Is Work-Life Balance a Real Thing?
In 2012, The Atlantic published an article entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The article was written by Anne-Marie Slaughter, who had worked as a high-level government employee while she also juggled raising two adolescent sons. The extremely over-simplified gist of the article was that it is sort of a joke to impress upon women that you can climb the corporate ladder to reach your dream career while also making sandwiches that look like rocket ships to bring in while you volunteer every Tuesday in your child’s preschool. Ms. Slaughter posits that it’s nearly impossible to have it all. But, if you can have it all, it is nearly impossible to have it all at the same time. And if you can have it all and have it all at the same time, it is unlikely that you’ll have it all and have it all at the same time for very long.
While Ms. Slaughter’s article speaks primarily to the challenges that women face in building their careers and also having the kind of family that they want, she acknowledges that this struggle is not limited to women. Ms. Slaughter specifically notes that men have become more involved parents over the last few decades, in particular. Therefore, men are more invested now than ever in achieving work-life balance. This has also led to a shift in relationships between parents. Parenting has become more egalitarian, allowing for parents to support each other in career pursuits while more equally dividing the diaper, soccer practice or homework duties.
First, what does Ms. Slaughter mean when she says “all”? Simply put, “all”, in this context, is a balance between your career life and your home life. This balance allows you to flourish professionally, but not at the expense of quality time spent with your family. There’s no precise formula to this though; it’s deeply personal and involves some self-reflection to determine what your own version of having it all looks like.
As a lawyer, it is often difficult to balance work and life, but this should come as no surprise. We’ve all heard about the pressures of working at a big firm where you’re expected to bill or work some insane number of hours each year. The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) found that associate attorneys, on average, were required to bill 1,892 hours per year. That averages out to be a little more than 36 hours a week for 52 weeks a year. And we all know that sometimes we are putting in several, if not many, more hours on any given matter than we can actually bill. As an attorney with no personal experience with a load of this magnitude, I would wager that it is nearly impossible to work a 40-hour week or to actually take those hard earned paid-vacation days. How, then, is it possible to make sure you’re able to make it home in time to eat dinner with your children on a regular basis?
If you’re a solo practitioner, even with staff, the bulk of the legal work is going to fall on your shoulders. And we know all too well that if you aren’t working, the bills are not getting paid. Not only are you balancing the legal work, but likely office management too. If you’re in a small firm where the workload is spread out among several attorneys, there’s still pressure to pull your own weight. And don’t forget the all-too-important CLEs, networking and community activities that we are required and/or expected to attend.
Ms. Slaughter’s article, now nearly five years old, encouraged work flexibility to allow women (and men) to enter and maintain positions in the highest ranks of business or government. Now, more than ever before, flexible work arrangements are a real possibility. For many years, it was kind of a joke; when someone told you they were working from home on Friday, it was always with a wink. But, working from home or another remote location is not only accepted, but encouraged by many companies both in and out of the legal sphere. If you’re more-or-less self-employed, what’s keeping you tied to your physical office space at all hours of the day and night? Cloud-based services allow for easy access to documents, electronic client files, and research or billing software. This opens up a world of possibilities. You can leave the office in time for family dinner or to catch your kid’s t-ball game but still get the documents that you must finish before tomorrow knocked out before bed. You can still be productive when it invariably snows a quarter of an inch and you can’t leave your neighborhood for two days (#wakeforest). You can wake up early, if you’re into that kind of thing, to check and respond to emails before making pancakes and doing carpool duty. It is possible to set aside certain tasks that can easily be managed without support staff or the conveniences of your office to complete remotely. The result is that you don’t have to choose between family dinner and documents. Making the most of technology can allow for balance that would have been unachievable even a few years ago.
Another practice that Ms. Slaughter discussed was embracing a family culture in the workplace. She notes that this does not necessarily mean showing everyone a million baby photos, but rather leading by example to make family a priority. If you make it a practice to leave by 5 p.m., your associates and staff will follow suit. If you unabashedly inform the office that you’ll be taking a long lunch so that you can see the school play, others may not be hesitant to speak up with they have an important family event that conflicts with the workday. Ms. Slaughter notes that family-friendly workplaces where there was increased flexibility “correlate[d] positively with job engagement, job satisfaction, employee retention, and employee health.” Who can argue that those are bad things?
It’s not an easy prospect though. There are certain societal and professional expectations that are hard to challenge. Taking steps to build the kind of practice that works for us, though, increases the likelihood that we’ll be happier both at work and at home. And long-term happiness reduces the likelihood of career burnout. We all, on a cerebral level, know that there are only so many hours in a day. We have to embrace and accept that being a super lawyer and a super mom or dad means devoting ourselves to our practice and our family in way that is both sustainable and personally fulfilling.
Jared Pierce hung his own shingle right out of law school and has spent every minute since then discovering the joys and difficulties of chasing success. Anyone who has ever met Jared will tell you h