Practicing law can be an all-consuming undertaking if you let it. There is always more that could be done, always something unfinished. If it isn’t billable work on a client file, it’s bills that need to be prepared. If you closed a matter today, it’s time to market for more tomorrow. There are client emergencies—and office emergencies (they didn’t teach “how to fix the clogged drain in the break room” third year).
The irony of being in business, especially in law practice, is that success is measured by becoming busier and busier. Successful representation of one client leads to bringing in more clients. The more you are doing, the more money you make, the more sustainable your business, the more work you get. Economically, at base, this seems to make sense. But it can also pose risks.
Lawyers who are overloaded make mistakes. Lawyers who are unhappy make mistakes. Work/life balance is more than just a platitude or new age aspiration. It is an important aspect of risk control as well.
Successfully managing your time, attention, and attitude makes you better able to meet deadlines, think clearly and appropriately place your client’s best interests in the forefront, and motivates you to want to take on more good, interesting work.
But how can a busy lawyer in a small or solo practice successfully balance work and life? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Make a commitment to a non-work activity and be vocal about it.
If you’ve joined a group that meets every Monday from 6-9, put it on the calendar and tell your colleagues about it. Be willing to schedule around the commitment, but be clear that you are not available during that block. Treat it like you would any other appointment. If you are assertive about that period with yourself, your colleagues, and your clients, everyone will eventually default to assuming you are not available at that time.
2. Establish trusted referral networks.
Sometimes we take on work that we don’t actually want because we feel we simply can’t let the potential client down. When you have a good relationship with some other lawyers in the vicinity, you can feel comfortable referring to them a client or matter that you realistically don’t have time for or interest in.
3. Factor in your own interests when deciding what clients or matters to accept.
Take on cases and clients that mesh with your life interests, allow you to learn something new, or rekindle your enthusiasm for the law. Usually, we think of work/life balance as binary: we are either working or “living.” However, in scientific terms, a true balance is coincident, not successive. It sits steadily, with each side carrying equal weight at once, not swinging wildly from one extreme to the other. Front loading work and then rushing to vacation arguably isn’t true balance. But, integrating your life interests with your work is an act of balance, and, arguably, a better, more fulfilling, and more sustainable one.