Why young lawyers should focus on work-life balance now


This blog is about habits. When you begin practicing law, so many bad habits are nipping at your heels; it is almost impossible to avoid adopting some of them. We give up sleep, exercise, home cooking, and time with friends in an effort to get our careers off the ground. I have many friends who have billable hours lingering mercilessly over their heads every time they want to take a vacation. Everyone knows practicing law is stressful and demanding. But when you’re doing billable-hours math in your head the week of your wedding and stressing about where to pick up the time, something has to give. And let me be clear, this is not just about time off. It’s about making sure you’re the most successful attorney you can be.

I’m with a firm that places a premium on avoiding burnout, which means a substantial focus on work-life balance and healthy amounts of time off. This doesn’t mean I don’t feel enormous pressure to work harder and do more every single day. I’ve also seen peers and friends in varied practice areas carve out their own way of coping under different circumstances. The key, though, is starting this process early, ideally within your first 5 years. Even at my firm, there is always more work to do, and unless we consciously place an emphasis on balance, it’s easy to slide dangerously towards burnout over time.

A close college friend of mine who is practicing law in California has billable requirements and a job that includes significant community involvement. You can imagine how hard it would be—on top of regular practice, bar associations, and a private life—to also go to community meetings and public hearings in the evenings. From the outset, he made it clear to his firm that certain evenings were off limits, and he doesn’t attend work functions on weekends unless it’s absolutely critical to a case. Even as a younger associate, he was able to set expectations. He backs up his limits with a consistent work ethic and an excellent work product.

Another friend practicing in Boston wanted to make sure, especially as she became more senior, that she could both have a family and continue to be successful at her firm. She met with her supervisors and mentors, and together they created a flexible schedule that would allow her to be home when she needed to be and still meet the needs of the firm.

What my friends have in common is a pro-active and forthright approach to this issue. They knew ahead of time what they needed and wanted from their respective firms, and they asked for it. They both have years of experience and a record of solid work behind them, so they approached their firm from a solid position. Now, as they ascend into the higher ranks and into more senior positions, there aren’t unreasonable demands on their time. They’ve created the habits early on that will help them stay engaged and happy and will prevent burnout.

Often, people approach law as a dog-eat-dog world. “Sharks,” they call us. They think that success comes down to who can grind out the most hours. And it simply isn’t true, especially if you want to go further than being the associate who bills the most. You also want to be well-known and visible in the legal community. You want to be a balanced, healthy human being so you can continue practicing law for decades. You want to network so you can bring business to the firm. What all those things mean is that, instead of grinding out hours, you need to set yourself up for long-term success. Networking, bar associations, and having a personal life all cut into the amount of time you can work. Hours and life are naturally at odds in the law firm environment.

This is a key distinction when we discuss work-life balance: work-life balance works for the law firm too. Or at least the firm should see it that way. The ideal outcome after hiring a new associate is a productive, loyal employee who becomes a leader in the legal community, wants to continue practicing, and drives business. The things that create this future lawyer—civic involvement, volunteering, bar associations, a healthy personal life, etc.—mean moving away from the mentality that time in the office is equal to the best work.

Young lawyers, especially those who like the changes they are already seeing in law, need to set themselves up for future long-term success. And this is the key of work-life balance. It’s symbiotic. It doesn’t just benefit the lawyer personally; it benefits his or her practice, and it benefits the firm. If you want to be successful by avoiding burnout and getting to know the people who will send you business, you need to practice work-life balance early and often. This way, your job will not seem like a never-ending duty. And you will develop into a community leader who brings in cases.

Let’s detach ourselves from the office just a little and find the balance that will lead to long-term success. And let’s turn around in a few years and make sure the next crop of young lawyers are doing the same.