January 23, 2017 Articles

On Loving and Learning to Live a Life in Law with Balance

Achieving a work-life balance involves a positive attitude, finding your passion, surrounding yourself with the right people, and knowing when to choose you.

By Michelle Karinne Suarez

If you're a law student or a lawyer, you've no doubt heard about the challenges of balancing "life and law." From the time you were a 1L all the way through the actual years you've spent practicing law, you quickly realized that time is truly a commodity; one that is too easily dispensed and almost impossible to preserve.

I didn't go to law school right after college. I went to law school at 28 years old with a history of life and experiences under my belt. So giving up my personal time was not something I was accustomed to or excited about. I guess no one really is. One of the things I learned in my first week of law school was that if I was going to keep living the healthy lifestyle I had maintained since I was 18 years old—and in essence, my sanity—I was going to have to figure out a way to continue to exercise and eat healthy in between my 12- to 14-hour days. This was just the first step to many steps in figuring out how to have a life in balance.

I started by mentally planning out my days and weeks in advance, making sure that I secured between half an hour to an hour each day, five to six times a week, just for exercise. I had to schedule it in just like I would my time for class. At first it was very challenging. Oftentimes it meant I would have to exercise early in the morning before my 8:00 a.m. class, which in turn meant waking up at 5:00–6:00 a.m. (and just to be clear, I am not a morning person). Sometimes, if I hadn't gotten to my reading assignments and had to read before my morning class, I would have to settle for running on my treadmill at home at 9:00 p.m. after I'd finished all of my assigned work. I was also very involved in law school, worked part-time as a personal trainer, had several clerkships, and was the editor of a journal, which made scheduling time for workouts and planning healthy meals extremely challenging. It wasn't always perfect, and I didn't always make it to the gym five to six times a week like I'd ideally hoped. But I did it. And I got better at managing my time. I learned that my new best friend was efficiency. I sometimes even took flashcards and outlines with me to the gym so that I could review my notes between sets or while doing cardio. My point is, if you treat your health as an essential element of your day, like taking a shower for example, you will find a way to fit it in. And trust me, with the stress of our profession, you want to find the time to exercise.

Now, if you're an attorney reading this, as opposed to a law student, you might say to yourself, "But how do I find the time in between work, events, and family commitments?" I'll tell you a story. When I first joined a "big law" firm and was introduced to the dreaded "billable hour," an acquaintance who I met at an event while mentoring law students who were preparing for the bar exam said to me as he looked at my water jug, "Oh, are you some kind of fitness buff?" to which I replied, "Yes, it's how I keep my sanity." He scoffed. Later in conversation he also found out that I was going from a job with no billable hour requirement to a big law firm that had a 2,000+ yearly requirement, and he smiled and said, "Good luck keeping up with your fitness. You're going to find out it's impossible in our profession." So I made the decision right then and there that I would not sacrifice my health no matter how challenging my workload might become.

And I didn't. It's been three years since that conversation and I still work out regularly, prepare my meals, and drink a gallon of water a day. In fact, one of my best friends, Vanessa, is a mother, a wife, and a practicing attorney who just opened her own law firm, and she still finds the time to exercise. My point is this: if you approach health with a defeatist attitude, then you will be defeated. But if you realize that everything in life is a matter of choices and perspective, you can and will find a way to make fitness and health a part of your daily lifestyle as an attorney. It is as simple as that.

This leads me to my next piece of advice for balancing life when you practice law: you must learn what you are passionate about. This will be key to finding happiness in the legal profession. I am well aware of the employment challenges facing young attorneys and that your first job will likely not land you in your ideal practice area, but here's the thing: you probably have no idea what it is that you are passionate about yet. And that is okay! But you must make it a point to figure out what you are passionate about. Once you do, make sure that every single step you take is a step that moves you closer toward that goal. If you do not love, or at least really like, the practice area you are in, you're not likely to do your best. When you love what you do, work becomes enjoyable and you become extremely good at it.

For me, my passion has always been fitness and entrepreneurship. When I started practicing law, I knew I had to figure out how to gain experience in a way that would ultimately lead me to working with businesses, and ideally, businesses somehow related to health and well-being. So I began writing articles related to business and health. I let everyone I met know that this is what I was passionate about. A few months later, I landed my first client: a respected fitness coach who wanted to open his own gym. I did all of his corporate documents. Before long, I was helping businesses in behavioral therapy who help autistic children, another component of wellness. All of a sudden, voila! I had started to build my niche practice in health and business. Once I let go of the preconceived notions I had of what I thought practicing law should be and started following my passions, things started to fall into place.

Next, surround yourself with positive people. This is absolutely one of the most important pieces to finding balance in your life when you practice law. Our profession is naturally plagued by criticism, skepticism, and cynicism. Given the fact that we often deal with clients who are facing the most difficult time in their lives and are upset, it can cause some attorneys to become jaded and lose their zeal. That and the fact that some areas of law are naturally more litigious than others tends to harden attorneys. Which is exactly why you must be extremely selective with who you spend your limited amounts of time with, both inside and outside of the profession.

I make it a point to be nice, professional, and courteous to everyone I meet, but selectively choose who I spend time with. I purposefully chose to spend my time with like-minded professionals who still love the law, who practice professionalism daily, and who exude the type of attorney I hope aspire to be. This includes choosing to join organizations that have similar views and allow me to give back in some way. By selectively choosing the people I spend time with, it becomes a lot easier to connect with people within the profession, build relationships, and stay motivated.

Finally, you have to know when to choose you. Often this advice will go hand-in-hand with the power of saying "no." When you are an attorney or a law student, you are pulled in 50 million directions. From work that must get done, to publishing articles, to networking, to family commitments, to friend commitments, there is simply not enough time for everything. You will never be fully balanced in all areas of your life at all times. But once you accept that, you then have a duty to yourself to make sure you are not so immersed in one area of your life that another area is left lacking.

This means that I make decisions weekly to choose me over something else that is not a priority. For example, if I have several networking events coming up and I know that I am behind on my work, I have not made my health a priority that week, or I have failed to spend any time with loved ones, then I am going to have to say no to something. I could say no to my loved ones and my health, and say yes to work and professional events, but then I would just end up feeling angry and resentful and would likely not give the task at hand the dedication it deserves. If I do not learn how and when to choose me, the other areas of my life will end up suffering. So I usually end up choosing a middle ground. This week that might mean going to the gym only three times, calling my dad once, and staying at work late several nights. Next week, that might mean going to the gym five times, not talking to my dad, going to only one networking event, and leaving work at a reasonable hour. The point being that you cannot live on hyper drive at all times. You will burn out. It is inevitable. You must learn that to serve all of the areas in your life well, you will have to learn when to choose you, and to say no to the things that ultimately do not move you closer to your goals.

Learning how to balance being an attorney with health and mental wellness is essential if you want to thrive in this profession. It is not an option, it is a necessity. Because at the end of the day, as you realized when you completed your first year of law school, when you were studying for the bar, or when you first began practicing as an attorney, life does not stop for you. Your family will have emergencies. Your friends will have children. Your dog will die of cancer. You will get divorced. You will get engaged. You will have moments of celebration. You will find your strength. You will get to know yourself. And you will love and hate different things about being an attorney. But you will also find that this profession is a noble one and an honor to be a part of. And you will miss out on the great things in life and in our profession if you do not learn to find balance.

Balance means making your health a priority. It means finding your passion and integrating that into your practice. It means surrounding yourself with people who understand you and who lift you up. It means joining organizations that align with your goals. It means mentoring and giving back. It means learning how to say no. And it means learning how and when to choose you. Once you do these things, all of a sudden it will all make sense. And you will not only love your job, but you will do what I believe we are all here to do: you will make a difference in this world.

Keywords: litigation, Judicial Intern Opportunity Program, JIOP, work-life balance, lifestyle, health, fitness, mental wellness

Michelle Karinne Suarez – January 23, 2017