As any practicing lawyer learns within about a week of beginning her career, the concept of the work/life balance is sort of a fiction. Practically speaking, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to achieve any sort of actual, equal balance between your life and your work. Think about it: assuming you spend at least ten hours at work each day and seven hours asleep, this leaves only seven waking hours to accomplish everything else in your life — feeding yourself, commuting, spending time with your family, brushing your teeth, exercising, reading Above the Law, and pursuing other hobbies, like making crayon drawings for your office.
Although seven hours sounds like a lot of time, we all know that it goes by way too fast. At least for me, after I have taken care of my major life necessities, I only have about an hour left over at the end of my day to enjoy my “life.” Sadly, this time is usually spent complaining about the fact that I have to go to work the next day and do it all over again — is there no rest for the weary???
Some might say my longing for a better work/life balance reflects a sense of entitlement. I am willing to admit that this may be part of my problem (at least, that’s what my parents tell me). What I take greater issue with is the idea that a better work/life balance isn’t something for which I should keep striving. As fellow Above the Law blogger Keith Lee put it: “People often want to put a happy face on the practice of law. Push for work-life balance. But being a lawyer is hard work. If you want to find some measure of success as a lawyer, it is going to require labor and effort.”
Keith is absolutely correct. Labor and effort are essential to success as a lawyer. However, a lawyer’s labor and effort shouldn’t stop there (at work); it should continue in her pursuit of life too! Because unless you absolutely love your work — and even if you do — letting your work consume you to the exclusion of everything else is not likely to end well. At the very least, you’ll run the risk of burning out early on your career. Worse than that, you could become one of the many attorneys suffering from chronic depression.
So, what are some things you can do to achieve a sustainable work/life balance? Since I have yet to figure this out for myself, I reached out to some seemingly balanced lawyers to see what pointers they could offer. Here is some of their advice:
- Train your clients. As one partner at a large regional law firm explained to me, you should try to get the message to your clients and even your co-workers that you keep strict office hours — 8:00-5:00 — and that, short of a major emergency, you will not be responsive to phone calls or emails outside that window. This partner also suggested leaving your phone in your car after work until 10 p.m., and checking your email only twice a day. Although these measures may sound drastic, he claims that they have not had any significant negative impact on his career. In fact, he told me that setting these boundaries has done a lot to increase his efficiency and the quality of his work product.
- Forget about face time. A young but successful (and happy!) associate at a Biglaw firm told me that his secret to maintaining a healthy work/life balance is to forget about face time and let his work speak for itself. If your work is strong enough to get away with this, you should give it a try.
- Make the most of your free time. This is where the labor comes in. Even if you only have 30 minutes left over at the end of the day, instead of flopping down on your couch and spacing out to a rerun of House Hunters, muster up the energy to do something somewhat meaningful and productive. Start a hobby, plan a trip, write in a journal — do something that may help you feel like you have something else going on in your life other than your work. Similarly, on the weekends, get involved with activities and community groups that are completely unrelated to your work. One associate I know brews beer on the weekends. Another is learning how to play guitar. According to these attorneys, these hobbies offer both a much-needed mental break as well as a way to meet other people.
So, if you’re feeling like your work/life balance has become particularly unbalanced, give some of these techniques a try. Although the hours you bill will never balance with the hours you chill, you can at least try to make it seem that way.
Elizabeth Adams (not her real name) is a recent law school graduate, former federal judicial clerk, and aspiring health guru. She currently practices insurance coverage litigation at a mid-sized law firm. When she isn’t sitting at a desk — which isn’t very often — she is following her bliss. At the moment, this mainly involves working toward becoming a certified yoga teacher. Elizabeth’s column focuses on exploring how and whether lawyers can achieve a sustainable work-life balance. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.