How often have you heard the term “work-life balance” and wondered what exactly that meant and how it could be done?
For me, the answer is: a lot.
But it was definitely not something that I did well, at least during my first two years of law school. When I reflect on my law school experience, it is frightening for me to recall moments in which it was far too easy to set aside a personal commitment for a work-related one. During my second year, when my moot court teammates and I were furiously working on our brief, I remember thinking that I needed more time to work and that my boyfriend Chad (now husband) and the movie we had planned to see just had to wait. I quickly called him to tell him that I had to keep working and we would have to see the movie another time. As the words bounced off my tongue, I was immediately horrified at myself for how easy it seemed. I am thankful that Chad didn’t let me off the hook—I hope that if faced with those same or similar circumstances, I would make the same decision a thousand times over. Better yet, I am hopeful that the thought of making that phone call wouldn’t cross my mind.
During law school we learned how to become lawyers. Thankfully, St. Thomas trained me to be a person who is a lawyer. But it is only after three years of law school and one year of clerking that I finally realize and have begun to practice making the most important aspects of my life shape the attorney in me. The reverse end—allowing school and work to shape the rest of my life—was a dead end. Balance isn’t just about time—it’s a consideration and reflection of what we value, what we are centered on. This is especially true for new lawyers who take more time to complete tasks, have work-related social commitments, CLEs to figure out, learning about professional associations that we can/should be part of, and really, meeting people. But the pace of life does not adjust to this new phase of practice that we are entering.
How do we achieve this balance? How do we transform the great-sounding theory into practice? Thanks in part to Mayo Clinic, here’s a short list of practical steps that can help us effectuate this balance early on in our careers. To those more established lawyers who are reading this post, feel free to comment to add any ideas you may have.
- Treat personal commitments as “non-negotiable” and plan for them at least 2 times per week. Make commitments to your spouse, significant other, family, friends, etc. non-negotiable. Obviously there are exceptional circumstances that come up. But generally, we wouldn’t miss a work meeting or deposition, right? Similarly, block off this time in your calendar. To the extent that you can, anticipate work deadlines in advance to plan for these blocks of time that you have committed to your family and friends.
- Track your time. Track everything you do for one week, including work-related and personal activities. Decide what’s necessary, what brings you joy, and cut out activities that you don’t enjoy or can’t handle, or share your concerns and possible solutions with your employer or others. Tracking your time will also help you figure out whether you’re spending a disproportionate amount of time on anything.
- Learn to say no. Whether it’s a co-worker asking you to spearhead an extra project or a happy hour or dinner with colleagues, remember that it’s OK to respectfully say no. When you quit doing the things you do only out of guilt or a false sense of obligation, you’ll make more room in your life for the activities that are meaningful to you and bring you joy. Practice this skill—I know I need to. As new lawyers, we especially feel the pressure to say “yes” to projects and social commitments. But your employers want to strike the work-life balance for themselves too. And if they don’t, perhaps by saying “no,” you will be encouraging them to find the balance for themselves.
- Leave work at work. With the technology to connect to anyone at any time from virtually anywhere, there may be no boundary between work and home—unless you create it. Make a conscious decision to separate work time from personal time. When you’re with your family, for instance, turn off your cell phone and put away your laptop. This may also force you to work more efficiently when you are at work.
- Commit to what you value. Make your schedule reflect what it is that you value. If your faith, is significant to you, make your schedule reflect that. When you don’t make time for the things you value, they may quickly get lost in the mix before you even realize it.
- Have a hobby. If you don’t have one or can’t think of one, find one. Ideally, make it something that has nothing to do with the practice of law or the legal profession generally. For example, contributing to this blog, as much as I may enjoy it, is not my hobby.
This list is by no means comprehensive, but I hope that it encourages us to make this great-sounding theory a more meaningful reflection of what our lives actually look like on a daily basis.
Thanks to my incredible husband Chad, who was patient with me when I had no idea how to make this balance happen, and who talked with me about this issue for the blog.