Balancing Life and Work - ABA YLD 101 Practice Series

By Amy E. Clark Kleinpeter

In the four years I have been practicing law, three attorneys I have known walked out of their office door one day and never came back. No notice, no goodbye, the extra suit still hanging on the back of their door - they were gone. The stress and anxiety of the job reached a climax and to save their sanity, they left. I know of no one in any other career who has performed this type of emergency exit, and it is an understatement to say this is a bad sign for life balance in attorneys.

It is time for all of us to wake up and realize that sanity and happiness are reasonable choices, that "How busy are you" is not a substitute for "How are you doing?" and that all-nighters are more appropriate for 19 year old college students then 35 year old attorneys. Why? Why bother changing? Looking around, you will see numerous examples of attorneys who live their lives with work filling 90% of their time and everything else squeezing into the remaining 10%. However, what you will not see are the many who came before and because they never achieved balance, left law all together. Leaving the practice of law is always an option, but if you are like me, your school loans are not going anywhere in the next 5 years, so it is better if you do not either! Seriously - you picked this career because you wanted to be an attorney, right? Now is the time to find a way to make that career a choice you can, and WANT, to live with.

In an effort to bump you out of the typical young attorney "I can sleep when I'm dead" mindset, I have gathered some broad rules that may help you look at things a little differently. These are not a set of instructions or even guidelines - part of balancing your life is the fact that you have to define your values. Here goes:

  • Be not afraid.
    No, I am not talking about getting 100% rid of those late night panic attacks where you realize "I forgot to account for Veteran's day when calendaring the due date of my motion!" I am talking about not being afraid to claim your life balance. Do not buy into the myth that misery, overwork, and permanent exhaustion are hallmarks of our profession. Some people are going to doubt you - let them. Just go forward with confidence that building a life with not just work, but with friends, family, spirituality and fitness is your right!
  • Do not settle for being content as a substitute for being happy.
    When I was a first-year associate at a big law firm, a partner asked me "Are you happy here?" I told him Sure! I found my work interesting over 51% of the time so that meant things were good, right? "NO!" his yell about blew me out of my chair. This impatient, blunt, partner told me he loved his job, that he was happy to come to work every day and that was exactly what he wanted to hear from me. He may not have known it, but I was listening and years later, I do love my job. Every day, even when it is a complete pain, I cannot imagine doing anything else. You can find that place for you in law - don't settle for less.
  • Define your values.
    Match your life to what you value. If you value family, spend time with them. If your health is paramount, then exercise and find time to eat right. Practice your religion and volunteer for causes. No, you cannot do everything. But find the things that are important to you and find a way to include them in your life.
  • Eschew perfection.
    Realize that sometimes, you will make others unhappy because you will miss a detail, make a typo, or leave out a comma. Get over it. Learn to be comfortable with a certain amount of error - this level will vary greatly based on your area of law as well as your clients and the amount of time for which they are willing to pay you. However, strive for effective arguments and writing instead of perfection and you will be serving your clients as well as, if not better than, if you agonize over every semi-colon.
  • Seek solutions.
    Be a problem solver. When mistakes happen (and they will - accept that) don't waste time screaming at yourself or others. Figure out a way to fix the problem and move on. You will open up hours of your day and sleep better at night - which brings us to number six...
  • Get sleep.
    Not everyone needs 8 hours a day, but don't lie to yourself about your needs. Lack of sleep will show on your face and more importantly, in your logic and reasoning.
  • Do not procrastinate.
    If you procrastinate a task, you have to keep it in your head - "remember, remember, remember you need to do this!" That constant nagging in your brain will keep you from relaxing with your family or friends in your off time. Schedule your work, do what of it you can in the time you have allotted, then go home.
  • Organize, organize, organize.
    Keep looking for methods of organizing your time, space, and habits that work for you. If something doesn't work, try something new. Being organized can be very calming and conversely, spending 40 minutes looking for a lost file does not count as relaxing "down time." One caveat - do not think you will become productive 24 hours a day if you just organize more. This leads to number 9...
  • Cherish your down time.
    Hold your down time sacred. This means learning to say no at times. Down time is not a planned social activity and should not be called "networking". Downtime is a walk around the block at 3:30 p.m., an hour playing your favorite video game, or a shared laugh with a friend. Without these breaks, your mind becomes trapped in its own thoughts and you lose perspective.
  • Have non-law friends and activities.
    These can be your family, the guys you play poker with, your neighbors or your dog-walker. These people will prevent you from forgetting that your job is not the world. Having a scheduled physical or creative activity will also keep you balanced. As a new mother and solo attorney, I treasure my weekly soccer game. It is the one non-mommy, non-attorney thing in my life right now and that is very freeing!
  • Keep in contact with your friends.
    Call it networking if that makes you rank it higher in your priorities. The important thing is to not drop off the face of the earth for months at a time with the thought that you will have free time after this one mediation, this one trial, or this one closing. Law is your career, child, there will always be another mediation, another trial, another closing around the corner. It takes two minutes to respond to an evite, cell phones work to call friends in traffic, and everyone eats dinner. Find ways to keep in touch.
  • Eat lunch.
    Not pop tarts in your car or an apple at your desk, but lunch. I have noticed that most senior lawyers go out of their office to eat lunch. Most young associates grab something to eat at their desk if they eat at all. Remember most young associates end up dropping out. Decide who you want to emulate.
  • Fail.
    Failure. Hard to even look at those words? Get over it. Recognize that mistakes happen, great attorneys lose cases, lose clients, lose their glasses and sometimes lose their tempers. When you have more to your life then just your work, you can see your failures in perspective. If you never fail, you may not be taking healthy risks that could benefit your clients and yourself. Go for it - take calculated risks - the worst that can happen is that you fail. And with a balanced life, failure is something you can not only survive, but learn from.

So next time you ask another attorney how she is doing and she says "Busy!" don't automatically congratulate her. Stop, invite her to lunch and ask her "Are you happy?" Ask it of yourself as well, and dare to make the necessary changes so that you can answer with a resounding "Yes!"


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About the Author

Ms. Kleinpeter started her solo law firm, The Law Offices of Amy E. Clark Kleinpeter, in 2006 in Pasadena, California. Ms. Kleinpeter, a graduate of University of Southern California Law School, practices consumer bankruptcy and plaintiff's employment law. She is a member of the American Bar Association, National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, American Land Title Association, and American Bankruptcy Institute.

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