General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionSolo Newsletter

Focus on the Inner Lawyer:

The Balanced Practice

By Steven Keeva

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the book Transforming Practices, Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life, published by ABA Journal Books.

Achieving balance is a practice. It’s a challenge and a necessity. When you are out of balance—that is, when you give significantly more attention to one part of yourself than to others—you feel it. You may become fearful. . . . Or you may find yourself trying to believe that your success in one area—your work, for example—compensates for your lack of attention to other areas, say, your relationships or your physical and emotional health. And likely as not, you will come to feel less effective in every part of your life. . . .

Practicing balance, like practicing law, is an ongoing affair. You don’t just get it, close the file, and move on to other things. You keep practicing. You get better, wiser, more sensitive to nuance.

"Working 50-, 60-, 70-hour weeks will, by definition, desensitize you as a human being," says Rob Ricken, a litigator and matrimonial attorney in Kingston, New York. "You’re going to gain billable hours and make more money, but I question whether you’re going to deliver much quality to clients—and to your family and your friends."

Ricken . . . says that freeing himself from the oppression of the billable hour has been liberating, though it remains a struggle. "I cut my own firewood, and I split it and stack it," he says. "It takes a tremendous amount of effort to accumulate five cords of wood for the winter. Now I could buy the same amount of wood for $500. That amounts to two-and-a-half hours of my legal work. If I look at it from the point of view of dollars and cents, I will follow the path that most lawyers do—their decisions are economically based. But you have to base your decisions on quality of life. You can’t buy that. Still, life is a constant struggle to keep the balance."

Another way Ricken combats the effects of billable-hour mind[set] . . . is to consciously and deliberately shift his mental and emotional rhythm when he gets home from work. He takes a half hour alone, to change his clothes, sit quietly, and resensitize himself to the world of home and family. . . .

What [Ricken] is doing is combining the role of adversary with other roles lawyers can play . . . maintaining a certain balance. . . . Depending on the case, he can be a trusted counselor, a confidant, a healer, or even a mentor. . . . Confining himself to any one role would be to court imbalance, monotony, and disaffection for the practice. For any lawyer, each case is a balancing act, an opportunity to define a connection that feels right for both client and attorney. Seeking balance within a law practice is to move toward greater effectiveness and satisfaction and to open the door to a joyful professional life. . . . .

"When people ask me what I do, I realize that I shovel manure more than anything else," says Ricken, who raises horses, cows, and llamas. "I do a lot of things. A lot of lawyers define themselves as lawyers. They gain their identities from it. Lawyering is just one part of my life, one of many pieces."Steven Keeva is assistant managing editor of the ABA Journal as well as a book author and lecturer. He can be reached at keevas@staff.abanet.org.

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