Establishing boundaries and defining relationships leads to establishing an effective work-life balance. If ever there was an oxymoron, it is the term “work-life balance.” An oxymoron, of course, is a figure of speech that combines contradictory terms. Work-life balance is the concept of managing work or career on one hand and pleasure or family time on the other. Talk about a contradiction. As an employment lawyer, prospective clients complain about how hard work is or how unhappy they are with their employment. I have to tell those prospective clients that it is not illegal to be a jerk. I also have been known to say on many occasions, “If work was supposed to be ‘fun’ it wouldn’t be called ‘work.’”
The fact that work-life balance is a contradictory term is exactly what makes it so sought after.
Create a Work-Life Balance
How does a lawyer find balance? Balance as a lawyer requires being both extremely scheduled and extremely flexible at the same time. In order to find the balance you crave, you have to plan the time for your social and/or family life and stick to it. You also must be flexible enough to respond to emergencies, juggle multiple projects and move your schedule around in order to service your clients, and still find time for your social life.
Is it really possible to take a vacation? For lawyers, a traditional vacation rarely exists. But there are three things you can do to ensure that your vacation is as traditional (and client-free) as possible: prepare, prepare, prepare.
First, you must prepare your clients for the fact that they are not going to be able to get a hold of you for an extended period. Then, you must prepare your office environment by completing all deadlines, arranging for your mail to be reviewed and your phones to be answered, and identifying another lawyer who can handle your absolute emergencies if it is impossible to reach you while you are out. Finally, you have to prepare yourself to relax and enjoy this well-deserved, preplanned vacation. This final task is the most difficult, yet the most rewarding. You have to trust that your planning will take care of all emergencies. The reality is, even if your planning does not take care of everything, unless there is danger to life and limb because you have gone on vacation—and there should not be if you prepared well—what cannot be resolved when you return to the office?
Part of the preparation for a real vacation is to establish boundaries with clients and colleagues.
In the age of home offices, iPhones, BlackBerrys, portable computers, wireless broadband and smartphone apps, a lawyer is never really out of the office. If necessary, nearly anything that a lawyer would need to do for a client could be handled over the Internet. Technology has created a generation of lawyers who are sleeping with their BlackBerrys.
Any balance that is going to exist has to start with the premise that it is not acceptable to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Although clients like to be able to contact counsel when they need assistance, no matter what time it is, lawyers are guilty of liking the fact that they are needed and wanted. Too often, a codependent relationship develops between the client and the lawyer. And, interestingly, often the lawyers who complain the most about the midnight phone calls are the same ones who thrive on being needed.
In order to plan your life, you must establish boundaries with your clients and colleagues. Just as it is the lawyer’s job to explain the risk or reward of each action, it is also the lawyer’s job to manage the expectations of the client, both for the legal results the lawyer hopes to achieve and the relationship that will exist between herself and the client.
Lawyers who email clients at 10:00 at night and expect an immediate response back develop relationships where client communication at all hours is acceptable. Lawyers who respond to email three times a day when they are on vacation develop relationships where clients expect the lawyer to respond to email while on vacation. Lawyers who coach clients on personal matters far off the beaten path of the original representation develop a business relationship that has crossed over to a friendship—probably too close a friendship.
Does any of this sound familiar? If it does, you need to take a good hard look in the mirror because it is your job to establish and maintain boundaries. If the boundaries do not exist or are out of control, it is not the fault of the client, but you, the lawyer…the enabler.
So, if you are an enabler, how do you break this cycle? You must change. If you have a relationship with a client that is a bit out of control, begin to make yourself unavailable for short periods of time, one day first, three days the next time, and a whole week in Africa after six months. And tell your clients that during these absences, you are not going to be available, and in case of emergency, they should contact another lawyer whom you trust and whom you have empowered to handle emergencies in your absence.
Setting boundaries is the most important thing you can do at the beginning of an attorney-client relationship. Maintaining these boundaries is just as important. Although it is not easy, it is an integral part of living the life that you want and finding that elusive work-life balance. But what if it is impossible to establish those boundaries with clients or colleagues? Then it is time to end these toxic relationships.
End Toxic Relationships
Another aspect of creating work-life balance is to end toxic relationships, both professional and personal. From the professional standpoint, a toxic relationship can be personally destructive. Lawyers who work in big firms often encounter toxic relationships and have less independence to end them.
Toxic business relationships are professional interactions with people whose need for attention distracts those around them from getting any work done. Often, these people are egomaniacs. Often, they have an inferiority complex. Often, they are never happy, no matter how well things are going. Lawyers burdened with toxic business relationships must recognize them for what they are and work to extricate themselves from those relationships.
Being a lawyer and having work-life balance is hard to begin with. Adding toxic business relationships, the stress of which bleeds into personal time, only makes it harder. How do you recognize a toxic business relationship? It’s kind of like what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” And so do you.
Toxic personal relationships are a whole different ball of wax. Toxic personal relationships are difficult to recognize and difficult to end. In my experience, if a personal relationship is negatively affecting your other personal relationships or your professional life, it might be time to end it—no matter how long the relationship has lasted. Toxic personal relationships can be with friends, neighbors, even emotionally or physically abusive spouses. Ending personal toxic relationships is never easy but often necessary in order to have the life you want.
Once you have managed to create the time to establish these boundaries and to eradicate toxic people from your life, you have reached the most important component of creating a work-life balance—knowing what you want and how to work to get it—including, among so many other things, a more pleasurable vacation.
This article was adapted from GPSolo magazine, October/November 2008, volume 25, number 7, published by the American Bar Association.