General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

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American Bar Association - Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice

Spring 2009

Vol. 5, No. 3

Young Lawyers

 

The Truth About Having It All

As a full-time working mother of three, I often find myself dealing with the challenges of balancing a demanding career and a busy family life, all the while wondering if my juggling act is going to be a success. Regardless of whether or not we have children, each of us as working professionals must balance different aspects of our lives on a regular basis. The demands of a career in the law are great, and many times other elements of who we are must suffer in order to meet those demands. After all, who hasn’t blown off a friend, family member, or significant other because of a heavy work load or impending deadline? Each time we do this, we tell ourselves that this is the last time and that from now on we will be better about prioritizing and managing our time, and so forth, but the truth is that sacrifices such as these are inevitable in the ongoing quest for professional success.

When I ponder this dilemma, I am reminded of an event that had a profound affect upon my life. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to speak at the National Asian Pacific Bar Association’s (NAPABA) annual conference in Chicago, Illinois, through my prior work with the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyer’s Division. I was giving a presentation on how to recruit and retain members in local NAPABA affiliate organizations. After my presentation concluded, there was a panel of former and current NAPABA leaders who were presenting a roundtable discussion on the topic of leadership issues in general. The panel was made up of an equal part of male and female participants, as was the audience. Midway through the discussion, an audience member directed a question which at first seemed rather innocuous: “Do you think it is really possible to have it all: professional success and personal happiness?”

The panel members had a variety of answers, each in keeping with their respective personal experiences. Although each of the individuals had a different story to tell, a common theme was definitely emerging: In order to achieve the level of success that each of them had enjoyed professionally, a significant amount of personal sacrifice was required. This sacrifice included forgoing time with loved ones as well as giving up treasured hobbies and free time activities. As I looked around the room at the other audience members, I could see from the number of nodding heads that what was being said was ringing true with the majority of them, myself included.

Then an elderly gentleman quietly rose from the audience and asked to speak. He said that he had been an attorney for most of his life and couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t working hard. He was working hard as a young boy to get good grades in school, then working hard as a young man to get good grades in college and in law school and finally working hard during his career in the law. He didn’t question his motivation, which he described as desiring to be successful and which he further rationalized as being what everyone should want for themselves. He went on to explain that during his career as an attorney, he married and had a son, which only increased his desire to work hard and succeed. He asked the group aloud, as he had apparently asked himself many times during those years, wasn’t it expected of him that he provide well for his wife and child?

This gentleman then shared the fact that many years later, when his son was a grown man and expecting a child of his own, he came to his father and told him of how alone he felt growing up without his father present. He told us of how his son confessed that he missed him terribly as a boy and desperately longed for them to spend time together, father and son. As this elderly gentleman was recounting this deeply private conversation, his voice began to flutter and his hands began to tremble. It was obvious that this was a man not usually taken over by his emotions and he was struggling to keep them in check. With the full attention of the room, he cautioned each and every one of us to not lose sight of what is important in our quest for success. To remember that success is not only measured by the accolades that one receives in their profession, but also by the other lives that one touches and enhances during one’s short time here on earth. He closed by saying that he deeply regretted not spending more time with both his wife and son and that he hoped we all wouldn’t make the same mistake.

After the panel presentation had completed, I began to ponder my own life and whether or not I was successfully balancing the demands of my career with the demands of my personal life. In all honesty, the answer to that question seems to change on a regular basis. For example, on days when work is particularly demanding, I might not make it home in time to share quality time with my family. Other days, I might have a personal obligation, such as caring for a sick child or fulfilling an ABA volunteer obligation, which renders me unable to work to the peak of my capacity. Still other days, I might be so close to burning out that I simply must take some uninterrupted time for myself before I can do anything else. Each of these days requires a different direction of focus, and yet, when I look at them together as a collective pattern, I can see that each has resulted in full attention being given to a different aspect of life in generally even rotation: career, others, and self. Therefore, the secret to having it all might be understanding that you won’t necessarily have it all at the same time. As long as the rotation in focus and effort is kept even, perhaps this balancing act can work, and, over time, result in a relatively even level of success in all areas of life.

Actually keeping that rotation relatively even can, unfortunately, be easier said than done. A time during which I found the balancing act particularly challenging was when my oldest son was in grade school and I was an entry-level associate with a rather large law firm for my community’s standards. It was at this time that I was also a single parent. I was under intense pressure to satisfy my billable hour requirements, yet at the same time determined not to allow the demands of my career to impede upon my obligations and desires to be a good parent. My son’s school had an after-care program that ended at 6:00 p.m. sharp, and another local female attorney and I were always the last two parents racing through the door to pick up our kids. More work nights than I would care to admit, my evening with my son consisted of picking up McDonalds through the drive-through window and then heading back to my office so that I could continue to work while he completed his homework, and eventually fell asleep in a chair until we were able to leave. In exchange for this type of work week, I made a concerted effort to stay out of the office as much as possible on the weekends and always tried to attend any field trips and performances that my work schedule would allow. Most importantly, I would never cancel a family vacation, even if it meant that we had to spend the majority of the night before our departure in my office, which honestly happened more than once. As you can imagine, the fact that I wasn’t around much on the weekends did not go unnoticed by the partners at my former firm. Nevertheless, I had made a personal decision to forgo the “face time” on the weekends for precious “family time” with my son. The fact that this choice was in stark contrast to the culture of my former firm was indeed the primary reason for my seeking a change and eventually deciding to take a position as in-house counsel with a private company. My eldest son is now a freshman in college, and I feel fortunate that we have managed to remain extremely close in spite of my intense work schedule as an attorney. One can never be certain about the reason for such things, but if I had to point to a possible reason for our closeness, I would like to think that it is mainly because I frequently communicated to him the fact that he always comes first in my life, and furthermore, that the main reason I am working so hard is to give him a better life

For me personally, I’ve determined that the key to making this rotational approach work is being honest with myself as to which areas are worth focusing on and to what extent. With the current economic climate being less than rosy, it is tempting, if not compelling, to eschew all personal desires for happiness and fulfillment in hopes of staying firmly on the payroll. But even after making extreme personal sacrifices of time and energy in an effort to secure one’s position, one can nevertheless be faced with a loss of employment, due to forces beyond their direct knowledge or control. Although I understand my method for coping may not be a universal prescription for happiness and success, I truly hope that my story has been informative, entertaining, and, if nothing else, something to ponder the next time you have a few moments to yourself in between deadlines.

Jennifer Sloan Hilsabeck is associate general counsel for American Nevada Company, a Greenspun family company that was founded in 1974. ANC is a major developer of commercial office centers, retail centers, master planned communities, and mixed-use projects in Nevada, and is currently developing new planned communities in Arizona and Texas aggregating approximately 7,000 acres. In addition, she is currently a member of the Leadership Advisory Board of the American Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division and has been appointed to serve as a Young Lawyers Division Liaison to the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division as well as the Business Law Section of the ABA. Within the GP|Solo Division, Jennifer also currently serves as Chair of both the Young Lawyer and the Corporate Counsel Committees.

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