Does Work-Life Balance Even Exist?

Susan Cartier Liebel
There is no secret to balance. You just have to feel the waves.

Frank Herbert

As solos we are always hearing those who go solo do so to achieve “balance” in their lives. Yet, what is balance really? Some describe it as a different percentage distribution between personal fulfillment and work fulfillment than one gets while working for another. As if somehow when we work for another, we are not permitted to give our family or personal relationships “priority.” It is a concept that is both slippery and elusive and ever-changing, and I think we need to get out of the work-life balance conundrum and go back to nature to understand what balance really is. Only then can we hope to achieve it.

The piece, What Does It Mean to Live a Balanced Life?, by Stephen Cox, from Pick the Brain, states the concept of balance very well:

Life really is one thing after another. The physical environment we each live in is in constant streaming flux. Physically when it’s cold we shiver to bring our body temperature up. When it’s hot we sweat to bring our body temperature down. As living organisms we live in a constantly changing environment. Our bodies are well adapted to this state of affairs and respond appropriately when conditions deviate from their optimal state. This ability of an organism to maintain equilibrium (balance) by adjusting appropriately to the external environment is known as homeostasis.
And therein lies the key to understanding balance. Balance is the taking of appropriate action when circumstances dictate so as to maintain equilibrium. It is said that the great achievement of the sages of old was the achievement of great balance as human beings. How did they achieve great balance? In the present moment, when things would come up, they would respond accordingly.

Being able to maintain equilibrium in an ever-changing world is the key to a satisfying personal and professional life. For the solo, it is a necessity because the nature of solo practice is one of tremendous ups and downs and multiple responsibilities with which an associate does not necessarily have to deal. Your ability to maintain your equilibrium through these ups and downs is critical. And your ability to do so then allows you to maintain your equilibrium between your personal and professional life, too.

So, how do solos handle the “waves” in their practice and not wipe out? They have to approach it on two fronts: client control and self-control. In large part it is determining what you want in your practice and in your personal life, determining how you can achieve it, implementing a plan to do so, and then educating your clients as to what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, barring an emergency. If you want to leave work to be home with your family for dinner or go to the gym to work up a sweat and detox from stress, or take a vacation, it’s up to you to first value this as a priority, schedule it, and actually do it. Clients need to be instructed about the hours of contact, the method of contact, standard turnaround times, and true emergency protocols. Why? Do you want them texting you at all hours of the day? Do you want them calling your office and leaving a message on a Sunday morning feeling aggravated that you’re not available? Do you want emails on Saturday evenings? Do you want to respond to these emails on Saturday evenings? Even if you don’t answer these messages, you feel guilt, and it interferes with your personal time. You may even break your own rules and answer the calls, emails, and texts, creating a slippery slope. Do it once and the exception will become the rule in the client’s mind.

Achieving equilibrium is in large part controlling that which you have control over—it’s about managing expectations and disciplining yourself so you stick with the plan. You might be saying that in today’s competitive market and world of instant communication, people expect you to be “on” and available 24/7. Baloney. I say, don’t let the tail wag the dog. It’s about educating your clients on how the office operates and enforcing policies yourself.

Most practice areas are not emergency driven. If you find you need some distance from the phone ringing and yet don’t want to risk losing potential new clients or aggravating existing clients, spend the money on a quality virtual receptionist. If you need power hours to get your work done so you can go home in the evening for dinner, it is up to you to adhere to a “do not disturb” policy during your power hours. This includes you not disturbing yourself with social media, email, or making phone calls. There are many more variations on this theme, but now you get the gist of how you need to approach the issue of achieving equilibrium. You need to set up systems and carve out time for what matters and educate others on your protocols.

Equilibrium is not elusive. It just doesn’t really exist in the way we often hear it described. In the work world it is a combination of discipline and flexibility. Work-life balance does not exist. There is just life and learning how to effectively ride the waves without losing your balance.


Susan Cartier Liebel

Susan Cartier Liebel is the Founder and CEO of Solo Practice University, the only online educational and professional networking community for lawyers and law students who want to create and build their own solo/small firm practices.