Resources Newsletter Archive Issue 23, December 2002

Issue 23, December 2002

  • Balancing Your Life is Impossible -- Unless You Take the Time to Reflect

Making The Hours of Your Life Worth More ™

Issue # 23
BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR ™ - Making the Hours of Your Life Worth More ™
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ARTICLE SUMMARY:   The single greatest obstacle to finding balance is the time required to reflect on the true value of the hours of your life. The billable hours mentality leaves no time for the "unproductive" work of setting your own agenda.  This allows the system to define you and your worth.  The foremost value of hiring a professional coach is to keep you from
being too busy to become "successful" and unhappy.
Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., Editor
Ellen is the founder of ™ Personal and Career Coaching for Lawyers Determined to Achieve Professional Success AND a Fulfilling Life
              OUR PERSPECTIVE
Most attorneys -- especially women -- live impossibly busy lives. Finding a balance between work and life without sacrificing professional success, deciding on the best practice area or work setting, and making career transitions can be a daunting task, even for the most gifted and accomplished lawyer.
Just as every person deserves the best possible legal counsel, every attorney deserves professional, dedicated support in accomplishing her most important goals. You know how hard you've worked to get where you are -- you serve others, both personally and professionally. You've earned the right to both career success and a fulfilling life. This newsletter is intended to help you create a satisfying life -- within, or outside of -- legal practice.
     "To be nobody but yourself, in a world which is doing
       its best to make you everybody else, means to fight
       the hardest battle which any human being can fight,
       and never stop fighting."
     "Know first who you are.  Then dress accordingly."
"My time is billed in six-minute increments.  I don't have time to think about how I say everything!"  The woman who said this is one of the most caring, compassionate, and sensitive attorneys I know.  I waited a few minutes and then repeated her words back to her, adding "I don't think this is exactly what you meant when you said you wanted to find some balance in your life." "I can't believe I said that," she replied, laughing at herself. " That's absolutely ridiculous.  I've always taken the time to think about how I treat people, and I'm not going to let the pressures of this job change that."
"Achieving balance" seems to be on the top of everyone's "to-do" list today. But what, exactly, does it mean?  Fundamentally, balance is a sense of being centered - maintaining your focus on what truly matters to  you.
What makes your life feel balanced may appear quite different from your colleague's personal vision of balance.  But from the inside, the experience of balancing is the same.
Nothing makes us feel more out of balance than spending 10 or more hours a day doing something devoid of meaning.  When we lose sight of our purpose, our activities become meaningless. We all need to have a cognitive bridge between the activity in which we're currently engaged and some goal we hope to accomplish in the larger scheme of our lives.
However, the legal work environment encourages you to lose sight of your own values and to think of goals in terms of money, being promoted, making partner and exceeding billable hour requirements. 
Of course making a good living is important - but is it the only thing you value?  The billable hours mentality reduces the meaning and purpose of your time - the hours of your life - to money. Does your life have a price tag - or is it worth more?
Consider what it means to sell your time - your life - in six-minute increments.  As M. Cathleen Kaveny suggests (1):
* Your time becomes a commodity -  each hour of your life can be assigned a price.
* The only "valuable" time is billable time.  The hours of your life have instrumental, but no intrinsic, value.
* It presumes that all time is fungible - every hour of your life is potentially available for work.
* Non-billable time has no intrinsic value.  The decision to spend time doing anything other than billable work must be justified.  Time that does not produce revenue is simply wasted time.
This mentality is most dangerous when we internalize it.  That's when we think we're too busy to bother considering the consequences of our actions on others because our time is billed in six-minute increments. When we internalize this commodification of time, we're prone to lose focus on what truly matters.  Simple acts of kindness, service to our communities, and time spent with family have no value if the only value of time is the money it can earn.
When you hear yourself thinking, "Why should I spend my time having this conversation/listening carefully/going to the doctor/attending my child's school play/ visiting a relative in a nursing home/personally selecting a gift/reading this newsletter, when I could be using it for billable work?" then you know you've lost your balance.
Regardless of how off balance you've been feeling, it's never too late to work toward finding more equilibrium.  Here are seven steps you can take:
The pressure to bill hours leaves little time for the kind of introspection required to define yourself in a way that unifies and gives purpose to the moments of your life.
Many lawyers wish for greater balance in their lives, but most feel too busy to take the time to make real changes.
Balance won't just happen - you have to consciously and deliberately work toward it by examining your life and determining what is personally meaningful to you.
Finding balance is impossible unless you take the time to reflect. 
There's another reason most people don't take the time for this kind of introspection:  it can be painful.  It's difficult to see the extent to which we've allowed our lives to become disconnected from our values.   
Reflecting on what matters most to you is an act of personal courage.
Sometimes we need the support and guidance of a dedicated personal coach to enable us to stop the action - and to hold up our personal vision of balance when we inevitably veer off course.
Every system has implicit rules and norms.  In most legal workplaces, success is defined as winning, doing and acquiring.   A successful lawyer in a private law firm is one who bills many hours and generates significant revenue.
The pressures imposed by the legal culture are difficult to combat. The system has a limited view of you - you are only a fungible collection of functions.  The system ignores  critically important elements of who you are as a person. It's easy to become who the system thinks you are.
Especially in an economic slow-down, everyone works harder for fear of not doing enough.  Acting out of this insecurity makes it even easier to become a slave to the system.
Your work environment imposes a short-term focus: you're always focused on the task at hand.  Perhaps you're able to think as far ahead as your next vacation.  But what about your life:
If you want your life to feel balanced, then your actions need to be connected to your fundamental goals and values.  Ask yourself what you believe in, what you do and do not stand for. What kind of person do you want to become?  How do you want to be remembered?
Write down your answers. (For an outline for writing your "Personal Vision Statement" send an e-mail to Ellen at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it with Personal Vision Statement in the subject line.)
Thinking about these questions can sometimes be excruciatingly difficult.  But ask yourself what you stand to lose if you don't seriously consider these questions - and write these answers down too.
One reason people avoid considering these things is because they falsely assume that if they discover that their current lives are not aligned with their values, they will need to chuck it all. This is not the case -- this part of the process is about reflection, not action.  Change must always be accomplished in small, well-considered steps.
So take the pressure off of yourself to do something right now, and just give yourself the time to reflect.
Who else are you besides the narrow slice of a person the system values?  Just because your work environment doesn't value your many other gifts and talents, doesn't mean you have to ignore or devalue them. 
What one thing could you add to your life that would give it more meaning? 
We don't often think in terms of adding things to our already impossibly busy lives when we try to find balance.  But often  we achieve greater balance when we add back into our lives activities which express neglected parts of who we are.
Remember, just because they're not billable doesn't mean they're not valuable.  Think about your worth as a person.  Can you put a price tag on that?
Balance requires holding fast to your own inner sense of yourself and what you truly want more than the vision of you the system offers.
You know how your firm or organization defines success. 
As Mark Albion (2) asks,  "Is it worth it to work hard to send your children to private schools and colleges if the price is not getting to know your children before they go away from home?"
Certainly financial success and professional achievement are important goals.  But if that's all you accomplish, will you feel successful? 
What material things are you prepared to give up in order to achieve what really matters to you?  Write down your answers.
The legal workplace is typically characterized by reactive decision-making with its narrow focus on the crisis at hand. The absence of a longer-term perspective inflates the importance of trivial matters.   It's  easy to get caught up in this pace and find yourself looking back on your life with regret. Ask yourself, what regrets do you want to avoid? What will you need to do in order to avoid those regrets? You don't have to do everything at once - that will only overwhelm you.  The first task is to craft a strategic plan.
In order to ensure you actually follow your plan, you'll need to stop and reflect:  Why am I doing this?  Do I really want to do this? How is this task connected to my long term goals? What if I don't do this?  What am I giving up to do this?
Again, write down your answers, even though it may make you uncomfortable.  Consider what you stand to lose if you don't.
"A coach is an independent, qualified person who can partner [with] you and push you  towards achieving your goals.  This person acts as your conscience, making sure you'll do what you say you'll do.  Your coach can also give you an objective view about how you are running your life.  Ensure the person you chose is not just a mentor, i.e., someone who you admire and respect, but someone who you will allow to keep at your heels, just like a sporting coach." (3)
(1) Kaveny, M. Cathleen. (2001)  Billable hours in ordinary time: a theological critique of the instrumentalization of time in professional life. Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, 33 (1), 173-220.
(2) Albion, Mark (2000) Making a Life - Making a Living.  New York: Warner Business Books, p. 87
(3) Tupman, Simon (2000) Why Lawyers Should Eat Bananas. Simon Tupman Presentations Pty. Ltd.:  Byron Bay, Australia, p.117.
BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR ™ is published monthly by Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., founder of She brings 20 years of experience assisting women attorneys to her work in Lawyers Life Coach ™. is a professional and personal coaching firm specializing in working virtually (by phone with email and fax backup) with women attorneys interested in developing strategies to find greater satisfaction in their careers within the law or in exploring career alternatives for lawyers.
Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D. established to coach busy lawyers who might benefit from the insights gained from 20 years as a psychologist combined with her experience and familiarity with the legal profession.
Ellen holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Rochester and is a managing member of Metropolitan Behavioral Health Care, LLC., a multispecialty, multidisciplinary psychotherapy practice in Washington, D.C. and suburban Maryland.  She is a member of the International Coach Federation and a graduate of the Mentor Coach Program ™.
NOTE: BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR ™ is intended for informational and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for a personal consultation with a mental health professional and should not be construed as a form of, or substitute for, counseling, psychotherapy, or other psychological service.
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