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August 16, 2019 Article

Don’t Get Bent Out of Shape: Strive for Flexibility and Balance

Know your nonnegotiables and consider nontraditional alternatives.

By Bonnie Kelly

“Blessed are the flexible, for they will never be bent out of shape.” For years, I worked with a woman who had this at the bottom of her email signature. And for years, with every email received, I thought, “How trite—another inspirational quote that doesn’t work for my Type A-ish personality.” However, when I decided to change careers midlife and enter law school, I learned the importance of flexibility and maintaining life balance really quickly. I kept my full-time job and was raising two children, so being flexible became the theme of our lives. After work, I raced home to make an early dinner for myself and kids before heading to law school four nights a week. The weekends were a delicate balance of study and homework, church and the kids’ sports. I learned to never be without a textbook and notepad. Ten minutes in the car waiting for my son’s baseball practice to end was 10 minutes for reading cases. During my daughter’s orthodontist appointments, I was in the waiting room working on course outlines. Being in the car provided opportunities to listen to lectures on Civ. Pro. or Con. Law. (No one wanted to go anywhere with me.) I recognized that if I was going to survive the career change, I needed to be flexible and maintain life balance or I would make myself crazy, sick, or both.

The legal profession is unique in many ways. Aside from military combat (and, more recently, politics), there aren’t too many professions where someone else works just as hard as you do to achieve the opposite goal. This adversarial nature of legal work can lead to high stress and life dissatisfaction. In fact, according to an article published in the Journal of Occupational Medicine nearly 30 years ago, lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than individuals in other occupations. Against the backdrop of such statistics, the legal profession is beginning to reflect the fact that its members want more flexibility and balance in their lives. In January 2019, the ABA Journal published an article stating that “more than half of law firms provide flexible work arrangements.” These included “flexible work arrangements, paid volunteer time and pet-friendly offices.” 

A study of more than 6,000 lawyers published in 2015 by the George Washington Law Review sheds light on what makes lawyers happy—and it’s not money or prestige, things traditionally considered perks of the profession. Instead, the happiest, most satisfied of lawyers are public service lawyers. The study found lifestyle choices were a greater predictor of lawyer well-being than income or honors. So, by offering benefits like paid volunteer time, traditional firms can increase employee job satisfaction and retention. By seeking out such benefits, statistics suggest, lawyers can safeguard their own well-being.

But no two lawyers’ goals and motivations are exactly alike. As a result, while statistics might suggest one path, how each achieves balance and well-being can be vastly different. The following two simple strategies are a good starting point.

1. Know Your Nonnegotiables

Ironically, the first step in creating balance is to decide what is inflexible. What are your nonnegotiables? Family dinner, working out, reading, religious activities, yoga? Whatever is important or nonnegotiable, mark it on your calendar in “ink.” This protects the time you need to connect, recharge, or relax. It sounds pretty obvious, but when these nonnegotiable items become as much of your schedule as going to work or the dentist, they’ll carry equal weight guaranteeing you do them. In the goal of maintaining a healthy life balance, that’s crucial.

After marking your calendar, it becomes painfully apparent how scarce (and therefore valuable) the rest of your time is, allowing you to allocate it to things that are really important. Several years ago, I attended the wedding of a colleague. Frankly, I was surprised to get the invitation because we weren’t that close. But I went and spent the entire affair thinking about what else I could or should be doing instead of making small talk with people I didn’t really know. Part of maintaining balance is saying “no.” You have to go to your sister’s wedding. But your semi-familiar colleague’s wedding? You can skip it.

2. Nontraditional Trade-Off

Consider a nontraditional career. First, a nontraditional legal career is not for everyone. Our profession and clients will always need traditional lawyers working in traditional settings. However, nontraditional careers can go a long way toward providing flexibility for those lawyers looking to maintain work-life balance, to keep their passion and productivity levels high, or to ease the demands of parenting. As a career-switcher, I knew I wasn’t interested in, or competitive for, a traditional partner track position. Frankly, understanding that “limitation” ultimately freed me to take a job where I can choose my own hours, work a compressed schedule, or work remotely. The trade-off is obvious. I won’t ever be compensated as well as my colleagues in more traditional legal settings. But I’m able to be home for dinner and still make my kids’ high school and (some) college sports events. While my life changed immensely when my career did, my family’s didn’t, and I am grateful for that. Again, this choice isn’t for everyone. Calculating whether the trade-offs are worthwhile to you is important. The key is to know thyself. Three questions to ask: What do you want? What do you value? And what can you live with? And keeping asking. Over the course of a career, the answers to those questions, and your trade-off calculations, might change.

Sheer determination will get most lawyers pretty far in the career journey. But, eventually, that determination may wane. No matter what the work setting, have the flexibility to find, create, and take a different path. You’ll never be bent out of shape.

Bonnie Kelly is a lawyer for the Board of Veterans Appeals. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).