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Balancing Acts

Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles
October 2008

As an executive/career coach for women attorneys, the issue about which I’m most often asked is work/life balance.  In fact, balance seems to be the most sought after yet elusive goal of the majority of lawyers these days.  The increasingly competitive and global business environment, lean staffing, and the indestructible billable hour have changed the practice of law from a “jealous mistress” to an insatiable monster.  And the omnipresent Blackberry has made the boundary between work and the rest of life indistinct, if not invisible.

What’s a woman attorney trying to have a life to do?

I have no silver bullet solution to this intractable problem, but here are 10 suggestions that may make your balancing act a bit easier: 

  • Balance is not an achievable state and thinking of it that way can only add more stress.  The metaphor I suggest is a child’s punching bag: hit it hard enough and you can knock it to the floor – but it always bounces back.  Its resilience is due to the fact that it’s grounded by weights in its base.
  • In order for you to be equally grounded and therefore resilient, you must be absolutely clear about your priorities. Consider how you want to apportion your time and energy among paid work, unpaid work and leisure activities.  Day to day, you’re likely to devote more or less time to the various spheres of your life, but you need to have a big-picture sense of what is most important to you. When work has tipped you well beyond any sense of balance, your priorities are there to remind you that you need to readjust.
  • Obviously, your priorities can’t help you balance unless you’re thinking about them with some regularity.  Try writing out the priorities to which you are committed and keeping copies in conspicuous places so that they will grab your attention.
  • Schedule a regular time – put it on your calendar - on a weekly or monthly basis during which you stop the action and consider the extent to which your actions are consistent with your priorities.  Without time to reflect, work can consume more and more of your time.  You may have missed milestones, disappointed people you love, neglected your health -- and none of this can be undone.  People often insist they have no time to reflect but I think this is a rationalization.  It can be painful to face just how out of far out of alignment from your priorities your life has become.  Continued avoidance will only make it worse.  Facing the reality allows you to take control and make the necessary course corrections.
  • Keep in mind that there is no correct ratio of paid work: unpaid work: leisure. Balance is an inside job.  Fundamentally, balance reflects the absence of chronic stress.  Balance results when our bodies have the opportunity to rest between bursts of stress so that hormones and other chemicals our bodies produce can be restored to normal levels.  When we derive meaning and identity from work, and think of it as a source of supportive and enriching relationships we may find pulling ourselves away in order to attend to the responsibilities of unpaid work very nerve-racking.  On the other hand, billing hours for the sake of meeting arbitrary requirements while longing to spend time with family is typically very stressful.
  • The last point demonstrates the importance of control in your efforts to balance.  To the extent to which you have control over when, where and how your work gets done, you will be able to achieve balance. Women who work reduced hours but feel conspicuous because supervisors question their commitment and, as a result, do not have the flexibility to come and go in order to attend to other aspects of their lives, generally live with almost constant stress.
  • Having control means being willing to exercise the control you have.  Your job is not your career.  If your workplace and – even more importantly – your supervisor and colleagues do not share your values about the role of work, family, and other activities in your life, changing jobs may be the only way you can work toward balance.
  • I recently met with the members of a large firm practice group.  All of them, including the male practice head, value time with their families, the quality of their work and their own personal well-being.  Because of this, they work as a team.  Their clients view everyone in the group as their lawyers so when one member of the team leaves to meet her children at the school bus stop, another steps in to address client needs.  One person likes to work late nights so the early risers take over when he needs to rest. Teams like these may be as rare as kookaburras, given the individualistic and competitive culture of most legal workplaces, but they do exist. Working with like-minded and team-oriented people may be a critical step in your efforts to balance.
  • Just as “ideal worker” norms (work is primary; one works for 20-30 years with no significant breaks) combined with business environments that demand 24/7 availability make balancing impossible, motherhood norms that lead both genders to expect that women will perform the lion’s share of child-rearing make balancing all but impossible for many women lawyers. Shared care at home would open the door to greater equity and balance just as work teams do.
  • Gender role expectations are difficult to violate.  Women often feel guilty when they relinquish child care to others and men who take on significant care responsibilities are often the object of scorn.  However, women fought gender role expectations when they insisted that the doors of law schools and legal workplaces be open to them.  The point of that fight was not to create a “second shift” that would reduce the quality of women’s lives and erect yet another barrier to their advancement in the profession.
  • The time has come to challenge motherhood norms at home in addition to ideal worker norms in the workplace.  Shared care has the potential to expand the roles of men and women at home and to create a more equal playing field at work.  This is crucial if women lawyers are to lead less stressful, more balanced lives.
  • Let go of perfectionism.  Perfection truly is the enemy of the good.  It leads women to try to do everything themselves (since no one else can do it as well.) No one else   will ever do things as well as you unless you give them the opportunity to learn.  This includes junior attorneys to whom you must delegate work and family members to whom you must entrust responsibilities for care.  The only thing you can’t hand over is self-care and this is what is most often sacrificed, eliminating any chance of balance.  Try to focus your limited time and energy on things that only you can do and transfer those found moments to the kinds of things that promote inner balance and harmony – exercise, rest, supportive relationships with friends, spiritual life and stopping to savor the moments worth holding onto forever.

Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., is a psychologist, consultant and Certified MentorCoach and the founder of Lawyers Life Coach LLC, a firm providing executive coaching services to attorneys, with an emphasis on enabling women to succeed in their legal careers without sacrificing what gives their lives meaning.  Her consulting firm, Ostrow Law Leadership Consulting, works with legal employers to create inclusive work environments, free of biases that block the retention and advancement of women and attorneys of color. You can subscribe to Ellen’s free newsletter, “Beyond the Billable Hour,” at http://lawyerslifecoach.com.
 

 

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