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In an interview earlier this year, Laurel Bellows, managing partner of her Chicago business and employment law firm and current president of the American Bar Association, was asked, “How do you do it? How do you do work-life balance and is it really achievable?” Her response, particularly once it was reported in the ABA Journal, garnered some highly opinionated responses on both sides:
“No. It’s not. The answer is so easy. Not achievable. I think it’s actually a misrepresentation. Talking about work-life balance is fraud. Alright. It’s particularly fraud to young women or any, any age woman who thinks there’s somebody out there, they look at me and they say, ‘Oh, you don’t look that tired, how do you do it all, Laurel?’ That question assumes that I do it all. That question doesn’t take into account what it takes to get through a week—but loving it at the same time.”
My first thought when I read this interview: Bullshit. Being a lawyer is a challenging career, with hard work and long hours, but it’s not a mandate to not have the life you want. If something is important to you, you should find a way to make it happen.
I’m not saying you’ll be able to have the kind of successful legal career where you can do whatever you want, whenever you want, but there are ways to make other things a priority so you have balance in your life. It’s possible to adjust your schedule to include more of the non-work activities you enjoy. If you’re in trial, you may not be able to chaperone your kid’s school field trip, but you can be there for other events. Being there for everything may mean you’ll be tired, but if being there is more important to you than sleep, that’s okay.
I considered the possibility that I hold the minority view on this, so I sent the article to a cross-section of lawyer friends. Here’s what some of them had to say:
“It’s doable if you have enough control over your work and enough support at home. [My wife] and I both run our own businesses, which allows us considerable flexibility that wouldn’t be possible if either of us answered to someone else. It’s a rare manager who gives more than lip service to meaningful work-life balance.” – Rackham Karlsson, Owner, Law Office of Rackham H. Karlsson
“As a father, military spouse, Little League coach, Cubmaster and lawyer, I agree with Bellows 100 percent.” – Eric Mayer, Owner, The Mayer Law Office
“Balance is possible, but it’s BALANCE based on choices that we have made in our personal and professional lives. It doesn’t guarantee happiness. I think it’s a way of coping with the phases we all go through in life. Even with the best of examples and role models, I don’t believe a 20-something man or woman in law school has any idea what his or her 30- or 40-something self is going to want or need. So we make decisions because we have to, without fully understanding the consequences or what will have to be sacrificed personally and professionally later on down the line. That’s just a fact of life. Work-life balance is an attempt to adjust to those decisions based on where we are currently in our lives. And that means different things get sacrificed at different times—in both personal and professional spheres—to make the most people and ourselves happy. That’s the balance.” – Stephanie Kimbro, Attorney, Burton Law
“She’s absolutely right if by ‘work-life balance’ you mean that you can do everything well to the maximum of your ability. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to be a superb lawyer, husband/wife/partner, parent, friend and good person. Not to mention getting some sleep. It’s a huge challenge to fit everything in. It’s a misconception that you can succeed on all levels all the time. … But I disagree that work-life balance is a fraud. I think the word ‘balance’ is the key. It necessarily implies some give-and-take, and some trade-offs along the way.” – Anonymous partner at a big law firm
I’m a huge proponent of not subscribing to other people’s definition of “having it all.” Having it all doesn’t necessarily mean being a law firm partner and having kids. Decide what it means for you, and then strive to achieve that. It might take years of dues paying to get there, or it might mean changing professional positions to a job where you work less and earn less, but get more time to do other things.
Work-life balance is only a fraud for those who don’t believe it’s possible.
Ruth Carter is a lawyer, writer and speaker. Her virtual practice, The Carter Law Firm, focuses on intellectual property, social media, First Amendment and flash mob law. Named an ABA Journal Legal Rebel, Ruth is the author of The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to Get Sued, Fired, Arrested or Killed, a 2011 graduate of Arizona State University College of Law, and co-founder of Improv Arizona. In “Nothing But the Ruth,” she writes about the lessons she’s learning while building her new virtual practice. She also blogs weekly at UndeniableRuth.com.
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