Keith Lee

Ed. note: Please welcome Keith Lee of Associate’s Mind, one of our new columnists covering the world of small law firms.

Being in a small firm has repercussions on your existing activities and relationships. Going out, hobbies, spending time with friends and family and the like are often going to have to take a back seat to maintaining your practice. You simply won’t have the time for people that you had in the past. If you aren’t careful, this shift in priorities can cause resentment and ill will.

And despite lawyers complaining that they feel as though they can’t start families, I would imagine that most people do desire to start families or already have a family. Is it hard to balance time spent with family and friends while maintaining and growing a practice? Absolutely. Are you going to be able to have some vague, idyllic “work/life balance”? Nope. But can you have a family and be a lawyer? Of course; it’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise.

It comes with some caveats and difficulties, but it can be done. It’s important that the people in your life understand these difficulties — and it begins with managing expectations….

Manage Expectations

Your own, your spouse’s, your kid’s. Being a lawyer in a small firm is a major time commitment. Be sure that everyone around you understands what that means. You are going to be unavailable at times. You won’t be able to help out as much as you did before. There are going to be long hours at the office. Early morning and late nights. Attending social events and community meetings. There is no way to “coast” through being a new lawyer at a small firm. You can’t palm work off on someone else. You’ll likely be responsible for everything from drafting motions to changing the toner cartridge.

All of this adds up to the fact that much of the time you are going to be unavailable. The free time in your schedule is going to be sparse. As such, don’t let the people in your life get the wrong idea about your schedule and be disappointed later down the road. Make sure they understand that your job makes strenuous demands on your time. Which leads to the next point.

Communicate

You absolutely have to have open and established channels of communication with the important people in your life. Especially your spouse. Doubly so if you are having a child. The first six months after my son was born is a complete haze. Try to put baby to bed. Keep trying. Trade off with wife. Review documents. Hour goes by. Baby asleep, collapse in exhaustion.  Two hours later, baby awake. Change diaper/feed/rock. Rinse and repeat. Wake up at 6 a.m. to drive four hours for a twenty-minute hearing on the other side of the state. It was miserable. Not our son, of course, who is wonderful, but my general state of being.

But what made it tolerable were dedicated, open lines of communication. My wife and I made sure that we could be completely honest with other during the process. Our relationship was strained by having our child – but is also caused us to grow. We came out of the experience closer and stronger than we had ever been before. And it all came down to making sure that we could always communicate with each other on any topic. But guess what?

You will fail at this. Guaranteed. But that’s okay. When that happens, take the time to sit down with your spouse and genuinely communicate with them. Address any problems that have arisen and reset your relationship. Don’t let things fester and go unaddressed.

Keep Your Commitments

There are going to be numerous commitments that you have to make at the firm. Everything from routine scheduling hearings, responding to emails, or serving on a board. If you make a commitment to something, keep it. Some commitments are more pressing than others (a voluntary board meeting you can skip; miss a hearing and a judge will likely be less than thrilled). But you should make every effort to honor all your commitments. Doing so ties into your reputation, but also speaks to who you are. At a very basic level, people generally perceive a reliable person as a trustworthy person. Trustworthiness is the fundamental bedrock on which a lawyer functions. Without trust, lawyers are nothing.

Keeping your commitments is part of building that trust. And it is not only limited to work. It extends to your family and friends. They need to be aware of your commitments and understand and respect them. But it cuts both ways. If you say you are going to attend your son’s little league game on Saturday afternoon, don’t cancel at the last minute to prepare for a deposition the following week. Attend the game and just prepare to have a few late nights.

To put it bluntly, juggling family and firm life is not easy. Expect problems, expect breakdowns, expect disappointments. These things are going to happen. But you can either let them drag you down, or you can learn from them and use them as opportunities to grow. Choose the latter.


Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at keith.lee@hamerlawgroup.com or on Twitter at @associatesmind.


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