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Law Practice Today

November 2023

Four Challenges to Putting Your Own Priorities on the Front Burner

Kate Ahern


  • Prioritizing personal happiness is hard for lawyers – and especially women lawyers.
  • Part of this is due to the nature of the profession, but societal pressure and gender bias add to the burden.
  • Law firms (and other employers) can and should provide support to women navigating these challenges.
Four Challenges to Putting Your Own Priorities on the Front Burner Trade

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Like many women lawyers, you may be looking to dial down the daily overwhelm of practice, making room for daily focus on what’s most important to you, so you can feel accomplished at the end of each day.  I call this being an “Unfrazzled Lawyer,” and it’s my mission to support women lawyers in getting there.  The first step to becoming Unfrazzled is getting clear on your priorities: the key to our happiness as humans and our fulfillment as professionals.  You can start by identifying what makes you happy, what is most important to you, what you find fulfilling, what makes you feel like you, and the direction you’d like to intentionally steer your life and legal career.  Only after you get clear on your priorities can you then align your priorities with your life inside and outside of the law. 

Priority Clarity is Difficult for Lawyers

Unfortunately, getting clear on your own priorities is especially challenging for lawyers.  First, becoming a lawyer typically means years of hard work and continuous achievement, hitting many predetermined milestones along the way, from high grades in academia, to the bar exam, landing a first law job, and climbing the ranks in your legal career.  Lawyers often keep jumping through one hoop after another along the way, rarely stopping to consider what’s most important to them or what they really want.  

The demanding culture of our profession perpetuates the problem, leaving little time or space to consider your own priorities.  Making matters worse, as you lose touch with your own priorities, it’s easy to look externally instead, becoming susceptible to the priorities expected by others and normalized by our industry, which are often at odds with what is most important to you.  At first, you may not notice your life and practice has fallen out of alignment with your own priorities, but as the gap widens, you may experience signs, such as a haunting feeling you were meant for more or something else, the drive of untapped potential, the frustration of unmet or ignored needs, a pull to free up more time and space, or a drive to life your life differently. 

Additional Challenges for Women

In addition to these broader challenges, women lawyers face additional obstacles arising from societal expectations and gender bias against women. In other words, it’s already difficult for lawyers to get clear on their priorities, but even when women lawyers are able to do so, they will still face more significant challenges when attempting to allocate sufficient time and attention to the personal and professional priorities they identify.  While these additional pressures show up in many ways, women lawyers I work with regularly face these four issues, often presenting a daily struggle.

  1.  Societal Expectations 

    Women are expected to be nurturing, communal, to care for others, and to generally say “yes” when asked to help.  The constant pressure of these expectations often causes women to put others’ needs before their own priorities, personally and professionally.  For example, you may call yourself a “people pleaser,” or find yourself taking time away from your own priorities in an effort to manage others’ impressions of you.  You may also find it difficult to say “no,” or find that saying “yes” feels like an automatic, reflexive response. 

    Start by getting clear on your own priorities, so you can later use them as a filter when deciding how to spend your time and attention.  In the moment, try to slow down your responses and decision-making, taking time to consider your own priorities before responding to requests and potential projects.
  2. Guilt

    Societal pressures can also cause women to feel guilty when putting their own needs on the front burner.  Unfortunately, we sometimes misinterpret this type of guilt as a credible barometer, giving it too much weight in shaping how we spend our time. 

    When making a decision about how to spend your time, or whether to say “yes” to an ask, try pausing to consider whether any resulting guilt is a credible, accurate indicator of your feelings or instead just a reflection of gender bias and societal expectations.  Seeing guilt more clearly may not eliminate difficult feelings, but it can help you make decisions better aligned with your own priorities and may reduce the impact of those feelings over time. 
  3. Perfectionism

    Women are regularly and unfairly expected to perform perfectly and to repeatedly prove themselves.  It’s easy to internalize these expectations of perfection, leading women to label themselves as “perfectionists,” to lose significant time on tasks and projects in pursuit of often-unnecessary perfection, and to experience additional stress in aiming for perfection.  Constant, additional time and energy spent in search of perfection leaves little gas in your tank for your own priorities.

    When tackling a personal or professional project, pause to consider the appropriate level of effort, quality, and output matching that task.  As you move forward, notice any pressure you may feel to exceed the level you set for that project.   Again, while the pressure of perfection may still haunt you, over time you can lessen the impact of that pressure, allowing you to divert time and energy away from overdoing and toward your own priorities. 
  4. Imposter Syndrome

    Women are regularly perceived as less competent and less committed, face belittling comments and messages, navigate gaslighting, and even receive less-challenging projects and opportunities.  Given this type of gender bias, it’s not surprising we often doubt ourselves and face imposter syndrome, presenting as an uncomfortable feeling you’re not smart enough, good enough, or successful enough.  Other women feel there’s something wrong with them, they’re different than others, or someone will find out they’re not qualified.

    These feelings persist, despite piles of accomplishments and evidence to the contrary.  Heartbreakingly, this pressure leads us to repeatedly fill our plates with personal and professional commitments in an effort to continuously accomplish and prove ourselves, rather than choosing commitments better matching our own personal and professional priorities. 

    Before committing personally or professionally to spending your time and energy, ask whether the commitment brings a benefit aligned with your own priorities.  Over time, it can be easier to more clearly see the source of pressure to respond to potential commitments. 

Other Sources of Bias and Pressure.  As we consider the impact of gender bias against women specifically, it’s also very important to recognize gender bias against women is not the only source of pressure and influence.  Pressures arise from other types of bias, other societal expectations, the way you were raised, your life experiences, and other factors.  While it helps to examine the gender bias piece of the puzzle, keep in mind it’s only one piece in your personal collection of what I call “frazzle factors.”

Law Firm Support.  Firms can advance women by investing in support focusing on priority clarity and priority management for its lawyers, in addition to making systemic changes.

As you work to gain clarity on your own priorities, align your time and energy with your priorities, and tackle the obstacles getting in your way, please feel free to reach out and share your wins and challenges.  I’m happy to connect as you move forward on you journey to becoming an Unfrazzled lawyer and am here cheering you on!