Credit: Christoph Niemann

It’s time, says ‘ 75, to change the way we think about time.

Most of us accept our experience of time as “natural” when in fact it’s shaped by society and its laws, he says. In what he believes to be the first book on the topic, A Time for Every Purpose: Law and the Balance of Life (Harvard University Press, October 2002), Rakoff looks at laws that structure our lives, creating time zones and daylight savings, limiting commerce on Sundays, shaping the school year, and separating work time from the rest of the week.

He contends that these laws provide rhythm, structure, and much-needed balance. But as the pressures of globalization and the market push us toward a 24/7 economy, “the fabric of social time is fraying,” and the legal protections that have maintained this balance are threatened. “Sunday is more like Monday than it used to be,” he writes.

Rakoff cites the growth over the ’80s and ’90s of long-hour jobs for workers who are excluded from the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, including the 40-hour work week and overtime compensation. He proposes that most workers should be protected by these provisions, including lawyers.

As dean of the J.D. program, Rakoff talks with many students–men and women–who “worry about how you can become a lawyer and lead a balanced life.” They tell him that if they could work fewer and more regular hours, they would be satisfied with proportionally less money. But they fear that law firms won’t go for it, or that their opportunities for advancement will be limited. Legislation, he says, could change that.

He also questions whether the existing legal framework serves today’s patterns of family life. With both parents working, more protections are needed. He doesn’t advocate the year-round school calendar as a solution (giving children summers off supports the idea that “living is not synonymous with working”). But the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, Rakoff says, is an example of such a protection–of limited scope but that still puts the interests of the employee before those of the employer. He believes that legislation is also needed to allow workers to refuse overtime. “But this is a place,” he said, “where our social vision has not caught up with the new ways that we are raising our kids.”

Rakoff argues for legal protections for nonwork time that give us opportunities to participate in activities–familial, but also civic, political, religious, and artistic–that strengthen our society.

That may not give us a time for every purpose, he says, but it may bring purpose to our lives.