June 06, 2011 Articles

Did I Mention the Guilt? Striving for Work-Life Balance

Judges and litigators are responsible for ensuring that cases are handled in a timely matter, and maintaining a balance between professional and personal initiatives is imperative.

By Hon. Marguerite D. Downing

If you knew me personally, you would agree I am the queen of work-life balance. Since I started my legal career over 20 years ago, I have worked as a lawyer—and now a judge—by day, while in the oft hours I have worked on a large range of extracurricular activities.

So that you understand the breadth of my community and professional service, I am a past president of Black Women Lawyers of Los Angeles, Inc. (BWL), the California Association of Black Lawyers (CABL), and California Women Lawyers (CWL). As to the former two bar associations, I continue to serve on their boards as hospitality chair and on various other committees. Service as a member of the State Bar of California Board of Governors and as an advisor to their Criminal Law Section Executive Committee, plus work on a number of American Bar Association and National Bar Association commissions, round out my professional commitments. On a community basis, I concurrently serve on the boards of the following nonprofits: the California Bar Foundation, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles, Mental Health America of Los Angeles (MHA), and Project Return. I serve as an officer of my Links, Inc., chapter. Oh, and did I mention I have a husband and young daughter at home?

I must also say that I have loved the practice of law and am certain that it’s because of this wide range of activities interwoven with the “job.” In all honesty, please be warned that it has not come without sacrifice and some teeth gnashing on my part, and, probably my husband’s as well. It can be challenging to balance all these activities, and with all that balancing comes some guilt. The guilt primarily stems from the time I am away from home and my young daughter. After 20 years of having “guilt,” I have learned to accept that it’s a constant result of trying to achieve a work-life balance, so I deal with it.

How did it all start, you might ask? Well, within a month of joining the Office of the Public Defender in Los Angeles, one of my supervisors came in the training room and told me that BWL was holding its annual retreat in Newport Beach and that I needed to go. Being nobody’s fool, I went. When your supervisor speaks, you listen, right? Another new admittee I met when we were sworn into the Bar was driving down, so I joined her.

When the committee sign-up sheets floated around the room, I found one that interested me and signed up. I haven’t looked back from that moment.

In my single days, there was little conflict between my job as an attorney and my bar work. The conflict was between which meeting I would go to out of the number that might be scheduled on any given evening. Days were spent working in court, and evenings were spent spread among various meetings and legal events. Then a position on the Big Sisters of Los Angeles Board of Directors joined my plate.

When I got married and added a ready-made family of a husband and two teenage children, I had to plan smarter. I also had to become more organized and more discriminating about what events kept me away from home. No more going to everything; I had to learn to say no. Fortunately, my spouse, when queried, would say that I had been doing all this when he met and married me, so he felt that he was on notice that this behavior might continue. And it did with some modifications. Occasionally, my new daughter and my niece would accompany me to weekend retreats, conferences, and meetings that could be reached by car. We made them “girl’s weekends.” We enjoyed the adventures and the opportunities to bond over shared experiences. And there was no guilt about being away from my family.

Then my mother suffered some medical challenges that caused her to experience anxiety when left alone. So, prior to one of my National Bar Association meetings in Miami, she suggested coming with me at the last minute. We worked it out, and she was able to join me. She enjoyed herself immensely, meeting new folks while seeing my friends that she already knew. We had a ball, and it strengthened our relationship. She continues to travel with me, and we are closer for the experience. Thanks to this constant “going,” I have had the opportunity to get to know my mother as a friend.

At work, I was just one attorney among 800 others. My extensive bar association participation earned me a reputation as a bar leader within the community and also within my office. Management in the office felt that my work in the community also served an office goal in getting individuals to understand the work of the public defenders and the societal importance of competent legal representation for indigent criminal defendants. Their support translated into additional time to do some of these projects during work days.

Then I gave birth to my daughter, Candace, and the pull to do anything outside of my home briefly lessened. In fact, I was on my way to an NBA conference in Houston when she arrived two-and-half months early. She kept me close to home for her first few months. Then, at five months old (with her doctor’s permission), she made her debut at a BWL retreat. My travel entourage now included my mother, two teenage girls, and a baby. We had fun, and there was lots of intergenerational bonding. At eight months, Candace took her first airplane ride to San Francisco for another conference. She was and continues to be good traveler. My mother joined us then, and it’s been like that ever since.

Now almost 14, Candace travels less often with me because of her school schedule. During the summer months, she will hit the road with me, and, occasionally during the school year, she will travel on the weekends. One of the benefits of this travel is that I am imparting on my daughter the same lessons that I seek to share with disadvantaged girls, i.e., that women can be a power in their own right and that our gender should not limit our goals. Another lesson is that while it is important that we work at jobs that pay, it is also important that we give back to our communities through volunteer endeavors. I think I do a better job showing her this than I ever could by telling it to her.

I am still working on saying no. In fact, sometimes before I leave for conferences, my husband chants with me the word “no” just to get me in practice, in the hopes that I will use the word and not volunteer for every project asked of me.

Now, when I accept projects, I agree to limited duty. I will agree to handle a specific aspect of an entire project. For example, I might agree to do the invitation design for an event, and, once the invitations are completed, my service is done. Another example is my work as hospitality chair for both BWL and CABL—positions I’ve held for almost a decade. My job is to provide congratulatory cards, notes, and sympathy cards to our members. When each new administration asks me to continue to serve in this capacity, it is with the proviso that I am not expected to attend the meetings. I handle my job and submit my report, but I don’t generally come to meetings. That way I stay connected, but my responsibilities don’t take me away from home. And sometimes, I even show up at a meeting to deliver my report in person.

Now, when I chair an event or a committee, I open my home. Since meetings are at home, there is less interruption in my daughter’s routine. If she needs me, she will just come in, say hello, and let me know what she needs. It also ensures that I am home to say good night when she goes to bed.

When I got appointed to the bench in August 2007, I left the Public Defender’s office after 18 years. I had only had one employer my entire legal career. Part of the reason for the lack of movement was that I had an employer who was supportive of my activities. Also, I was willing to trade the financial benefits of firm life and billable hours for an 8 to 5 job that left time for my family and bar activities. I believe the opportunity to augment my career with outside activities also smoothed out some of rough periods when I thought about getting a new job.

Now, as a judge, the challenge is greater. I finally gave up some of my lawyer-focused activities, because I added comparable judicial activities and organizations. I have even added judicial teaching to my repertoire. As judges, we are responsible to ensure that cases are handled in a timely matter, so, in balancing my work and outside activities, I always make handling my calendar and caseload a priority.

A couple of nights a month, you will find me in chambers at 8:00 p.m., trying to get ahead of the little piles that form when I am not paying attention. But, as much as I loved being a lawyer, being a judge is so much more rewarding. I still find more than enough to keep my after-work hours full. Did I mention the guilt?