About Us Ellen in the Press Finding the right balance between life and work

Finding the right balance between life and work

Florida Bar News
March 1, 2003
Byline Jan Pudlow, Associate Editor

Little gasps burst from the audience at the Florida Association for Women Lawyers luncheon when keynote speaker Ellen Ostrow said: "I'm going to ask you to throw away your to-do lists."

Armed with her Ph.D. in psychology, Ostrow is a personal and career coach for women lawyers, from Washington, D.C., the founder of, on a mission to help lawyers achieve success without sacrificing a meaningful personal life.

Shock rippled again through the crowd at the Bar Midyear Meeting in Miami January 17 when Ostrow said, "I'm going to suggest that you not worry about your billable hours."

A survey by FAWL revealed that balancing professional and personal lives is the number one concern for women lawyers.

"There are countless people who will be happy to tell you that work-life balance was a fad that went out with the bull market, and that right now if you want to be successful as a lawyer, you'd just better put in those hours or abandon your professional goals," Ostrow said.

"But I am absolutely certain that the quest to have a life is not a fad. My hope is that you'll leave here being as certain as I am that you don't have to downscale your professional expectations in order to have a balanced life. And I want you to be able to walk out of here knowing how to successfully fight for your career and your life."

So what does a balanced life mean exactly?

"There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for feeling like your life is balanced," Ostrow said. "Most fundamentally, work-life balance means having control over when, where, how, and with whom work gets done."

When it comes to the legal profession's assumptions about a successful career, she said, "A truly committed lawyer is one for whom work is primary, time to spend at work is unlimited, and the demands of family, community, and personal life are secondary. The 'ideal' lawyer works 25 or more uninterrupted years, taking no time off for pregnancy, childbirth, or child-rearing."

"A truly competent lawyer is supposed to be tough, unemotional, competitive, self-sufficient, and individualistic. This lawyer will demonstrate heroic action - like the woman who completed a transaction while on the gurney being wheeled into the delivery room or the associate who billed 3,000 hours last year."

Another assumption, she said, "is that a successful attorney is available to clients any time of day, or else they will leave you for another lawyer who is."

"Put aside those assumptions and be open to new possibilities," Ostrow challenged.

"What if you decided not to think about hours and instead to simply focus on your work?" she asked. "You'd be less distracted, far more likely to get into the state of 'flow,' where you're working at your peak, and so engaged you're not aware of time passing. Would you be feeling stressed and out of control while you were doing this? Probably not."

She's heard all the protests before, that every month the law firm sends out a record of everyone's billable hours, and if numbers are down, heads will roll.

"Please don't think I don't understand this. I'm merely suggesting that focusing on your billables reduces the likelihood that you'll be effective at work. Give it a try, for a day, for a week. Then you can look at your billables if you want to. But remember, your goal is balance."

Another suggestion is to refuse to buy into the idea that you must be available to your clients at all times. Of course, you need to be available in a crisis, but not whenever the clients want to reach you.

"Are you there 24/7 for anyone in your life? If you're not for the people you care about most, why would you agree to that for a client?"

She urged women lawyers to stop worrying about competition and the possibility of losing clients.

"The fact is, you are more likely to succeed in your work and in your life if you adopt the attitude that there are always more clients," she said. "If you participate fully in work that truly interests you, instead of thinking your life depends on reaching some pinnacle, you're far more likely to have a successful career and a balanced life."

"Another tip in striving for the balanced life is defining what success looks like for you," she said, "rather than clinging to the assumption that success is measured by money."

"What's the use of working hard to make enough money to send your children to the best private schools if you never really get to know them before they leave home?" she asked.

She challenged the audience to take a moment to jot down five things that define their lives as successful, and to keep it in a place where they can look at it any time.

"Because if you don't define success for yourself, your firm and your clients will be happy to do it for you," Ostrow advised. "And if you allow them to define success for you, they will define it to meet their needs, not yours. They'll have you working endless hours, so that you will make a lot of money, and they'll think you're a hero, and you probably won't ever have to worry about losing your job. But you will be chronically stressed, your life will feel out of control, and you will feel anything but balanced."

"Dissatisfaction stems from working in an organization where the values of other attorneys don't fit with your own," she said.

"I've worked with countless lawyers who've left behind large firms with large paychecks and are now happily employed in government positions or non-profits or doing public policy work or whatever allowed them to do what they went to law school for in the first place with people who share their most important values," Ostrow said. "Sure, they make less money - but they make 'enough,' as they've defined it."

"If you want balance, stop being a perfectionist," she said. "And throw away those to-do lists."

"This is what to-do lists do to you. You want to be organized, so you write down something you need to get done like, bone up on Sarbanes-Oxley or, do taxes or, prepare for deposition.  And the list keeps getting longer. And worse, at the end of the day, you can't cross them off your list because you haven't finished them yet. So, you move them to tomorrow's list, along with several new things you hope to do tomorrow. If you make typical to-do lists, you wind up feeling overwhelmed, because you're asking yourself to do things that can't get done in a day. You feel out of control and like you failed when you can't cross those things off your list. Even worse, you're constantly preoccupied with all the things you have to do - and this is very stressful."

The short version of her advice for the alternative to the overwhelming to-do list is to "get control of all the stuff that's in your mind and on your to-do list, develop practices to help you stay that way, and then step back to examine the big picture. And that stuff includes projects and goals in your personal life, too."

"After you've gotten everything you're juggling now under control, you can step back and set some long-term goals and your personal vision for your life," Ostrow said. "The absence of the pressure of having all these things you should do or need to do or forget to do floating around in your mind is indescribably delicious."

Once you've managed your own life, Ostrow had more suggestions for managing your managers.

"I want to share with you something the CEO of a law firm confided to me a few months ago. This is not an exact quote, but essentially he said, "If you want to help women lawyers, tell them to stand up for themselves. The guys think they can push them around, and they'll continue until the women start setting limits."

"Successful women lawyers who also have a life confirm what he said," Ostrow said.

"They did not get where they are by just doing what they were told, trying to blend in, or tolerating verbal abuse."

She advised that women on the receiving end of a jerk boss should calm down first, then stand up for themselves.

"Don't be confrontational. But don't be passive. If you want balance, you've got to take complete responsibility for your own career as well as your life. It's up to you to be your own CEO. Decide where you're headed, whose help you need to get there, what skills you need to hone. Lay out your action steps and do it. You're an advocate. Advocate for yourself."

Another tip: Get out of the win-lose game of lawyers.

"The focus on good counsel about justice and fairness has shifted to billable hours, the bottom line, and eat what you kill."

Instead, she advised, "make your enthusiasm, your sense of fairness, your perseverance the point of what you're doing - not the winning."

Remember that all work and no play makes for a dull lawyer.

"Having a life outside of work nourishes and energizes you," Ostrow said. "You bring more to work - not less."

Lastly, she said that while women lawyers can work to change their habits, it won't change their work-life balance if the workplace culture is stuck in the past.

"The corporate world is way ahead of the legal profession in supporting work-life balance," she said. "That's primarily because they've discovered that it's profitable." She asked whether the legal profession truly values diversity or just gives lip service.

"Work-life balance," she added, "is not just a women's issue in these dual-job family times. A 2000 study by Harris Interactive and the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute revealed that four out of five men ages 20-39 rated having a work schedule that allows them to spend time with their families more important than money or the challenge of their work."

And what about staying involved in your community?

"Wasn't serving the common good an essential part of what it meant to be a lawyer? Under current billable hour demands, lawyers are cut off from their communities. Communities are suffering, and lawyers who've lost their connection to their communities become increasingly removed from the human side of law."

"Balancing work and life is not a fad," Ostrow stressed, "but is essential for your well-being, for the well-being of society, and for the long-term viability of your profession and your workplaces."

She challenged the lawyers in the room to use their advocacy skills for something new and healthy: embracing the balanced life.


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Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., CMC

Rockville, MD
Phone: 844-818-9471

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