Today, like any other day in my legal practice, has been a whirlwind since I opened my eyes. From client-calls, to-go coffees, and attempting to shower, blow-dry hair, and get out to my car between emails, in my mad-dash to Court - balance is not a word that seems to suit legal practice.
Nonetheless, articles spring up from time to time about the toxicity of the legal realm, the increased suicide and substance abuse risk of attorneys, and warnings about self-care abound. All begging the question, how does an attorney find work-life balance, when your work is to serve and counsel others.
For the unindoctrinated, the core toxicity of legal practice is the assumption of other people’s problems in exchange for money. Attorneys necessarily burden themselves in the business of problem solving. However, nothing in our training explains how to properly manage the emotional toll or impact of such an endeavor.
Fortunately for me, my past-life was training as a Master’s level therapist. Studying psychology, and working with clients, I learned firsthand that psychological stress and anguish can cause real physical manifestations of illness. Herein, is the problem for lawyers: Legal problems can occur day or night, placing people in need of legal counsel and representation. Where does an attorney, particularly a solo-practitioner or small firm, draw their boundary lines?
Here's the reality: If you aren’t available and someone else is, you lose a client. There’s no Zen to it. Either you get the work, or you don’t. If you get the client and aren’t responsive enough to the client, they substitute in new counsel. If the goal is maximum client acquisition, you will be doing so at the expense of your time for yourself. Work-life balance, in that respect, is a fallacy. You cannot have it all, there are only so many hours in the day.
The truth is, you need to decide what you are willing to sacrifice and what you are not willing to sacrifice, then structure your practice around that bottom line. Begin with a map of what you want your life to look like, and then create the practice structure around that. Clients who respect boundaries will have no problem with a firm that keeps 9-5 hours, and clients who don’t will go elsewhere.
The system you create, creates the culture of the firm. If you aren’t happy with the culture you are living in, unbalance the system by setting the boundaries required for your ideal firm culture. The only rules are what is right for you.
Some attorneys thrive in world of answering services and companies running their calendar to recapture their time. Personally, that lack of contact with my clients, and sense of personal control over my schedule would send me into a tailspin, which is why I work alone. However, with that choice I accept that I can take on fewer clients and my days are a little more chaotic – but, for now, its what works for me.
Someone from the outside looking at my practice, might see a lack of work-life balance, but that’s the fallacy of the notion – my Zen isn’t your Zen; yours isn’t mine. Being available to my clients and knowing that if there was an issue I would hear from them directly, brings me peace. I would rather take a quick call on vacation than come home to a stack of panicked messages.
True balance is achieved by knowing yourself, your limits, and what you need to be happy, healthy, and effective at your practice. Just as in psychological evaluations, whether or not something is having a negative impact on your life is a diagnostic criteria, so too, in your self-evaluation of your firm structure must you ask that question – Is this working?
Do you have time to go to the doctor, dentist, gym, or any other form of self-care? Do you like and believe in the people you are representing? Are you proud of the work product you are putting out? Are you comfortable with the financial obligations your firm has taken on, whether in the form of employees or marketing? Are you comfortable with the level of access your clients have to you? Do you feel overwhelmed and need help?
These are the questions you need to ask yourself. We live in an era where we are bombarded with social media posts perpetuating this belief that other lawyers are able to look like models, have all the best suits, are financially successful, have a million clients, and are simultaneously able to take lavish vacations with their families and be there for every kid’s baseball game. It is a filter, an illusion, and a disservice to the field.
We cannot have three masters. If we are the very best attorney, we are necessarily sacrificing time for ourselves and our families. If we optimize self-care, we are taking time away from our clients and families. If we are the ultimate partner or parent, we are sacrificing personal-time and time devoted to our clients. There is no right answer to the dilemma of this triad. The right people will find their way to you, once you decide the type of person you truly are.
My partner and I thrive in the chaos of our work. We love seeing each other succeed in our fields, and the sacrifice of time we make actually bonds us more, because it suits us both. We also help look out for each other to ensure that we make self-care a priority, since that doesn’t come to us as second nature. My system wouldn’t work for someone who wants 2.5 kids, a dog, and a picket fence, nor would it work for someone who wants to do month-long retreats to self-actualize. The good news is that no one is wrong.
Work-life balance, is just a confusing way of saying, “Remember what you want & what makes you happy. Build a life that gets you there.”