Alternative Career for Lawyers: The Desk or the Beach?
Work-life balance is a phrase that has gotten bandied about so much in the legal industry that it's become a cliche. People talk about it, stress its importance or joke about their failure to achieve it.
Any way you slice it, working in the law can take its toll, causing burnout and affecting your quality of life. Most attorneys have had the experience of asking a colleague how they’re doing and getting some variation of the response, ‘Working more, enjoying less.’
This isn’t sarcasm or the feature of a complainer; this is often the unfortunate reality of a legal career.
But people are not helpless, and if you’re struggling with the work-life balance you may want to place blame for it elsewhere. But the truth is, you’re complicit to some degree because you’re the one making decisions.
A recent podcast guest of ours, Peter De Waard, is an excellent example of someone who sat down, prioritised their values and then designed their life around them, thus nailing the work-life balance.
Peter left his position - taking a pay-cut in the process - as a legal officer in the RAAF to work for the coroner's office. After an intense experience in the military, he opted to make his home on the Sunshine Coast, go surfing often and be able to pick up his kids from school. Peter moved to the beach.
Some people might have said this was a step down professionally, but viewed another way this was a big step up in terms of quality of life. For other examples of lawyers taking this lead, one needn’t look far. This article highlights the American Law firm Littler Mendelson, which is allowing attorneys to work on ‘flextime’, i.e. part-time thus allowing for a more balanced life. They even have roles designated specifically as flextime which are as follows:
A FlexTime Attorney is a law firm employee, who works from his or her home, has reduced billable-hour goals, and limited non-billable requirements.
Before we proceed, it's important to throw in the caveat that everyone is different of course. Some people may live for the action of taking on big cases or deals and living at the office. Peter is a positive example, not because he chose a more relaxed life and less stressful work; we cite him as a successful example because of the intentionality of his approach.
Too many people are simply pulled by the current, unconscious of their choices to an extent. If you find yourself out of alignment, needing a change or are downright unhappy with your situation, we recommend following these steps to help achieve the perfect work-life balance:
Define Your Priorities
It's going to be tough to find the right balance if you aren’t sure exactly what’s important to you. Most people intuitively know this and are already practising it. But sit down and take a hard look at how you want to spend your time; make a list, make a mindmap, brainstorm, talk into a recorder. Do whatever works for you.
If you’re starting a new job, be clear with your boundaries or if you’ve been in one for a while redefine them. Do you watch your daughter play soccer every Tuesday? Never work late on Tuesdays and let people know why. Like to marathon train in the mornings? Let coworkers know, and schedule accordingly. And most importantly, do not waver from the commitments you put in place.
In Peter’s case, he announced to the coroner’s office he would have to quit because he was moving to the Sunshine Coast. They responded by saying, ‘we want to keep you, maybe we can work out some remote agreement?’ Clear communication allows these type of situations to work themselves out organically.
Know Your Employer's Policies and Build Relationships
Many firms have gotten more progressive with how they handle their employees’ time. Check into the options available for leave, sabbaticals or flextime, and take advantage of it. It’s also important to build strong bonds with your supervisors, because when the time comes they are more likely to be lenient with strong performers or those they have a close relationship with.
Use Technology to Your Advantage
Do administrative tasks eat up a chunk of every week? Look around for technological tools that may streamline the process and save you valuable time. You may also consider outsourcing some tasks, this will be difficult for the control freaks among us - but it can ease the load considerably as well.
Being well organised is another way to counteract the all-consuming aspects of a legal career. Having things on point allows you to carve out more time of your schedule to go golfing, to go to happy hour with Dad, to practise Jiu Jitsu, or whatever the case may be.
At the end of the day, a work-life balance is a hard thing to achieve. Work in the modern legal industry has many stressors and responsibilities that can pull us in all different directions. The only real comeback to this is knowing what matters to you and then taking steps to ensure those things don’t become a victim of your career.
A work-life balance and a successful career aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive either, it's just about fitting the pieces together in a way that works for you. What are you waiting for? Move to the beach.