The Mindset of a Lawyer with ‘Work-Life Balance’

LexBlog founder Kevin O’Keefe called me out on Twitter last week when I wrote that being a lawyer doesn’t mean long hours, as you can see below:

screenshot okeefe The Mindset of a Lawyer with ‘Work Life Balance’

I thought my disclaimer was enough—yes, I’ve only practiced law as a part-time lawyer—but other folks brought the heat, too. I should, apparently, “try it sometime” before going off half-cocked.

Just because the chief operating officer of one of the most famous Internet companies of our day (Facebook) goes home every day at 5:30 pm for dinner with her family doesn’t mean lawyers can, too.

Fair enough.

But, for those who seemed to agree that being a lawyer doesn’t necessarily mean long hours (and there were plenty), this post addresses so-called “work-life balance,” and why the right mindset can mean everything in order to achieve it.

First, There’s No Such Thing as Work-Life Balance

Let me say right here that I don’t believe in work-life balance.

For some, the practice of law is a joy that trickles down into other areas of life, without having to think about going after the abstract “work-life balance” concept. That’s how it should be.

Deja Weber, a sole practitioner in Minnesota, wrote:

There are those exceptional weeks with trial prep, or emergency filings, but really, I work because I love what I do, but mostly, because I am contributing to the financial support of my family—without my family—work would be pointless.

In other words, Weber’s practice feeds her family, and her family feeds her practice. She sets clear boundaries. She leaves work at work. She makes an effort to leave at a reasonable time. Her law practice is not an all-or-nothing, all-hours-occupied proposition.

And here’s John M. Phillips’s tweet:

trial lawyer twitter screenshot The Mindset of a Lawyer with ‘Work Life Balance’

If you’re a trial lawyer—or any type of lawyer, for that matter—there will be days where you simply can’t leave the office at 5. You’ll have to work late. It’s what’s called, as Sam Glover wrote, being a professional.

Again, fair enough.

But You Can Cultivate the Right Mindset

Take a poll from any of your friends. Ask them how it’s going. You’ll get a lot of responses on some variation of “busy.” “Oh, it’s so busy right now.” “I’m swamped.” “Gosh, really hectic, Chris.”

These are lawyers and non-lawyers.

We’re all, every one of us, “busy.”

Yeah.

So are doctors (the professional analog we lawyers love to compare ourselves to). So are young working mothers with newborn twins (my wife). So are folks making minimum wage and working more than one job to make ends meet.

We should change our mindset.

I find it hard to believe that Sandberg hasn’t changed hers, which has allowed her to leave the office at 5:30 pm to be with her family.

After all, it would be easy for her to fret over how busy she is, wouldn’t it? She’s not a lawyer in private practice. But she is the COO of Facebook.

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  • http://kevin.lexblog.com Kevin OKeefe

    Chris, there’s nothing wrong with viewing being a lawyer in an of itself as a lifestyle – especially when you are building a career for yourself. Find something you love and go after it is what I always tell new grads and young professionals. I wanted to be a lawyer for as long as I can remember. And all I knew a lawyer did was go to trial, so I became a trial lawyer. It was hard work and it took a lot of time. Though I was scared to death half the time, I loved it.

    I wouldn’t go hook, line, and sinker on Sandberg. Facebook has a huge PR team and nothing would look better than a woman executive with a balanced lifestyle. I have heard from friends that she does indeed work to maintain a balanced life. But she joined Facebook when it barely had a business model and it was run by a kid. My guess is that she worked her tail off to get FB to a public offering, through it, and to where it’s at today.

    I could be wrong, but I feel lawyers would be well served to work as hard as Sandberg, achieve that type of success (relatively), and then focus on a balanced lifestyle.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/chrisbradley/ Chris Bradley

      No, I don’t think you’re wrong. I think you’re exactly right. Especially the part about finding something you love and going after it. As you turn 20, 30, 40, etc. you really only have yourself to blame, usually, when you fail to go after what you want. Paul Graham’s post about “errors of omission”—don’t ignore your dreams—is instructive. http://www.paulgraham.com/todo.html

  • Alison Monahan

    One key difference between lawyers and doctors: As a doctor, if you’re not working or on call, you’re off. According to my doctor friends, it would be highly unusual for anyone to expect you to work at that point.

    Not so for lawyers, at least firm lawyers. You no longer own your time, and you can be called in to work at any moment, for any reason. Makes planning a life much more challenging.

    Often the uncertainty, more than the sheer number of hours worked, is what kills people.

  • http://kevin.lexblog.com Kevin OKeefe

    Alison, why wound’t you expect to be called when needed as a lawyer – 24/7, 365 days a year. Heck, I would want my clients to know they could do that – whether I am in a large law firm or a solo.

    We are talking being a lawyer in private practice here, not a factory job where you punch in and out.

    We did not have cell phones till the end of my practice, my phone number was in the white pages if someone needed me. Later on it was my cell and still is today – anyone of the lawyers on the LexBlog Network (over 8,000 of them) knows they can call me anytime.

    Key for lawyers is to build the type of practice they want – to do the work they want for the people they want to do it for. Achieve that and practicing law is extremely rewarding and not something you stress out about as far as your free time.

    Just my thoughts/

  • Alison Monahan

    Sure, I agree you probably want your clients to be able to reach you (particularly if you’re the one in charge as a solo or partner).

    I just don’t think it’s a direct comparison between lawyers and doctors, even if both work a lot. The structure of the work is quite different. (And, interestingly enough, doctors have managed to protect “free time” while literally dealing with life or death situations. But that’s a discussion for another day.)