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Work-life balance is such a great catchphrase, encapsulating the struggle we all face as we walk the tightrope between our careers and personal lives. If you ever worked in a large organization (think BigLaw), it probably looked like balance would be much easier to achieve outside the institution. What a shock, then, to go solo and find out balance is no easier to find, even without a senior partner breathing down your neck.
Plus, as a solo, your own failure to maintain work-life balance can create thorny ethics problems.
In today’s technology-driven world, work-life balance might seem nonexistent. You may not work in a big firm or have a boss sending you emails at all hours, but when you’re solo and everything you do comes through your smartphone, it is very hard to turn off work.
Every lawyer lives in some level of fear of dropping the ball for a client — missing a deadline, blowing a statute, failing to spot a key issue. These fears creep into efforts to maintain a normal life outside of work. And as a solo, no one is there to pick up your slack if you let a business opportunity pass you by, adding to your stress and difficulty drawing a line. You bear the burden of knowing the success of your practice — and ability to make the rent each month — depends on your efforts alone. In addition to keeping up with existing clients, you feel you can’t afford to miss a single potential client call or appointment.
There is a lot of advice out there for developing work-life balance, but here are some tips specific to solo lawyers to help you ease the stress and avoid ethics complaints.
1. Find a backup lawyer. You may have no interest in entering into a partnership with another lawyer, but you can be a little less solo. Look into forming an alliance with another solo who can be there when you cannot. This could be a friend who steps in when you take a vacation — a real vacation — or someone you meet up with regularly to help you keep on top of all your tasks. Having a backup can help with malpractice premiums, too.
2. Get support from a non-lawyer. Sometimes you don’t need a lawyer to back you up, just someone to keep you on track and pick up slack. Much of the work formerly delegated by solos to support staff is now done via computers, so a lot of solo lawyers have no staff. While that’s great for overhead, it is lousy when you have a brief to write and a pile of phone messages to return. Hire someone part-time, or find a willing friend or family member who can step in when you just can’t get to everything and everyone. Their help can keep you in compliance with your ethics obligations, such as diligence and competence requirements. Even if your assistant does nothing more than return phone calls and set up times for you to call the person, the stress will be relieved and relationships saved. Saving relationships is key to keeping discipline complaints at bay.
3. Calendar everything. Staying on track and not missing deadlines, no matter if you are completely alone or have backup, requires an organized calendar. If you write down everything (and I do mean everything) that needs to be done, you are far less likely to miss something. That alone helps keep you in compliance with your ethics obligations to represent clients with competence. When it comes to balancing your life, if you get in the habit of calendaring effectively, you will come to rely on the calendar and know that it is complete and up to date. This will considerably reduce stress and fear — in turn, increasing balance.
4. “Routinize” your practice. Following on the theme of organizing your calendar, create processes and routines for everything in your practice. This takes some serious time and effort at the start, but the more process-oriented your practice, the easier it will be to sit back and know that your work is taken care of so you can get in some real-life time. Routines also up the odds that you are fulfilling your ethical duties.
5. Prioritize your life. It is natural to panic about work as a solo, precisely because you have no safety net. Unfortunately, this means it is very easy to get so wrapped up in your work that you lose perspective on your life. This can lead to crushing stress, which, ultimately, causes a lot of lawyers to make mistakes that can lead to ethics complaints. Make living your life outside of work a priority or work will consume you.
Before you discount the idea of work-life balance as somehow taking away from your shark-like image of yourself as a lawyer, realize that the steps you can take to keep your life in balance actually make you a more effective lawyer. A sleep-deprived, stressed-out lawyer is going to miss issues, miss deadlines, constantly play catch-up, and spend significant energy and time (and perhaps money) attempting to appease angry clients.
If you are a lawyer with all of your ducks in a row — one who makes time to hit the gym, have dinner at home and play with your children — you are going to be calmer and more focused at your desk, in meetings and in the courtroom.
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