Your In-Box Will Always Be Full, So You Might As Well Plan Your Life

By Jennifer J. Ator

When I was a brand-new baby lawyer, I was off-the-charts overwhelmed in a small firm practice. A friend from law school who had moved to another state called to check up on me. I was mentally and physically exhausted, despised my social life, and was facing the oh-so-typical piles of paperwork, multiple deadlines, and court appearances that accompany a litigation practice. Over the phone my friend could tell I was melting into a pile of self-pity, not unlike the Wicked Witch of the West melting after having water thrown on her in the Wizard of Oz. He told me to get myself out of the chair and get out of the office. I explained about the deadlines, the depositions, the discovery responses that were due. He then told me something that resonates in my head to this day: “Your in-box will always be full.” He was not talking about my e-mail in-box, although that is always full, too. He was talking about my actual in-box. And, indeed it was full. And, fortunately, it still is.

Since then I have learned that even though my in-box will always be full, in order to have some semblance of work-life balance, and in order to live the life I want, I must plan and execute the plan for my life, on my terms. Unfortunately, planning takes time, which is something that few solo or small firm lawyers have andultimately leads back to the problem that your in-box will always be full. However, without a plan for the life that you want, how will you ever get it?

In order to live the life you want, you must do four basic things. First, create a balance between work and social life. Second, establish boundaries with clients and colleagues. Third, end toxic relationships. And, finally, articulate your personal and professional goals and benchmark these goals until you achieve them.

Create a Work-Life Balance

Somewhere along the way, corporate America decided that workers were making unhealthy choices in order to get ahead in the workplace. Employees would neglect family, friends, hobbies, exercise, and community activities in an effort to advance their careers. Corporate greed, fueled by workaholic employees, was a chosen lifestyle for many.

Just as the pendulum always swings both ways, the last 20 years have seen a tremendous interest in the work-life balance. Lawyers are usually not the first group to grasp a concept, and in this case, it was no different. However, the issue of work-life balance has risen to prominence in the legal profession in the last ten years.

What work-life balance looks like depends on what type of lawyer you are and what type of firm you work in. As a solo or small firm lawyer, the precious balance means making different choices than the mega-firm or corporate lawyer. Some of those choices are easier to make, some are harder.

How does a solo or small firm lawyer find balance? Balance as a solo 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. As a solo lawyer, however, 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? Vacation is the bane of a solo lawyer’s existence. A traditional vacation—one where nobody calls or e-mails you—just does not exist. But there are three things you can do to ensure that your vacation is as 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 but also 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?

A significant component of the preparation required to achieve a real vacation, and some work-life balance, is to establish boundaries with clients and colleagues.

Establish Boundaries

In the age of home offices, cell phones, BlackBerrys, portable computers, and wireless broadband, a sole practitioner is never really out of the office. If necessary, nearly anything that a solo lawyer would need to do for a client could be arranged over the Internet. Although technology has made it easier for a solo to compete with the traditional firm by making communication and production cheaper and easier, it also 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.

A specific example that comes to mind is in the Sandra Bullock, Hugh Grant film Two Weeks Notice. Sandra Bullock plays Lucy Kelson, a Harvard-educated lawyer who goes to work for Hugh Grant’s character, George Wade, an egomaniac developer who can’t make a decision without checking with his lawyer. While the film takes the relationship to the extreme—Lucy moves into the same building where George lives, takes calls from him at all hours, and is required to do everything from complex legal work to picking out clothing and chasing off young girls for George’s own good—the principle is as obvious as the nose on your face. Lucy and George have a completely codependent relationship, one that in the real world would probably require therapy.

Every lawyer—solo, small firm, or otherwise—has probably had a client like George. It is easy to develop an attorney-client relationship that extends outside the office and outside of business hours. In fact, many attorney-client relationships do. And sometimes that relationship is healthy and acceptable and maintains boundaries, as it should.

However, in order to plan your life, you must establish boundaries with your clients and colleagues. Boundaries are established using the educational theory of the self-fulfilling prophecy. 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.

The idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy arises out of the Pygmalion Effect, which was concepualized by Robert Merton at Columbia University in the 1950s. It has been adopted and taught in education and management circles. Basically, within the self-fulfilling prophecy, individuals begin relationships with certain preconceived expectations. They communicate these expectations, either through words or actions. As they communicate the expectations, the other party begins to adjust his or her behavior to match the expectations. Finally, the original expectation becomes true.

As a lawyer, you must truly believe that there should be boundaries in the relationship with your client, and you must communicate these expectations through both words and actions. Lawyers have retainer agreements to explain the nature of the representation, but even more significantly, lawyers establish these expectations by staying within these boundaries during the relationship.

Lawyers most often establish boundaries by modeling the way, by managing the expectation of the client. Once you set the boundaries, the client will adapt to these boundaries. It is the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Lawyers who e-mail clients at ten o’clock at night and expect a response back develop relationships where client communication at all hours is acceptable. Lawyers who respond to e-mails three times a day when they are on vacation develop relationships where clients expect the lawyer to respond to e-mails 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 the cycle? After taking that good hard look in the mirror and vowing to change, 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 Tahiti after six months. And tell your clients that you are not going to be available and in case of emergency to 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 professionally and personally. From the professional standpoint, a toxic relationship can be personally destructive. Sole practitioners are probably less likely to have toxic relationships because they usually don’t have co-workers. Moreover, if they have a client that is toxic, a sole practitioner usually has the luxury of firing the client. Lawyers who work in firms, on the other hand, more 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 the work done. Often these people are egomaniacs. Often they have an inferiority complex. Often they are never happy, no matter how good things are going. Lawyers burdened with toxic business relationships must recognize them for what they are and work to extricate themselves.

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 to know what you want and see that you get it.

Articulate and Benchmark Your Goals

A favorite exercise in leadership development workshops is the creation of the 101 list. The 101 list is a list of 101 goals. Some call it the bucket list, but I don’t like to think in terms of kicking the bucket, so I will stick with the 101 list.

The 101 list is a critical component of the balance between work and social life. If you don’t know what you want, how are you ever going to get it? If you can’t articulate your goals to yourself, how are you going to articulate them to others?

In my opinion, the 101 list should be a mix of personal and professional goals. Ten years ago I prepared a list that included the following: learn to drive manual transmission, learn to ski, get married, have a child, and own my own business. I have achieved all of these goals. Also on the list: finish a crossword puzzle by myself, spend a week at a health spa, and take a bike trip in Italy. While I still would like to do these things, I am thinking maybe when my kids are older and at camp for the summer.

The 101 list is not designed to be stagnant or iron-clad. Instead, it should be written down, reviewed regularly, added to, subtracted from, and worked through. After writing down your wish list, the most satisfying thing in the world is checking off an item you’ve accomplished.

Ideally, the 101 list would be calendared like your teeth cleaning or yearly physical. Pick a day on your calendar and create a yearly recurring appointment—maybe the six-month anniversary of your birthday—that seems like a perfect time to take stock of your goals. Invite your spouse, best friend, child, or partner to attend that appointment, and make sure you keep it.

On the day of the appointment, pull out your 101 list, review it, pat yourself on the back for achieving some of your goals, choose a few things that are possible to complete within the next year, and decide how you are going to complete them. Then add a few things to the list and discuss with your closest advisors, be they friends or relatives, what these new goals are and why you are adding them. You might be surprised at some of the insight those closest to you can provide. Heed the advice of those you trust and work toward completing some of your goals. Only you can achieve what you have articulated to be important to you.

The suggestions in this column seem so easy, but they really are not. Lawyers are not wired to relax, release control, or put themselves first. It is against our nature. If it seems difficult, just remember that it is not only for yourself that you are creating work-life balance; it is for your family and your friends. While you love your family, it is easy to slip into the old refrain, “we will do it tomorrow,” rather than spending time together. As glib as this might sound, I always try to remember who is going to be choosing my nursing home one day, and that person should be the most important person in my life. It makes it easy to step away from the computer and close the files for the day.

What is it that motivates you? Use that as your carrot to find your work-life balance. After all, your in-box is always going to be full, so you might as well go ahead and live your life.


Below, in no particular order, is the 101 list I created ten years ago. Those of you who really enjoying counting might notice that it’s actually only a “95 list”—I omitted some of the more personal items. Over the past decade I’ve been able to accomplish many of my goals (struck through below), and trust me, there’s nothing quite as gratifying as crossing another item off your list.

  • Vacation in wine country in California
  • Vacation in Prague, Czechoslovakia
  • Vacation in Montana
  • Learn to play golf
  • Learn to ski
  • Be a judge
  • Earn enough to care for my parent
  • Write an employment manual
  • Publish another paper in a law journal
  • Earn an LL.M.
  • Own a luxury automobile
  • Get married
  • Have a child
  • Write legislation
  • Get elected to office
  • Write a book
  • Learn to use a manual camera
  • Live in Northern California
  • Live in New York City
  • Renovate a house
  • Take a bike trip in Italy
  • Learn to play tennis
  • Become a certified aerobics instructor
  • Have a vegetable garden
  • Learn to decorate cakes
  • Be a spectator at the summer Olympics
  • Own a business
  • Adopt a child
  • Travel across country in a car
  • Tour the northeast in the fall
  • Fund a fellowship
  • Retire to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina
  • Attend a Space Shuttle launch
  • Earn an MBA
  • Speak on legal issues once a month
  • Have more courage
  • Be nicer
  • Carry the Olympic torch
  • Buy a new couch
  • Buy flowers for my office every Monday
  • De-stuff my house
  • Organize my Tupperware
  • Be a better friend
  • Enjoy a wedding
  • Finish a crossword by myself
  • Get a monthly pedicure
  • Worry less
  • Sleep through the night
  • Read a book a month
  • Travel to Cuba
  • Have a client base
  • Require honesty and integrity
  • Be on the school board
  • Join a new church
  • Join a book group
  • Win the lottery
  • Take a month-long vacation
  • Retire comfortably
  • Spend a week at a health spa
  • Tour the Ben & Jerry’s plant
  • Own a bed-and-breakfast
  • Learn to cook better
  • Plant ten trees
  • Exercise daily
  • Learn to play a video game
  • Be wiser
  • Improve my writing
  • Buy flowers for my mother regularly
  • Visit my aunt every year
  • Mow my own grass
  • Learn to hit a baseball
  • Own nice crystal and china
  • Go white-water rafting
  • Learn how to water-ski and windsurf
  • Learn how to drive a manual transmission car
  • Learn how to change a tire
  • Take a leap of faith
  • Manage money better
  • Eat healthy and regularly
  • Learn about fresh-cut flowers
  • Organize my photographs in memory albums
  • Paint furniture for a living
  • Take a pottery class
  • Talk to my sister once a week
  • Sell a quilt that I made
  • Volunteer once a month
  • Go to the movies once a month
  • Read the paper every day
  • Design a web page
  • Represent a professional woman basketball player
  • Learn another language
  • Make new friends
  • Vacation in Canada
  • Learn to lay tile
  • Lose ten pounds

Jennifer J. Ator practices with Hankins & Ator, PL., and is the Special Issue Editor of GPSolo’s Best of ABA Sections issues. She may be reached at .

Copyright 2008

Back to Top