane.

4. Thinking. These other expectations convey to me that I am always supposed to be thinking about work. Work is supposed to be my raison d’etre. Nothing else is supposed to matter as much. This is my own personal version of hell.

5. Family, Friends, Personal Relationships, Leisure Time. These are always to be secondary to work. For me, that will never happen. So it’s this set-up where in order to be a valued worker, you can’t have a personal life, or if you do have one, it has to be your last priority. It’s just a Catch-22 that I can’t deal with. I value my time with the people I love. I value my leisure time. Sometimes you just need to sit and have some quiet. To read something not work-related. To take a nap on a Sunday afternoon. To go for a walk in the park. To wile away an afternoon doing not much of anything. To be able to pursue a hobby. To play with your dog or your children. To be able to get the appropriate amount of sleep and exercise to be able to do these things. To have the time to cook healthy meals. And on and on.

The worst part of all this is that I can’t say anything, lest I be branded as lazy and uncommitted. I cling to the hope that there are others like me, that in fact this place where I am is as rarified as Yale Law School and that everyone outside of it will think that these things are as outrageous and unacceptable as I think they are.

In the absence of any confirmation of this, I always say to myself this very trite, hackneyed thing that is also very true. At the end of the day, when all of these people come to the end of their lives, not one of them will wish that they had worked more. They will wish that they had spent more time with the people they loved. They will realize that they squandered years worrying about things that didn’t matter. They will realize they were wrong to dismiss people like me who knew what was important.

But that’s then. What do I do now?


20 Responses to “What Ever Happened to the 40 Hour Week?”

  1. Whitney Says:

    Two things:
    1) I had the same experience in grad school you had in law school. I wouldn’t go back. It truly was an abusive relationship, but we were expected to “take it like a man.”
    2) I wish more people thought like you. You’re right: we work too much. I was fortunate enough to go to work for a office who values all of the things your office apparently does not. I hate that you’re stuck in such a situation, but find that your situation is increasingly common in our money-loving society.

    I’ll save all the trite “hope things get better” or “keep your head up” or “SMILE!” crap and just say that I hope you’ll be able to get out of your hell sooner than later.

  2. Al Sturgeon Says:

    What do I do now?

    Change the system. (I love these easy questions!) 🙂

    That’s my serious answer, by the way. The extra fun part comes in really trying to do it!!!

  3. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I think most grad/professional schools of any kind are like that. Oddly enough, though, of the 3 grad/prof schools I attended, the law school was the one that was mostly an exception. I was at NYU, which is probably the most laid back of the “elite” law schools. We didn’t have to put up with being abused in class (much), and although there was a tremendous amount of work to be done outside of class, the attitude toward it was fairly casual; the year I was there, the faculty and upper-level students actually worried about my class being too conscientious.

    The grad schools I attended after that were more typical grad school experiences, I think. Which is to say, they were a grinding test of emotional endurance and patience more than of intelligence and original thinking. When I left to enter the workaday world, people who’d been there all those years that I was still in school would sometimes ask me how I liked being in “the real world.” I would tell them, honestly, it was a lot less work and stress than grad school.

    Now, I could say that because, thus far, I’ve been really good about drawing a hard line between at the office and not at the office. If I’m working or thinking about work (same thing), I’m at the office. If I’m not at the office, I’m not working and I’m not thinking about work. People I work with sometimes talk about waking up in the middle of the night with an epiphany about how to solve some technical problem or other. That never happens to me, because I don’t think about work unless I’m at work.

    Except under temporary special circumstances, I’m not available for work-related calls or emails unless I’m at work. And if I’m on vacation, fuhgeddaboudit.

    I’m able to do that by being very up-front about it in job interviews, then sticking to my guns. And I’m willing to trade some income and prestige for quality of life. I’ve turned down job offers at some very large, important corporations because I didn’t want to be part of their culture.

    That’s a much harder thing to do, though, as a lawyer. Lawyers, whatever else people may think of them, work extremely hard and always have. Law firms expect it, and always have. Even lawyers who own their own firm tend to work extremely hard; they have to to make ends meet.

    I’m sure there must be exceptions to that, though, Sandi. There must be some mid-size firms out there where someone with your ability and credentials could negotiate for a better quality of life, and still be able to do interesting work. They probably aren’t in D.C. or New York, though. They’re more likely somewhere like Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Kansas City or Omaha, and even in those places you’d have to search to find a firm that would be the right fit.

    So I guess that’s my perhaps not terribly practical advice. You’re in 1 of the 2 most lawyer-rich cities in the world. Go elsewhere, young lawyer, and grow old with the country.

  4. Sandi Says:

    Al, I like your answer. But how do you actually begin to try? My answer so far has been to make comments whenever I can to as many people as I comfortably can, and to draw boundaries around my personal life (i.e., making it clear that I will not check e-mail while I am on vacation; not picking up the phone during non-work hours). I wish there was a more organized way to advocate for what I believe on this issue. I have thought of trying to get my coworkers on board, since I know that they all pretty much feel the same way I do (though since none of them are from the South, they don’t feel nearly as entitled to feel that way as I do).

    Juvenal, how do you get away with saying these things in job interviews? As I start to look for a new job, this is my central dilemma — how do I ask about the hours or “culture” without appearing lazy or uncommitted? I WISH I could leave DC. But we need to stay until David becomes more marketable (at least 2 or 3 years down the road).

  5. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Hey Sandi, I need to construct another article on Wink’s next chapter in “The Powers That Be.” Without meaning to, your article, my response, then your response to my response fits perfectly.

    Your comments in the work place seem to be a good start, and your idea of getting your co-workers on-board sounds like the next logical step.

    Now it’s time to be creative!!! Finding a creative way to expose the problem w/o violence will be the secret.

    (I’ll try to get around to another column in the next few days, and maybe your situation can work as a great case-study?!)

  6. juvenal_urbino Says:

    how do I ask about the hours or “culture” without appearing lazy or uncommitted?

    I usually do it by saying something like, “If you decide to make me an offer, and I decide to accept it, what’s my typical day at the office going to be like? Walk me through it.” I can usually get a sense of their “availability” expectations from the conversation that ensues.

    As for how one gets away with it without seeming lazy, I’m not sure I know. I think it’s partly a matter of just coming off as professional. Having been on the other side of the interviewing table a little bit, I can say interviewers get a sense of whether somebody gives a darn about how they do their job. One way is if, say, during the “how much do you know?” part of the interview, an interviewee says s/he doesn’t know the answer to a question (as opposed to trying to bs their way through), and then it’s clear that this bothers them. (And not just in the “I want a job” sense.) The ones you have to worry about being lazy are the ones who aren’t bugged.

    Another thing I do is make it explicit what I mean. For instance, I’ll happily work very long hours over a relatively short term (a few weeks to as much as a few months) for a special project or during “crunch time,” provided I know it’s temporary and there will be some reciprocation afterwards. It’s not that I’m never willing to work more than 40 hrs. In fact, I fully expect to work extra hours sometimes, and will do it when it’s needed without being asked. But I expect to be able to average out my weekly hours over the course of, say, a year, and come up with a number around 40. Over the shorter term, I’m willing to be flexible if they are. And, of course, it helps if you can point to a history of being productive at a high level of quality in those 40 hrs/per.

    In general, I’ve found it isn’t as difficult as it sounds to get the right balance in an interview. Most employers see so many interviewees who are either total losers or have good skills and expect the world in exchange, they’re thrilled to find somebody who’s 1) skilled, 2) conscientious about doing a good job, and 3) fair in their expectations.

    The only places where you run into problems are the ones that are operating under the illusion that “salaried” is the legal equivalent of “indentured.” Since I’m not interested in working for them, anyway, those aren’t really a problem, either.

  7. Mystique Free Says:

    That’s what I love about being a temp. I’m expected to keep my hours around 40 as a general rule.

    I was once in a situation where, during certain parts of the year, I was “on call.” I got calls when I was out with friends, at church, or sleeping. I would drop everything and go deal with the drama. Eventually I got so stressed out and unhappy, having panic attacks a few times a day, that I just started underfunctioning and was fired 🙂

    My next job was strictly 9-6. It was boring as hell. I loved it.

    Anyway, long story short, there’s got to be a better option out there somewhere. Can you talk to other friends at other firms, maybe start an anonymous group of ‘work-life balance’ advocates?

    Which makes me think – if you go work for certain big corporations there *are* work/life balance policies.

  8. juvenal_urbino Says:

    maybe start an anonymous group of ‘work-life balance’ advocates?

    They have something like that for lawyers. It’s called AA.

  9. Mystique Free Says:

    Well, that fits with the lawyers *I* know …

  10. Michael Lasley Says:

    I’ve never really understood people who thrive off of this type of work-environment, but there were definitely those who did when I was in grad school. I’m not a strong enough person to handle the always-working-or-thinking-about-work lifestyle. But part of the problem with changing that culture is that there are quite a few people who seem to enjoy it.

  11. Sandi Says:


    I agree — there are those people who want to be working all the time. And one in an office can ruin it for everyone since for whatever reason, that kind of workaholism is lionized. It’s often a peer-pressure thing as much as it is an actual requirement. In my firm, your bonus is partly based on the hours you bill. Since I’ll never be billing as many hours as my coworkers (or at least this is my perception), I will always get the lowest bonus. That doesn’t mean that their work is necessarily of higher quality than mine (although I’m sure it’s mostly just as good or better), but it’s the number that matters.

    I don’t know about all of you, but I think this is a very regionally bound thing. In the South people simply feel more entitled to their leisure time. Since I grew up around this, it seems like what is normal and the Northeast mentality is what is deviant. For instance, I interned one summer with a young staff attorney from New York state who had gone to my law school. She had spent one of her summers in AL, and was saying how remarkable it was that people left work at 5 and went home and read a book or watched tv as if that was perfectly okay. She said this in response to me remarking on how long her work hours seemed (she stayed until 6 or 7 every day, sometimes later).

    I think if I had known that lawyers worked so many hours, I might not have gone to law school. I’m definitely giving some thought to leaving the practice of law to have a better life. I’m just not sure how to get there — changing careers seems so difficult.

  12. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I’ve switched careers a couple of times. Have you considered preaching? Still lots of hours, but very flexible. I could walk you through it!

  13. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I don’t know about all of you, but I think this is a very regionally bound thing. In the South people simply feel more entitled to their leisure time.

    I’m not sure if I agree or disagree, Sandi. In a vague sense, I think I agree. OTOH, NYU was my most laid-back grad school experience. Nonetheless, I still generally agree. I think. I’m not sure, though, if it’s so much a sense of being entitled to leisure time as it is a matter of Southerners being less ambitious. There’s a certain fatalism in the South. We seem to have less a sense of control over things than Northerners do, and therefore maybe we feel less pressure to exert ourselves.

    Or not.

  14. Mystique Free Says:

    If you do set reasonable limits for yourself and quietly stick to them, what is the consequence? Lower bonuses, less chance of promotion, peer pressure to work extra hours, disappointment on the part of management?

    I mean … maybe the consequences aren’t worth giving up what you want for yourself – including a law career AND a life. Maybe you can make your own damn rules and thumb your nose the workaholics – as long as the consequences don’t involve getting fired or demoted …

  15. Sandi Says:

    Yeah, I don’t think that I would be fired. Something pretty severe would have to happen for that to be the consequence. Lawyers typically don’t get fired, anyway … they might get asked to find another job, at most. There’s no way to be demoted, either. So there are no serious consequences to making my own rules. But there are psychological consequences that I would prefer not to deal with.

    Juvenal, maybe it’s not as much regional as it is urban v. less urban. I have not lived or worked in Chicago, L.A., or San Francisco, so I don’t know how things are there. I do know that even people from upstate New York or Connecticut who are my age or older talk about their parents working insane hours. All I know is that working long hours seems deviant to me, but it is considered the norm here in D.C., in New York, and in Boston. Even at nonprofits here and NYC there are people who work insane hours. I hate to call it ambition, because that casts it in a positive light. I think it’s more like work obsession. But maybe that’s where the problem is — I look at this in a negative light, but others think it is positive (despite study after study stating that people who don’t get enough sleep or who are under too much stress are sacrificing their physical health).

  16. Mystique Free Says:

    But there are psychological consequences that I would prefer not to deal with.

    Maybe you can make a list of pros and cons for both consequence sets 🙂 There’s a psychological impact to doing something that goes against your values, too….

    I hope you find a solution that eases the conflict and gives you more time for family and friends – and you 🙂

  17. Sandi Says:

    Fortunately, I don’t have to do anything that goes against my values (other than work longer hours than I would like). I work for a plaintiffs’ firm. Although, like I was saying, it seems like this problem is prevalent even at non-profits in this area that are ideologically on the same page as I am.

  18. Sandi Says:

    I should have known that that would be the next item on the Republican agenda. Shitty quality of life for all, woohoo!!

  19. Mystique Free Says:

    I took out my comment with the post link because, doh, that was for 2003. Which explains why I couldn’t find anything about it in the news.

    Sorry. Let your blood pressures return to normal…

  20. Sandi Says:

    still … not surprising. and there are plenty of bills that come up year after year before finally being passed.

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