Creating “work/life balance”: 5 steps to success

I was in a Starbucks last week reading Beyond the Big Firm: Profiles of Lawyers Who Want Something More.  (Review forthcoming.)  A man sat down at the table next to me, carrying 3 or 4 bar review books, and looking somewhat frazzled.  He kind of nodded to me, and I nodded at his books and asked how he was feeling about the bar.  (In case, you’ve lost count, it ended yesterday in most states.)  As he started talking, out of habit I put my book down to listen — face down on the table, so the cover showed.  He noticed the title, and that’s when the conversation turned interesting.

After some pleasantries (Oh, you graduated from XYZ?  Which BigLaw office?  Oh, great people, great work, you’re going to love it there….) he asked why I was reading that book.  I explained that I’ve now transitioned to coaching lawyers, so I read books that may be of interest to clients or potential clients.  He looked a little worried and asked whether all my clients “want something more” and if that means leaving a big firm.

I crafted my answer carefully, because my clients do typically want more, but that more can be anything from BigLaw partnership to a part-time schedule with great work to leaving the law altogether, and plenty of points in between.  He told me that his friends were going to big firms with the plan to pay off their loans, save some money, get good training, and then move to a smaller firm or hang out a shingle, but that, following a terrific summer clerkship and lots of thought, he really wanted to stick it out and make his career in BigLaw.

And then he admitted that he was worried about balancing that desire with wanting to be an involved dad to his 2-year old and to keep his marriage strong and vibrant.  (Ya gotta love coffeehouse anonymity; it’s the next best thing to anonymous conversation on an airplane.)  I hope he sees today’s post.

Lawyers in firms of all sizes are interested in “work/life balance” (I’m still searching for a more accurate, less loaded phrase).   Steve Seckler of the Counsel to Counsel blog posted this intriguing suggestion last week under the title Getting Control of Your Hours:

The central career issue of our day is finding meaningful work which leaves time for our personal lives. Professionals who charge for their time know this firsthand. In the legal profession, where the pressure to bill more hours has never been greater, this is particularly true.

But choosing a career in law does not automatically require you to sacrifice your whole personal life.With some deliberate thinking and good career planning, it is possible to enjoy a measure of work/life balance even at some of the top law firms.

Fortunately, he then provides 5 excellent steps toward actually accomplishing this goal.  The tips (without his commentary, which expands and clarifies) are:

1.  Focus on work that has predictable flows.
2.  Early in your career, be a “yes” person and do great work.
3.  Build strong partner and client relationships.

4.  Find a firm where the culture supports outside interests.
5.  Learn some time management skills and learn to delegate.

Of course, as Steve points out, “getting control of your hours” or at least “enjoy[ing] a measure of work/life balance” requires forethought, planning, and careful attention.  I would argue that it’s never too late to undertake this process, though it’s likely harder to accomplish if not started early.


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