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Achieving Attorney Work-Life Balance: Is It Possible for Today’s Attorney?

By Jamie Spannhake

Recent studies highlight the difficulty of achieving attorney work-life balance — a truth we all know. The studies also make clear that some kind of sustainable balance for lawyers is necessary, and more lawyers believe that now more than ever.

The thinking on balance has shifted somewhat. Modern work-life balance includes not only the absence of conflict between work and personal life but also the potential for a positive interplay between work and home​​​​. In other words, to achieve work-life balance, an integration of professional and personal lives is as important as a healthy separation of the two.

This three-part guide to improving work-life balance in the legal profession includes useful strategies for lawyers, important ways law firms can support work-life balance — and tips for finding legal jobs that match your priorities.

attorney work-life balance

A Comprehensive Approach to Attorney Work-Life Balance

The legal industry has been grappling with how to support attorney work-life balance for years. Yet many of the improvements have been implemented at the request of individuals or small groups of lawyers, rather than as part of an industry-wide paradigm shift that highly prioritizes work-life balance.

For better or worse (depending on who you ask), the COVID pandemic created that industry-wide shift with flexible schedules and remote work options, which were the only way to sustain the practice of law during lockdowns and innumerable closures. These changes pushed the legal industry — sometimes kicking and screaming –— toward workplace flexibility more aligned with many other industries’ workplace environments.

As a result of the changes that occurred during the pandemic, which cemented prior needs and desires for flexibility, lawyers — especially young lawyers — are seeking employment that allows for better work-life balance, including sufficient personal leave, vacation time that can actually be used and remote work opportunities.

This trend is apparent in recent survey results that show a significant portion of attorneys prefer better work-life balance over higher compensation or prestige of position. Yet, d

Beyond Flexible Work Arrangements

The adoption of flexible work arrangements alone has not been sufficient to address attorney work-life balance issues. Legal professionals, especially younger attorneys, continue to struggle with taking time away from work as they likely feel pressure from firm leadership to always be available and connected. This suggests a more comprehensive approach to promoting work-life balance is needed​​ — a simultaneous approach from the top down and the bottom up. In other words, leadership needs to create, support, and encourage work-life balance opportunities, so that attorneys can take advantage of those opportunities and achieve a better balance.

With that in mind, programs to improve lawyer work-life balance must consider a broader range of personal obligations beyond family and instead acknowledge that work-life balance includes perceptions of compatibility between work and non-work activities, especially how others view its importance.

In other words, it’s not just about having some time to go to yoga or put your kids to bed, but about knowing the workplace values time away from the office and understands that balanced attorneys are better attorneys.

It also means individual lawyers need to feel empowered with information and tools to help themselves achieve a sustainable balance in their careers.

Recent studies underscore the critical importance of work-life balance in the legal profession, pointing to both progress and ongoing challenges. There is a clear call for the legal industry to incorporate work-life balance into the fabric of its practices, policies and culture, moving beyond traditional approaches such as cocktail hours, vacation policies (as opposed to actually taking vacation time), and a few opportunities to use personal days. Rather, the legal industry must embrace and encourage more holistic and flexible solutions. To achieve this, however, one must consider the challenges inherent in practicing law.

This begs the question:

Is Work-Life Balance Even Possible for Attorneys?

Achieving work-life balance can be challenging for anyone. A parent with three young children may have a hard time finding time to decompress even when they don’t have a job in addition to parenting. Or an executive in the IT space may have trouble getting home to dinner with their family on a regular basis. While this balance may be hard for many people, achieving work-life balance presents unique challenges for lawyers.

The legal profession is traditionally known for:

  • Long hours and demanding workloads. Managing complex cases and matters and attending to clients’ ever-increasing needs can often lead to extended workdays with virtually no time to disconnect.
  • High pressure and stress. Practicing law is time-consuming and often takes great mental focus and problem-solving skills, often under significant pressure. The nature of legal work can be cognitively taxing with its constant attention to detail and ongoing conflicts. Plus, the industry has a low tolerance for mistakes, which can be very stressful.
  • Unalterable deadlines with potentially catastrophic consequences. The law sets firm deadlines by which things must be completed, and if those deadlines are missed, the consequences can be dire. Missing statutes of limitations or filing deadlines can lead to lost opportunities, financial ruin, and even loss of life.
  • Billable hour requirements. In most firms, lawyers are expected to meet specific billable hour quotas, adding another layer of pressure to their workload. The fact that not all time spent working is billable exacerbates this problem, sometimes exponentially, given the other requirements that lawyers must meet to remain active in the profession, such as CLE, networking, administrative tasks, pro bono work and on and on.
  • An “always on” culture. Attorneys often feel pressured to always be available to clients, no matter the time of day or night. This culture can create a feeling that even personal activities, hobbies and social events should be used as business development opportunities. This further exacerbates the inability to truly experience downtime or get away from the stress of work.
  • Perfectionism and other traits. It’s unclear whether the profession creates personal traits such as perfectionism or if those with such traits are drawn to the profession. Regardless, many lawyers experience perfectionism, workaholism, or an overachiever mentality that drives them to unreasonable expectations for their performance and the performance of others.

Recognizing these challenges, one might think that work-life balance for attorneys is not possible. But with the right environment and tools, it can be possible, provided we develop a holistic concept of what it means to have balance.

Why Work-Life Balance Matters

Before delving deep into how to achieve balance, we need to understand why it’s important and recognize the repercussions and risks of losing balance.

Lawyer burnout statistics show that “all work and no play” can lead to anxiety, depression and even suicide if not addressed. Constant stress and lack of downtime can cause physical and mental health problems, including insomnia, acid reflux, fatigue, high blood pressure, irritability, drug and alcohol misuse, unhealthy weight gain, and more.

Working excessive hours, even if they don’t cause overwhelming stress, creates its own problems, such as sleep deprivation, lack of time for exercise and healthy eating, no social life or support network, and an inability to create or maintain meaningful relationships.

All of this has led to a legal professional mental health crisis, proving that a focus on achieving work-life integration for lawyers is of utmost importance.

Modern Concepts of Work-Life Balance for Lawyers

A simple division of time between work and the rest of life is not, in and of itself, an effective way to create work-life balance. It can be a part of the solution, but a more thoughtful and holistic well-being approach is needed to truly allow attorneys to feel less stressed and better able to handle the pressures of practicing law while also living a life outside the office.

“Work Life Balance is not always about balancing hours. It’s about finding harmony in life.”

Harjeet Khanduja, The Storytelling Leader and other stories

To promote work-life balance, lawyer well-being initiatives must focus not only on the time and location for work but also on other aspects of the work environment. To feel more balanced, a work environment that helps develop resilience for lawyers is needed and should include:

  • Flexibility and autonomy. Lawyers need some measure of control over their work schedules and the ability to manage workloads to accommodate personal needs, not just client and firm needs.
  • Supportive work culture. To take advantage of opportunities for balance, the work environment must prioritize well-being, discourage excessive overtime, and respect personal boundaries. It can’t be only lip service to overcoming a workaholic culture; it must be real support that does not penalize lawyers for taking advantage of the opportunities offered.
  • Focus on efficiency and productivity. The billable hour doesn’t encourage efficiency: more hours equal higher fees. Efficiency needs to be encouraged internally by utilizing technology and streamlining workflows to maximize output and minimize unnecessary time spent working.
  • Prioritized mental and physical health. Attorneys must be given the opportunity to engage in self-care practices like exercise, healthy eating, sleep hygiene and stress management techniques. And they must be encouraged to take advantage of these opportunities.

The modern concept of work-life balance is multifaceted and emphasizes individual well-being as well as personal and professional fulfillment for attorneys. In some instances, it’s not about maintaining a clear separation between work and the rest of life, but instead finding harmony and achieving a life that integrates work responsibilities and personal commitments. Thus, the modern concept of attorney work-life balance includes:

  • Experiencing work satisfaction and professional growth such that attorneys find meaning and purpose in their professional endeavors.
  • Prioritizing attorney mental health by providing time to regularly engage in activities that promote attorney well-being and prevent burnout.
  • Maintaining healthy personal relationships with colleagues as well as with family, friends, and loved ones.
  • Engaging in personal growth and development through activities that contribute to an overall sense of fulfillment.

While these are common aspects of lawyer work-life balance, it’s important to remember that work-life balance is not a one-size-fits-all concept. What constitutes a good balance for one lawyer might not be the same for another. It’s about finding what works best for each person and identifying strategies that allow one to thrive in both professional and personal life.

So How Do You Find Work-Life Balance?

What strategies can you use? How can your law firm support attorney mental health and balance? And what kinds of legal jobs will help you achieve the harmony you want between your personal and professional lives? Read on.

Part 1: Attorney Work-Life Balance Strategies

Attorney Work-Life Balance Strategies

Identifying strategies for achieving work-life balance that work for you in your life and work requires self-reflection, prioritization, experimentation, and adaptation.

1. Self-Assessment: Where You Are and Where You Want to Be

Whether trying to decide what job to pursue or which couch to buy, it can be really hard to figure out what we want. Maybe that’s because we are listening to the wrong guidance. It could be unhelpful guidance from others. But, quite often, it is unhelpful guidance from ourselves.

Sometimes figuring out what we want is not about going through a logical list of factors and weighing pros and cons. Rather, it is a process of getting in touch with and listening to our inner desires. This can be hard for anyone but is particularly difficult for lawyers. We are a logical bunch. That’s what we are paid to do: assess risks and benefits, figure out the options logically, and resolve.

But that may not be the best way to figure out what we want, or how to get it. You may need a different approach. This is especially true if you’ve been trying to determine what it is that you want for some time, without success. A new approach to self-assessment can help you develop attorney work-life balance strategies that work for you. Here’s how:

  • Identify your values and priorities. Consider the life you imagined for yourself: all the different aspects, people, and places. What matters most to you outside of work? Is it spending time with family, pursuing hobbies, maintaining physical fitness, or something else entirely? Here are some helpful starter questions to get you going. Examine your answers and thoughts to help you develop an understanding of your values. Then create you “Personal Values Statement” for your life. It’s similar to a company’s mission statement in that it contains your core values. You can create your own Personal Values Statement by following the exercise in “The Lawyer, The Lion, & The Laundry: Three Hours to Finding Your Calm in the Chaos.” Understanding your core values will guide your future decisions and strategies.
  • Evaluate your current work-life balance. Record your time for a week so you can see how much time you spend on work, personal activities, sleep, and anything else you do in your day. You can use a tool like TogglTrack, or track time using Google or Outlook calendars. Or even track time manually using a piece of paper! As you track, identify areas where you feel overloaded or undernourished, as well as activities that make you feel excited or passionate.
  • Recognize your energy levels. As you are evaluating how you spend your time, also pay attention to your energy levels throughout the day. Are you a morning person or a night owl? At what hour do you feel most focused? When do you feel sluggish? You can use this knowledge to help you plan your time effectively by scheduling demanding tasks during your peak energy hours and less demanding tasks during low-energy periods.

2. Set Goals and Prioritize with Intention to Achieve Them

Now that you know what’s important to you and where you are in terms of your work-life balance journey, it’s time to set actional goals and prioritize with intention so you can move toward those goals.

Prioritizing with intention means actively choosing what to work on and toward, considering our values and goals and how they shape the big picture, day-to-day, and moment-to-moment. It means bringing focus and attention to things that are important and keeping them “front of mind” in our work and lives.

Because our lives are full of obligations and distractions, we can spend our days moving mindlessly from one thing to another, never stopping to assess whether what we are doing is aligned with our values or moving us toward our goals. As Stephen Covey, best-selling author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People says, “We become what we repeatedly do.”

To move toward your goals, you must prioritize with intention:

  • Focus on Your Values and Goals. To prioritize effectively in your personal and professional life, stay focused on your values and goals for each task, activity, and relationship, as well as your career and life as a whole. By staying focused on what matters most — your values — it is easier to set and stay on track with your goals.
  • Use the Eisenhower Matrix to Evaluate and Set Priorities. Once you know your goals, you will need a practical way to approach the sometimes overwhelming number of tasks and distractions you face. One effective way to prioritize with intention is to use the Eisenhower Matrix (shown below), which categorizes tasks into four quadrants based on their urgency and importance. This methodical approach enables you to make intentional decisions about where to invest time and resources.
  • Plan Your Days, Weeks and Years. Plan everything and put it on your calendar or in a journal or time diary. Sometimes, you won’t be able to stick to your plans. But just because plans may need adapting during any given day doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make plans. Having a plan in place is the very thing that gives you the flexibility to adapt. Be prepared to reprioritize tasks when new, urgent issues arise. Just keep your values and goals in mind to guide your decision-making.

Goal setting and intentional prioritization can help us take control of our lives and careers by optimizing productivity and staying aligned with our values, ensuring both professional success and personal fulfillment.

3. Experimentation

What works for one attorney to create a sense of work-life balance may not be what works for another. Rather, obtaining a sense of balance and harmony between work and life requires experimentation to know what works for you. And, what works for you today may not be effective five years from now as your circumstances change.

There are many different techniques and tools lawyers can use to improve their well-being and sense of balance. Try them out and see what works best for you.

  • Test different time management techniques. There are many different time management techniques. All of them work for someone, but none of them work for everyone. Explore different methods like the Pomodoro Technique, time boxing and batching, time chunking, calendaring, and project management tools to see what helps you stay focused and efficient.
  • Delegate and automate tasks. Identify tasks that can be effectively delegated to colleagues, paralegals, or virtual assistants. And don’t forget you can delegate at home too — not just at work. A housekeeper, a babysitter, and your kids’ chores are all forms of delegating. Use technology for repetitive job tasks like document formatting or scheduling and services like grocery delivery, Amazon, and StitchFix for personal tasks.
  • Set boundaries and communicate expectationsOne of the best ways to avoid conflict and manage stress is to clearly communicate boundaries about our availability to colleagues, clients and family and clarify our expectations for others’ work or behavior. Learn to politely decline requests that fall outside your boundaries unless they are truly urgent. Also, try setting clear communication channels so everyone knows how and to whom to communicate needs and expectations.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness creates calm and focuses the mind, giving us the clarity and perseverance we need to handle the stress, difficult people, and competing obligations of practicing law while living a life outside the office.

4. Seek Support

Lawyers are expected to always know the answers, handle the pressure and not make mistakes. Wow! No wonder our jobs can cause us so much stress! Even when we are meeting these unrealistic expectations, we can benefit from letting others help us.

Asking for and accepting help can be hard, especially for lawyers who are perfectionists and high-achievers who value their ability to “handle it all.” But asking for support is smart and strong. Here are three avenues for seeking support:

  • Talk to colleagues and mentors. Discuss their experiences and strategies for managing their workload and personal life. Seek advice from other lawyers who seem to have achieved a good work-life balance.
  • Get good at delegating. Delegating is a form of asking for and accepting support. Yet it has few of the concerns we feel when we ask for help. The only issue that arises in delegating at work is usually letting go of control. But there are ways to alleviate even this concern by delegating effectively. Be specific about the task, ask the right person, provide guidance and be clear about the desired outcome.
  • Seek professional help. Consider working with a life coach or therapist who specializes in work-life balance for lawyers. They can provide personalized guidance and support in developing effective strategies and give you a fresh perspective.

5. Continuous Monitoring and Adjustment

Attorney work-life balance is a process that requires mindful monitoring and adjustment. Remember to:

  • Track your progress and adjust as needed. Regularly evaluate your strategies and their impact on your well-being and balance. Be willing to adapt and experiment with different approaches until you find what works best for you. Remember some strategies may work for a period of time but then need adjusting as your circumstances change.
  • Maintain open communication with your supervisor or employer, if possible. Some employers and leaders are open to creative solutions that allow for better work-life balance. If you are fortunate enough to work in such an environment, have discussions about it regularly or as needed. If you aren’t sure, delicately broach the subject with a discussion to ascertain what is possible. And if your workplace is not open to flexibility at all, focus on solutions you can implement without employer support to improve well-being and balance. Or consider finding a new environment.

Remember, achieving work-life balance is an ongoing process. Be patient, experiment, and don’t be afraid to seek help and support along the way. By taking a proactive approach and prioritizing your well-being, you can find strategies that enable you to thrive both as a lawyer and as an individual.

Tips for Time Management and Prioritization

We all know those lawyers, the ones who have a thriving practice, time for family, loads of energy, and are enjoying the various aspects of their lives. How do they do it?

With prioritization and time management skills.

“Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”

— Dolly Parton

As we navigate through stringent deadlines, complex cases and loads of paperwork, the ability to squeeze every ounce of productivity from the workday is vital to our practice’s success — and our sanity. Whether you’re a seasoned attorney or a fledgling lawyer, mastering the art of time management is the key to maintaining a balance between caseloads, clients, and personal well-being.

Effective time management requires a strategy. Use these time management techniques for lawyers to improve your efficiency, reduce stress — and help you be more focused at work and home.

Set realistic Goals and Expectations. When it comes to time management, it’s crucial to set realistic expectations for what we can accomplish given the time we have available. If you are trying to do 28 hours of “stuff” every 24 hours, that’s not realistic. The 168-Hours Exercise can help you determine whether your time expectations are realistic.

The same is true for our goals. We need sufficient time to plan and achieve goals, so we must be mindful of the time available to take the necessary steps, and how long it will take. By way of example, if you want to read a 600-page book, yet only have time to read 2 pages each day, it will take you 300 days to read the book. Knowing this, we must accept that it will take 300 days, manage our time so we can read more pages each day, or read a different book.

“When my expectations are unrealistic, I’ve set myself up to fail, no matter how hard I try.”

– Jamie Jackson Spannhake, The Lawyer, the Lion, & the Laundry: Three Hours to Finding Your Calm in the Chaos

Being realistic about our time is not only good for us, it’s good for our clients too. Through effective communication with clients regarding our time limitations, we become better at managing client expectations and setting realistic deadlines that we can actually meet, avoiding client disappointment.

Prioritize Tasks Based on Urgency and Importance. The Eisenhower Matrix is one of the best tools for prioritization because it categorizes all tasks into four quadrants based on urgency and importance, thereby prioritizing tasks for maximum impact.

work-life balance eisenhower matrix
  • Quadrant 1 (Urgent and Important). These tasks demand immediate attention. They align closely with your core objectives and should be addressed promptly. Legal emergencies, imminent court deadlines or critical client needs often fall into this category. Handle these tasks as soon as possible.
  • Quadrant 2 (Important but Not Urgent). These tasks are vital but may not require immediate action. They are aligned with your core objectives and contribute to long-term success. Effective case strategy, client relationship-building, and professional development often fall into this category. Schedule a time to handle these tasks or they may never get done.
  • Quadrant 3 (Urgent but Not Important). Tasks here are often distractions, though they seem urgent. They are not directly aligned with your core objectives and can consume time and energy. Handling non-essential phone calls or responding to low-priority emails are common examples. These tasks can be easily delegated to someone else.
  • Quadrant 4 (Neither Urgent nor Important). Tasks in this quadrant are non-essential and do not contribute to your core objectives. They include time-wasting activities or excessive administrative work and should be minimized or eliminated altogether.

Utilize Technology for Efficiency, Except When It Doesn’t Help You. Use your smartphone, tablet, laptop, apps and whatever other great technology you have to keep up-to-date with important communications and relevant business news, to create a paperless office, and to allow you to work on the go. But remember that sometimes “old school” can be more efficient.

Use Tools and Apps That Can Help Streamline Your Workload. Managing your workload can be complex and time-consuming. Between tracking billable hours, managing meetings, delegating tasks, filing documents, and keeping up with email, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Thankfully, there are many tools and apps that can help streamline these tasks, such as:

Find and use tools and apps that can reduce the time needed for these various tasks.

Delegate Tasks Effectively to Free Up Personal Time. Delegating is the most effective way to do more efficiently and without extra stress. Delegating tasks effectively (like those in quadrant 3 of the Eisenhower Matrix) frees us to concentrate on our core objectives and high-impact work.

Lawyers should leverage law firm staff and resources to their advantage by delegating tasks that do not require a lawyer’s expertise. Effective delegation for lawyers not only lightens the lawyer’s workload but also empowers support staff to contribute meaningfully to the firm’s success.

In some instances, it makes sense to outsource specific legal tasks to external experts. For example, complex research, specialized litigation support or forensic analysis may be best handled by professionals with specialized skills. Outsourcing not only conserves time for core objectives but also allows us to access knowledge and experience beyond our own.

Focus 100% On What You Are Doing. This sounds simple, but with multiple obligations, it can be difficult. When you are working, work is your priority, but the flip side is true, too. It is equally important to focus on family when you are with your family. Consider “transitioning” from work to home during your commute home. Or, if you work from home, take some downtime at the end of the workday — even if for only a few minutes — to get your brain back into neutral.

Avoiding multitasking is also an important part of using our time efficiently. Multitasking isn’t efficient or effective. Switching between tasks too often or trying to focus on more than one task at a time lowers productivity by up to 40 percent. That’s a lose-lose situation. Instead, take small periods of time to focus on each task, a technique sometimes called “mini-tasking.”

Plan Everything and Put It On the Calendar. Keep one calendar with everything in it — work deadlines and appointments, family obligations and personal items (like exercise) — and sync it to all devices. By creating a daily schedule and having everything scheduled, it is easier to stay focused on the task at hand. If it’s on the calendar, you can focus on what you are doing, whether it is legal or personal or family, without worrying about whether you are forgetting something else important.

Of course, scheduling everything requires advance planning. That’s why it’s important to make planning a regular practice. One can plan daily, weekly or monthly. Then, if things don’t go the way you planned, recalibrate, and review at the end of each day.

Embrace Remote Work and Flexible Working Arrangements. Remote or flexible work gives us a level of control over our day and energy and cuts down on unnecessary travel time and expenses. When possible, embrace the benefits despite any perceived drawbacks. If you feel you need in-office time to connect or for other reasons, explore hybrid opportunities.

Embracing these time management tips will help you navigate competing work and life responsibilities. That, in turn, will help ensure that you not only meet deadlines but also excel personally and professionally.

Setting Boundaries and Learning to Say No

Balance is not better time management, but better boundary management. Balance means making choices and enjoying those choices.

— Betsy Jacobson

Many of us struggle with balancing our work and personal responsibilities. With technology allowing 24/7 work-from-everywhere access, setting work-life boundaries for lawyers is a challenge.

Whether we work in an office or from home, it’s important to set boundaries.

Boundaries are about respect — mostly self-respect but also respect for others. If you have no boundaries, you may find that others dump work on you, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and manipulated. If you have no boundaries, you may say yes to matters or clients when you really mean no, leading to discouragement and resentment. Setting healthy boundaries ensures your work is more manageable and reasonable. It empowers you to take care of yourself as well as your work and clients.

Boundaries also encourage others to show you respect. When you set limits, you gain the respect of others because they see you have respect for yourself. Author and researcher Brené Brown says it best:

Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others. We can’t base our own worthiness on others’ approval. Only when we believe, deep down, that we are enough can we say, enough! 

Brené Brown, The Call to Courage

Give Yourself Permission. Having a good work ethic doesn’t mean that you need to work all the time or say yes to every assignment or client. Similarly, being a great parent or partner doesn’t mean you need to be available 100% of the time. On the contrary, to be the best lawyer, family member and person, you must take time for rejuvenation. One way to do this is to take time off, whether that means a few hours in the morning or evening, the entire weekend, or a 10-day vacation. The amount of time is less important than ensuring you take the downtime when you need it. The happiest lawyers are also the most productive and efficient.

Ensure your downtime allows for consistent uptime. Recover as hard as you work.

― Adam Kreek, The Responsibility Ethic: 12 Strategies Exceptional People Use to Do the Work and Make Success Happen

Clarify Your Values and Responsibilities. Boundaries are rooted in values and priorities. When we are clear about them, we more easily know how and when to say no. The first step in setting boundaries is to get clear on what matters to you, what you want, how you want to be treated, and what you will tolerate. For work, it is also important to clarify your responsibilities so you know when you are being asked to contribute more than your fair share to any matter or project. You may need to discuss this with your boss or managing partner or whoever is your direct supervisor. In your personal life, clarifying responsibilities within your household goes a long way to ensuring each person contributes what is needed to make the household and everyone in it feel supported and successful.

Clearly Communicate Boundaries and Expect Pushback. Once we are personally clear on our boundaries, we need communication strategies for setting boundaries with co-workers and family. This is best done as a proactive conversation before someone crosses the boundary, but it can also occur at the moment a boundary is crossed. It’s not too late to communicate the boundary even after it’s been crossed and you have complied. More important than the timing is the language itself: It must be respectful and clear and convey a tone of expected compliance.

Expect pushback as others process that your boundary may cause more work or less access and connection than they want. Expect it and have respectful conversations to address their concerns.

Learn to Say No. To set and maintain boundaries, we must learn when and how to say no. When do we say no? When something is not within our job description or area of responsibility, or when we do not have the time or ability to take on the task or project. How do we say no? Here are a few suggestions:

  • “No.” Period. Sometimes this is all that is needed.
  • “That doesn’t work for me.”
  • “That might work. Let me check my calendar and get back to you.”
  • “I want to handle this well. How can I do that when I have [matters X, Y and Z] to complete?”
  • “I can delegate that to [another person] and have her report directly back to you.”

Life and work can expand to the amount of time we have, and it can feel like there is never enough time to do it all. Setting boundaries is a helpful step toward better work-life integration, and it will help you avoid personal and professional fatigue.

Health and Well-Being

Attorney well-being and good health are not new concepts. There are four pillars of lawyer well-being: physical, social, emotional and financial. When we are healthy in all four areas, we are productive, more balanced, and happier. We are better lawyers and better people. There are many lawyer self-care strategies to help with work-life balance and mental health to create healthy lifestyle habits for lawyers.

Incorporate Regular Physical Activity Into Your Routine. When you are busy, it can be a real challenge to find the time and motivation to exercise. One way to make it easier is to focus on incorporating movement into your daily routine, rather than trying to find a time fully dedicated to “working out.” If colleagues are open to the idea, have walking meetings; or go for a walk while on calls. When exercise is incorporated into your daily routine and is easy to access, it’s easier to stick with it. Adding friends or colleagues to the activity is another great way to stay motivated. Get creative and work with others to find an activity that many people enjoy, set a schedule — and go!

Practice Mindfulness and Stress Management Techniques. When we work in stressful environments (and most lawyers do), it’s important to have mental and emotional support to handle the stressors gracefully without burnout. Employee assistance programs (EAP) often provide resources and connections to mental health professionals, so take advantage of them. The American Bar Association also maintains a state-by-state Directory of Lawyer Assistance Programs. There are even various mental health apps available that can be used to connect to external resources.

Meditation and mindfulness for attorneys also play a critical role in reducing stress. Mindfulness is scientifically validated to help us deal with the challenges and stressors of life by helping us manage our emotions better, connect with others more successfully, and become happier and more effective in work and life. Mindfulness through meditation allows us to remain calm in the midst of the storm, without letting circumstances overwhelm us and cause frustration and exhaustion. Meditation and other stress-reduction apps are easy to find and use. Even without apps and other resources, it’s easy to start a meditation practice on your own.

Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.

– Unknown

Don’t Dismiss the Role of Hobbies and Leisure Activities. An important part of mental health is feeling socially connected. Research shows that leisure activities, especially with others, relieve stress by triggering the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. As we know, success at work depends on the quality of our work, not just the quantity. And the quality of work depends on our well-being. So, ultimately, leisure time is vitally important to success in life and in work.

It’s important to take time to enjoy activities outside work. Whether that’s taking a vacation or playing basketball with friends once a month, time away from work responsibilities allows us to rejuvenate and come back refreshed and ready to work with new ideas.

Keeping Track of Your Financial Fitness. One of the most common stressors in American life is personal finances, whether it’s not having enough money or not knowing how to handle increased wealth. Financial wellness programs can help you feel grounded and more secure. You can enroll in a financial wellness program, hire a financial advisor, regularly review your finances and goals, or all of these. Any steps you take to ensure you are informed about your finances will help your mental well-being.

Part 2: How Law Firms Can Support Work-Life Balance

How Law Firms Can Support Work-Life Balance

According to the most recent Law Firm Culture Survey from Major Lindsey & Africa (MLA), “supporting attorneys’ well-being and work-life balance” are among the top five traits that lawyers would like to see more represented in their firm’s culture. According to another MLA survey, millennial lawyers rank work-life balance as high as compensation (for female-identifying lawyers) and nearly as high as compensation (for male-identifying lawyers) for the most important factors when evaluating potential employers.

It’s not just about what lawyers expect. There are also ethical and health reasons for the legal industry to create better work environments — all the reasons discussed in the first part of this article. And those aren’t the only reasons. Creating a culture that promotes attorney well-being and work-life balance is critical for the health of a firm’s bottom line too. Without retaining associates, the investment in hiring and training them is wasted; replacing lawyers is very expensive. More importantly, burned-out lawyers are not able to be as efficient or effective as more balanced, healthy lawyers — and that is a disservice to clients.

Law firms can (and should) play a crucial role in supporting the work-life balance of their attorneys.

Here are some ways law firms can support attorney work-life balance.

1. Promote Flexible Work Arrangements for Lawyers

Nearly three-quarters of Am Law 200 firms require some in-office presence, and others are moving back to five full days in the office. In fact, law firms are overwhelmingly relying on hardline tactics to demand attorneys return to the office, threatening to withhold bonuses and promotions for those who refuse to return. Many attorneys are not happy about it, with 58% of them stating their employers should do more to support work-life balance, including offering more flexible work options. A compromise seems in order, one that takes into account the kind of flexible arrangements that many lawyers prefer and expect:

  • Offer hybrid remote work options. A hybrid schedule allows some in-office and some remote work. For example, allowing attorneys to work from home or other designated locations for specific days or during certain hours. This can significantly reduce commuting time and provide greater flexibility in managing personal commitments, both of which improve lawyer work-life balance.
  • Implement flexible scheduling. Explore options like compressed workweeks, flexible start and end times, or job-sharing arrangements to cater to individual needs and preferences.
  • Encourage the use of technology. Provide the technology lawyers need to do their work — including remote work setups that improve accessibility outside the office. Train lawyers and staff to use technology tools and systems that will smooth their workload, facilitate remote work, and keep firm and client data secure. For example, modern practice management platforms include time and billing, project management, case management, client communications and intake features that support flexibility while ensuring great client service.

2. Foster a Supportive Work Culture

A supportive work culture can lead to enhanced job satisfaction, reduced turnover rates, overall better performance, and improved client service. There are many ways a work culture can support attorneys:

  • Set clear expectations and deadlines. Not knowing what is expected of you is a big contributor to workplace dissatisfaction. At a minimum, attorneys need to have clear direction regarding assignments, responsibilities, timelines, “chain of command,” hours expectations, and communication routes to address problems. It’s also critical to assign reasonable workloads and communicate realistic deadlines to avoid excessive overtime and unnecessary last-minute rushes.
  • Discourage presenteeism. Focus on results and quality of work rather than simply measuring time spent in the office. A supportive work culture that encourages healthy boundaries and discourages presenteeism is crucial for maximizing talent, regardless of whether the attorney has a traditional, in-office schedule or a flexible work arrangement.
  • Lead by example. Partners should model balanced behavior and openly discuss the importance of work-life balance. For example, avoid sending emails or expecting responses during overnight hours, on weekends and during attorney vacations unless there is a true emergency. If you are a leader of a legal team, discuss responsibilities and availability with your team before making promises about deadlines to clients and others. Your team will thank you and will be able to take ownership of deadlines. Plus, they will learn these skills and carry them forward when they are more senior. Your clients will thank you because they will get timely and well-done work products. And you will be growing as the leader of a team who feels you respect their input.
  • Recognize and reward good time management. Acknowledge and appreciate lawyers who effectively manage their workloads and prioritize their well-being.

3. Promote Attorney Mental Health and Well-Being

Firms need to have in place policies that support and promote attorney mental and physical health. Both are an important part of well-being and balance. To achieve these goals, organizations and firms can:

  • Offer comprehensive health insurance plans. Provide health insurance that includes coverage for mental health services and encourage employees to seek professional help if needed.
  • Promote healthy habits. Organize workshops or seminars on stress management and mindfulness practices. Adopt work-life balance initiatives to show that the firm values its attorneys’ well-being.
  • Provide access to lawyer well-being programs. Offer on-site or virtual fitness classes, meditation sessions, or other wellness resources to support employee well-being. These programs can promote mental health resources for attorneys, such as apps, books, therapists, classes or the like. These resources can provide lawyers with the tools needed to successfully deal with the stressors of practicing law while handling the challenges of everyday life.
  • Encourage paid time off for attorneys. Encourage employees to take their full vacation time, offer generous sick leave policies to support their physical and mental health needs, and provide parental leave for lawyers.
  • Consider sabbaticals. While sabbaticals are common in the academic world, they are nearly non-existent in the legal world. Firms may want to consider offering a sabbatical program. A sabbatical can serve different purposes. It can be used to get away from regular duties in order to focus on other areas of interest, or it can be used to grow in some area related to work. Either focus can give attorneys the time to rejuvenate and come back ready to work, with creativity and passion.

4. Emphasize Education and Training

Law firm and organizational workflows and procedures can promote efficiency and improve work product. Together, these allow attorneys to produce better outcomes, in less time, leading to better work-life balance and improved client relations. Organizations and firms should:

  • Implement efficient workflows and case management systems. Create systems that streamline processes, automate repetitive tasks, and reduce unnecessary time spent on administrative work. Adopt policies, standard operating procedures and technology to ensure these systems work and are followed, and train everyone on how to use these tools effectively.
  • Invest in professional development. Provide training on time management techniques, productivity tools, and strategies for delegating and prioritizing tasks effectively.
  • Encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing. Foster a collaborative environment where lawyers can share best practices and learn from each other’s experiences in managing workloads and maintaining work-life balance. Consider discouraging billable hour competition as part of the culture of collaboration.
  • Provide mentors. Mentorship programs around substantive legal skills for younger and mid-level attorneys are important and well-known; consider offering mentorship programs for lawyer well-being, making sure to include all attorneys at every level. Mentorship takes time and effort, but it is worth it. Successfully mentored lawyers become invested members of a firm or practice group, acquire skills more quickly, and grow more effortlessly into effective leaders and business developers.

A mentor is someone whose hindsight can become your foresight.

– Peter Drucker

5. Open Communication and Feedback

The foundation for all effective policies is open communication and the ability to seek and receive feedback. To accomplish these goals:

  • Listen Regularly. Conduct regular surveys and focus groups to gather feedback on work-life balance concerns and suggestions for improvement. Implement regular reviews to discuss work-life balance and adjust policies as needed.
  • Maintain open communication channels. Create a safe space for employees to express concerns about workloads and personal stress without fear of repercussion. Encourage employees to openly discuss their workload, challenges and suggestions for promoting work-life balance with their supervisors and HR representatives.
  • Be transparent and responsive. Address concerns promptly and demonstrate a genuine commitment to creating a work environment that supports attorney well-being and professional success.

By implementing these strategies and fostering a culture that prioritizes well-being, law firms can increase employee engagement, productivity and commitment. Simultaneously, firms can enhance their reputation, attract top talent and increase the overall satisfaction of their workforce and clients.

Part 3: Finding a Legal Job That Supports Work-Life Balance

Not all law firms and companies are created equal when it comes to prioritizing work-life balance. It may be a function of size, the type of practice, leadership, or culture or, more likely, a combination of all those things.

1. How to Know if a Firm Really Supports Work-Life Balance

If you are looking for lawyer jobs, how can you find a law firm or company that shares your values? And even if it looks on paper like a firm values balance, how do you know it’s more than lip service?

Following are sources that provide insight into values, including the importance of work-life balance and attorney well-being among its leaders and lawyers, and how they are (or aren’t) present in the culture, practices, and policies of firms and companies.

Law Firm and Company Rankings. Reviewing what surveys have to say about a firm or company can provide insight into their values and whether they would be a good fit for you. Many organizations conduct surveys.

Vault publishes annual rankings of law firms based on employee surveys, which include factors like work-life balance. While not an exhaustive list, it can provide a starting point for researching firms that have been recognized for their work-life balance policies. You can find the rankings here.

  • The American Lawyer also conducts numerous surveys that rank law firms on various parameters, including gross revenue, headcount, well-being practices, diversity, salary, cultural metrics, remote work opportunities for lawyers and more.  
  • FairyGodBoss provides results from many surveys regarding companies and is targeted specifically toward women. Though their surveys are not limited to law firms, and some of their reviews may not be applicable to legal departments within companies, they nonetheless provide valuable information on some firms and companies.
  • Other sources of information include sites more often associated with job searches — such as Indeed and CareerBliss — both of which include employee surveys, feedback and other useful information.

Online Reviews and Forums. While online reviews should be taken with a grain of salt due to potential bias, they can offer anecdotal perspectives from current or former employees about a firm’s work-life balance culture. Websites like Glassdoor, Fishbowl, and Reddit each have discussion forums where you can engage in or just read the discussions about others’ experiences working in different companies. Admittedly, there’s also a lot of other unhelpful information (especially on Reddit) and they all require you to create an account to engage, but they still can be useful and might be worth exploring.

Professional Networking. Connecting with lawyers through professional organizations or online platforms can provide valuable insights into their experiences and the work-life balance culture at their respective firms or companies. Look for networking opportunities through bar associations and LinkedIn. You may even be able to schedule informational interviews with other attorneys, especially if you only ask for 15 minutes via Zoom or phone as that fits more easily into a busy schedule

The Direct Approach. You can reach out to legal placement professionals and specific law firms or companies you’re interested in and inquire about their work-life balance and employee well-being policies. This can be a good way to narrow your search once you have a more specific idea of where you’d like to work. Start by perusing the firm’s or company’s website as it often contains loads of information about the policies in place for all aspects of the firm or company, including values, work-life balance, attorney well-being, vacation and other paid time off, pro bono opportunities, diversity, and more.

Remember, beyond specific examples, it’s crucial to conduct your own research and ask pointed questions during the interview process to understand a firm’s commitment to work-life balance and how it translates into everyday practices and employee experiences.

Achieving work-life balance in the legal profession can be challenging. Most legal jobs are demanding in terms of time commitment and the stressful nature of the work. Nevertheless, certain positions and career paths within the field are more conducive to a balanced lifestyle. Here are some legal jobs that tend to offer better work-life balance than many law firm roles.

In-House Counsel

Lawyers in the role of in-house counsel work within the legal departments of corporations and other companies, providing advice on legal matters related to the business. There are many different legal practice areas with work-life balance in this kind of role, such as privacy, finance, and employment law. In-house counsel roles tend to have more regular hours compared to private practice in law firms, as well as fewer billable hour pressures, giving rise to better in-house counsel work-life balance. These roles also provide the opportunity to focus on a single client — the business for whom you work. It is important to keep in mind, though, that many in-house counsel jobs can be quite demanding and stressful, even if the hours are less than a law firm job, which can negatively affect the corporate law work-life balance.

Government Attorney

Lawyers who work in various capacities for government agencies or departments, both at the state and federal levels, handle everything from litigation to advisory roles to regulatory issues. These roles tend to have more predictable hours within the traditional workday. Many government jobs come with a set schedule and benefits that promote work-life balance, such as more holidays and flexible working arrangements. The downside is that the schedule can feel rigid for those looking for the ability to work outside traditional work-day hours.

Public Interest Law

Public interest lawyers work for nonprofit organizations, NGOs, or other groups focused on particular social issues, legal aid, or public policy. While the work can be demanding, and can also pay lower salaries, many find the work more personally fulfilling. This level of fulfillment makes the role more appealing to many as the time and stress feels “worth it.” Often these positions offer a more predictable schedule than corporate law or private practice. On the other hand, the more traditional work hours may not provide sufficient flexible work arrangements for attorneys seeking a less traditional schedule.

Some legal professionals decide to offer their expertise on a freelance basis to businesses, law firms, or government agencies. This is similar to being a solo practitioner but with different kinds of clients. Legal consultants can set their own hours and workload, which provides significant flexibility and the ability to tailor work commitments to personal life needs. Keep in mind that anytime one works for clients, even as a consultant, there is no longer complete control over one’s time. This role also requires running the business of consulting, including obtaining clients, managing billing and invoices, hiring an accountant, and everything else that goes with running a small business.

Part-time, Contract or Freelance Attorney

Lawyers who choose to work part-time or on a contract basis can offer services in various capacities, whether in private practice, for a nonprofit, or in a corporate setting. Many firms and companies hire contract attorneys on a project basis and include full-time and part-time roles. In these roles, you have direct control over work hours and caseload in that you decide whether to take on the project or contract on a case-by-case basis. A legal placement firm can help you locate these kinds of roles. There are job platforms for contract attorneys, such as LawClerk, and providers like Axiom and Latitude that keep a roster of experienced attorneys to hire out on a contract or project basis.

Mediator or Arbitrator

Mediators and arbitrators are legal professionals who facilitate negotiation and settlement between disputing parties outside of the court system. This is one of the best alternative legal careers for attorney work-life balance. These roles often allow for flexible scheduling and can be less time-intensive than litigation, making it easier to manage work alongside personal commitments. However, this can be a difficult field to break into initially, especially for newer attorneys with little practice experience.

Lawyers who transition into teaching roles at law schools or universities or who work in legal research may find the work-life balance they desire. Academic positions often come with flexible schedules, opportunities for sabbaticals, and the summer months off, allowing for a significant degree of legal academia work-life balance.

While no legal job can guarantee a perfect work-life balance, these positions tend to offer more flexibility and predictability than the traditional law firm track.

Conclusion

Finding attorney work-life balance is a challenge. However, it is possible when organizations and attorneys work together to create a supportive environment. By embracing these strategies, you can successfully navigate competing work and life responsibilities leading to personal and professional fulfillment.

Image © iStockPhoto.com.

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By Jamie Jackson Spannhake

In this bestselling book written for lawyers, former Biglaw litigator Jamie Spannhake helps you clarify your desires and set priorities so you can reclaim your time and enjoy your life. Available in soft-cover and digital format.

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Jamie Spannhake Jamie Spannhake

Jamie Jackson Spannhake is a writer, coach for lawyers, and speaker. She helps busy lawyers create lives they truly want, lives with time and space to do all the things she was told she couldn’t do as a successful lawyer. Her work with clients is based upon the principles in her book, “The Lawyer, the Lion, & the Laundry.” She spent nearly 20 years practicing law in New York and Connecticut, in BigLaw, as a solo, and as a partner in a small firm. Learn more about her at JamieSpannhake.com, or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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