It is the time of year when we may be returning from celebrating the holidays with our parents, wistful for olden days when we were not tethered to our blackberrys. Many of us are hoping to start a family, or have started families, all of the while still trying to advance up the legal career ladder. As a legal recruiter, it is not unusual for me to be asked by associates and partners to assist them in finding opportunities in family friendly firms, only to find that the definition of family friendly is exceedingly broad. Do not dismay, because I have what I think is good news to share. This past New Year’s, I was speaking with a friend who is a partner at BigLaw, on a third marriage, and together we determined that yes, one can achieve work/family balance as an attorney, and certain practical steps can be taken (should be taken?) to make this easier on all involved. Here are the top three we discussed.
1. Frequent Reality Checks
Being an attorney is a major time commitment, whether you are an associate or partner. Impress upon everyone what that actually means. You may not be home for that dinner your wife spent hours preparing for you, you may not make the entire little league game, or any of it, you may miss recitals, and the like. You may not be able to go out the same way you used to, and you probably won’t be around to help out as much as you may have done before. As an associate, in many ways your schedule is not your own. As a partner, in theory you have more control, but your schedule is oftentimes your client’s. Early mornings, late nights, business development meetings, firm meetings, meetings about meetings…all of this soaks up your time. Is it any wonder why we have resorted to the billable hour? Time is really all we have, and if we are dedicating so much of it to our career, then it had damned well be worth it. So, all of this means that you will not always be available, or may rarely be available. Your spouse and kids will be disappointed. It is inevitable. So will you. My wife once spent a significant part of our Disney holiday in the business office. She was missed, and upset about missing the trip. However, my kids knew that if it weren’t for their Mom and Dad working the way we do, there would not have been a Disney trip. Your life will be much simpler if you can help the significant people in your life understand the demands your career places on your time.
2. Communicate. Often. and then some more…
Text. Email. If you have a minute, a phone call. Skype. My wife and I have it down to sound bites. It works for us, but it hasn’t always. Odds are you will not always be perfect in this department, I know of very few people who are. It is challenging to interrupt a teleconference or meeting because you need to call home. I remember being too embarrassed to excuse myself in front of a client to cancel a dinner engagement. It wasn’t until the partner with whom I was working said she had to call her husband that I felt comfortable to also say I needed to make a call. Guess what? The world did not end, the client became human and everything was fine. I do not want to get preachy about what and who is important in life, as frankly this is different to everyone. Each of us set our own priorities. All I am suggesting is that if your relationships are valuable to you, make them as much of a priority as possible, and a little consideration truly goes a long way. One thing my friend does is have a joint calendar with his family. His appointments are identified solely as work on his schedule, while other commitments are identified by the person who is involved. These include kids’ activities, social engagements, and the like. He shared with me that at any given time he can check to see what is happening with each family member. Sounds basic, but remember when you only had your schedule to worry about? This works for him,. maybe it can work for you as well.
3. Do what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it.
This is pretty much a definition for success in almost everything, but is particularly important when it comes to family life. There are certain events that are priorities, and it is up to you to determine what they are. Every law firm I know and have worked with has some level of respect for important dates, and will be flexible enough to allow you to make them. Judges and opposing counsel are often reasonable about scheduling, and even the most demanding of clients can at times surprise you. So, how do you do this? Time management is crucial, and not something that comes naturally to many of us. Check to see if you can make whatever it is first. It is not time to be emotional. Be practical, can my calendar allow me to attend or do this thing? If possible, schedule it. Write it down. Put it in your calendar as something that is sacred. Look at other events that are happening near to this one. Do you need to complete a brief? Attend a deposition? File something? Do as much advance work prior to the date so that unexpected surprises may be handled. To the extent that you can budget some open time to deal with these. And, if you have consistently and reliably done the first two things, should there truly be an emergency and you can not make it, you have the built up goodwill to help cushion the blow.