Family law is a unique area of practice. Issues arise twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Attorneys deal with stressed and agitated clients as their family and finances are completely turned upside down, which lends a sense of urgency to our clients not found in other areas of the law. This past year has presented unique challenges for attorneys in the field of family law due to COVD-19. Some attorneys have had a downturn in their practice; others cannot keep up with the increased business. Clients have often been less willing to compromise in light of the financial and life stressors they are experiencing. Parties who already have difficulty functioning together have had the added complications of quarantine, closed or delayed courts, and educating children at home while working.
A healthy work-life balance for family law attorneys is difficult enough under normal circumstances, but has been even more of a challenge over the past year. The following are some suggestions to help improve stress and create a better work-life balance. Not all these strategies are going to be appropriate for everyone, but choose several to try and see if they help improve the overall structure and balance of your day:
If you find that you go through the motions of day-to-day tasks or drive somewhere and realize that you did not notice anything along the way, practicing mindfulness may be for you. Mindfulness encourages you to be more aware of what you are sensing and feeling and be more attentive to the moment. It often involves slowing down your mind, relaxing, focusing on your breath, and being more present in your activities. There are a multitude of health and wellness centers and yoga studios that focus on mindfulness training. Consider looking for something in your area. For more on mindfulness, the Health and Wellness Committee is producing a virtual program on Mindfulness for Lawyers with Gullu Singh, Esq. on Wednesday, June 16th at 1:20 p.m. as part of the Spring ABA FLS Conference.
Structure Exercise into Your Day
It can be a challenge to find time in the day to exercise. This can be especially true for family lawyers given the demands of client meetings, court, and emails. A lack of exercise can have a significant impact on all aspects of daily life.
- Try to exercise on both weekend days. Plan for early morning so there is a lower chance that other commitments or emergencies will interfere.
- Schedule a time to meet a friend at a class, at a park, or on a trail to motivate you to exercise. This can even be done via headphones with a microphone if you have a friend or family member that lives further away. Take a walk or run while catching up in person or via phone.
- On Sundays, look at your schedule for the week and plan out the days and times you will exercise. Mark these blocks of time on your calendar so you treat it as an appointment and do not schedule over that window of time. Figure out the time of day that is best for you to exercise so you are most motivated and have the lowest chance of interruptions or excuses.
- Take a change of clothes with you to work so you can exercise during lunch or take a class immediately after work. Often times, once you go home it is hard to go back out again.
Take Breaks During The Day
- As hard as it may be, try not to eat lunch at your desk every day. It is important to take some time to step away to refresh yourself at lunch time. This can help you focus and recollect for the afternoon - even if it is only a short time period.
- Go outside and get some fresh air for a break. This is especially important when attorneys are now sitting more at their desks due to virtual hearings and client meetings.
- Set goals for yourself for short breaks during the day. Perhaps schedule a call during a time you can take it from a quiet park or a bench in your neighborhood. Use that time to stand up, take a breath, check in with people in the office, and then get back to work. This can help with better focus, fewer social distractions, and improved billing during the times you are working.
Prioritize your Tasks
- Emails and phone calls can easily monopolize your day and prevent you from completing larger projects. In order to accomplish more substantive tasks, close your email application and block your phone calls. Set aside a period of time each day to address these matters allowing yourself uninterrupted time for more significant projects or key deadlines.
- It can also be helpful to “play to your strengths” and schedule tasks based on your personal productivity. In other words, if you are more productive in the mornings, plan to complete the most difficult projects at that time leaving less difficult matters for later in the day when you have less focus.
Try to schedule at least one full weekend day for yourself if at all possible for your own mental health and balance. Be clear with your clients if you are not available on the weekends. If you do plan to be accessible on the weekends, consider charging an increased hourly rate that is clearly spelled out in your fee agreement. If you do have that increased weekend fee, instruct clients to include in their communication to you that they do in fact want you to respond over the weekend so there is no confusion with regard to billing.
Share the Load
- Utilize your office staff and learn to delegate when appropriate. Identify those task that only you can do versus staff, paralegals, and associates.
- Investigate ways to streamline your forms and pleadings.
- Establish clause libraries for entries and parenting plans so you are not trying to remember which prior case included a specific provision you wish to re-use.
- Schedule case meetings weekly or bi-weekly with your office. This can consolidate questions from staff and associates, allows opportunities for delegation, and keep your office on top of deadlines. At this meeting, look at the next few weeks on the calendar so court appearances and deadlines receive sufficient lead time.
Schedule Vacations Early
- Look at your calendar in advance and schedule your time off early. You can always take vacation time off your calendar if you decide not to use it, but it is very difficult to add time as the year moves along and your calendar fills up with court dates.
- Alert your clients in advance that you are going to be out of the office. This allows the attorney to get a jump on any questions that might arise and reduces the email and calls that need addressed during vacation. It also helps manage client expectations and they feel they have a chance to address any concerns before you leave.
- Place unscheduled blocks of time on both sides of your vacation dates and do not schedule over these blocks. This allows time in the office to address last minute issues before you leave as well as time to catch up on work when you return. Having this buffer without hearings or deadlines allows for less stress while you are gone and when you return.
- Take a weekend or evening one time to better organize your office, clear off your desk, and better structure your files. Then do your best to maintain that system moving forward. It is worth a bit of time initially to create a clean and organized system and will help you feel like you are more in control of your space.
- On Fridays, do not leave the office in a rush to start the weekend. Plan to take just a few moments at the end of the day to clean up your space and organize your desk. This will help create a more productive Monday morning.
- Consider “delaying delivery” of non-urgent emails until later in the day so that you do not inadvertently engage in a “back and forth” / instant message correspondence.
Eliminate Unnecessary or Unenjoyable Activities
Your time is valuable. Prioritize those activities or commitments that you feel passionate about and in which you strongly believe. Evaluate the list of commitments you have and consider eliminating those that do not interest you any longer. Do not continue in a position, volunteer role, or other commitment simply because you have done it in the past. Make sure it still is something you desire to do, is worthy of your time, and you are able to give it the time it deserves.
Help at Home:
- If you spend your entire weekend mowing the lawn and cleaning your home instead of spending time with family or doing what you enjoy, consider whether it might be worth the money to pay for a lawn or cleaning service.
- Similarly, you can consider meal preparation options or cooking meals on the weekend for the week. This might be helpful if there is a week you have a large trial and know you will be spending a lot of time at the office.
- Utilize services provided by the grocery store for delivery or quick pick-up where the store employees shop for you and deliver to your car or home.
- When choosing child care services, consider your schedule and whether it may be worth a bit more money to have a service that is more flexible or has longer hours available when needed so it eases stress and provides you more flexibility.
Better Capture Billable Time
- Find a billing system that works best for you and allows you to fully capture your time. That might be paper/pen or electronic system depending on the individual.
- Make the effort to input your time daily and do not wait until the end of the month or the end of the week when time can get away from you. Leave a few minutes at the end of the day to input your time if you do not input as it is incurred during the day. If you do input your time as you do the work over the course of the day, take a quick scan of what you did at the end of the day to be sure you do not see any time missing.
- If you do a lot of work outside the office, consider a billing program that has a cell phone app so you do not lose time or forget to put it in your billing program when you get to the office.
Having boundaries between work and home and instituting some of the above guidelines will provide the practitioner with practical ways to address the daily demands of family law and achieve a more manageable and enjoyable lifestyle while not sacrificing the needs and reasonable expectations of the client.