Is a Balanced Life In Biglaw Possible?  What Does “Work-Life Balance” Mean, Anyway?

 

Ahhh, the controversial pursuit of “work-life balance.”  What was once a popular wellness buzzword has become, for many, a glaring symbol of just how out of balance our lives have become.  What does “work-life” balance mean, anyway?

In an ideal world, we would all have a perfect balance between the amount of time we spend at work and the amount of time we spend outside of work – i.e., at “life.”  In reality, that’s not possible.

That’s not possible because it’s not about finding a balance between competing interests – work vs. life – but rather it’s about making sure one aspect of our life (work) doesn’t dominate the rest of our life.

Instead of thinking of it as achieving work-life balance, I prefer to think of it as having a balanced life.  And a balanced life just means one in which you have plenty time for everything you want to pursue.

How can we live a balanced life?

For starters, it is every employee’s job – from the hourly worker to the self-employed business owner to the Biglaw associate – to create boundaries between work and other aspects of his or her life.  Otherwise, the work part of our lives can end up creeping into the parts of our lives supposedly reserved for other things.

For a Biglaw associate, this creep might show up when you obsessively check and respond to work emails on the weekends or if you keep a running work to-do list on your mind at all times.  You aren’t billing a client for time spent doing or thinking about these things, but your work is still present, sitting there, just under the surface and interrupting everything that you do.

It doesn’t have to be this way!  A balanced life is possible, even for Biglaw associates.  Read on for some tips on how to achieve this life for yourself.

How Can Lawyers Find Balance While Working in Biglaw?

 

The first thing to understand is that YOU are in charge of determining what balance means to you, because balance means something different for everyone.  And you and you alone are then in charge of finding that balance in Biglaw.

In Biglaw, the highest billers are usually the highest praised workers and will never be told to work less.  Sure, maybe they’ll be told to take a long vacation after a particularly rough stretch of endless billing, but that’s about the only balance Biglaw will impose on you.

If you are a Biglaw associate who wants to take control over his or her free time, the following framework will guide you in making this a reality.

It’s a three-step process that involves (1) figuring out how much free time you have (by deciding what kind of associate you want to be and who you want to work with), (2) what outside interests are worth pursuing and (3) how you can make time for those important outside interests.  Here we go:

Step 1: Figure out how much free time outside of work you realistically have.

 

All associates in Biglaw are not equal.  You need to figure out what kind of associate you want to be, because that in turn determines how much you work and therefore how much time you have to pursue other interests.  Here’s a way to figure this out and take control of your time:

Decide early on what you want to get out of your Biglaw job (or at least what you think you want to get out of the job) and work according to that goal.

By deciding what kind of lawyer you want to be, you essentially choose for yourself how much free or non-work time you’ll actually have.

Do you want to make partner (or at least keep that option open so you can make that choice later on in your career)?  If this is your goal, you won’t have as much time for non-work things than if your plan is to stay in Biglaw for three years and then move in-house or to a government position.

Not only do you probably have to bill more hours than an associate who isn’t gunning for partnership, but you’ll also want to spend more time at non-billable firm events, getting to know various partners at the firm during cocktail hours, volunteer events, client dinners and more.

If, on the other hand, you just want to be an “ok” associate – a good-enough one but not one who goes above and beyond what is asked for, then you’ll have more time for yourself outside of the office.

You can pass on attending various firm events, serving on committees, interviewing summer associates, etc.  All of the work things that are non-billable are essentially optional for you.

Find partners to work for who not only have work you are interested in, but who also have the types of lives outside of work that you are interested in having for yourself.

If you are looking for balance, try to work with people who look like they have some sort of balance in their lives.  These people are more likely to be accepting of your desire for some time away from work.

If you work with someone who literally never leaves the office, doesn’t spend time pursuing other activities and never spends time with his family, he’s going to expect the same of you.  While it’s possible to push back on this kind of person, it can be very difficult.

An important caveat here: don’t assume that because a partner or senior associate you work for has what appears to be a somewhat balanced life, that means you can have that exact life, too, right now.  As a junior associate, you have to earn your right to a more flexible and balanced schedule, which means putting in the time at work and at the office.  You must work hard now for a little bit of balance now and a lot more balance in the future. 

Once you figure out what you want to get out of the job and have found people to work with whose styles you think fit those goals, you’ll be much more likely to find a balance that works for you.

You’ll also have a good sense of exactly how much time you’ll have outside of the office to devote to non-work aspects of your life.  Now it’s time to move on to Step 2 to figure out what is important to you to fit into those precious free hours you have.

Step 2: Take stock of your non-work obligations, interests and hobbies and make some choices.

So you’ve figured out how much time you have outside of the office to pursue other things.  Now it’s time to take a look at what all of your non-work obligations and interests are and make some choices about what you want to keep pursuing and what it is time to give up.

Side Note: I am not going to talk about the “obligation” of taking care of children here because that is an entirely different animal when it comes to working in Biglaw.  Instead, what I am focused on here are your obligations outside of childcare, whether that is because you don’t have children (the situation of many junior associates), because your spouse is the primary caretaker of your children (the situation of many (mostly male) partners) or because you have children but you still have interests outside of work that don’t revolve around just being a parent (FYI – that’s everyone with kids!). 

The first thing to do is write down everything that interests you outside of your job.  I like to think of it like this:

What do you participate in now (e.g., a weekly soccer game, dinner with friends, learning Spanish, reading fiction novels, playing video games, etc.)?

What do you wish you had more time for (e.g., learning Arabic with the Rosetta Stone you purchased last year but never opened up, training for a marathon, vegan cooking)?

After reading through what you’ve written down, choose what, at this very moment in your life, you genuinely want to keep doing.

Next, decide what you are ready to (at least temporarily) let go of.

Then, just let go.  Don’t feel guilty about the craft kit you bought and never opened.  Just get rid of it.  Seriously, just get it out of your house!  Things that take up space (either physical or mental) when they are not serving you have got to go.

Use your precious free time to do what you love and drop the rest.  By compiling this list, you’ll have a clear guide as to what is really important to you and what is worth making and spending your time on.

Step 3: Make the time for what matters and fit it in.

Now that you’ve figured out how much free time you realistically have and what you want to fill that free time with, it’s time to figure out how to maximize your time.  One of the biggest challenges about working in Biglaw is managing your time because work can pop up at almost any time.

Even partners are basically at the beck and call (with a little bit more room for pushback) of their clients.  Associates are at the beck and call of their clients AND the partners they work for, so you really never know when someone is going to ask you to do something.

Here are some tips on making sure those activities you’ve chosen to pursue fit into your schedule.

Be Flexible:

The uncertainty of assignments makes it difficult to plan your life outside of work.  Which is why the number one key to success when it comes to finding balance in Biglaw is flexibility.  Being flexible about when you can squeeze in your outside interests is huge.

Here are some suggestions on how you can be flexible in Biglaw and fit in the time for your outside interests:

  • Go to the gym or for a run in the park at lunchtime, or after business hours.
  • Come in later if you know you’ll be working late that night. Get some things done, like grocery shopping or an errand, before work.
  • Run an errand in the middle of the day during a lull in work, instead of just sitting around gossiping or surfing the internet.
  • Put your personal tasks right into your work calendar. Block off chunks to get things done, like shopping, making phone calls or appointments during business hours.

Anticipate Conflicts:

While you can be flexible with many things, not everything you want to pursue can be moved.  For example, if you play on a soccer team, your weekly game time isn’t up to you.  If there are things you participate in that can’t be moved, at least look for things that fit within your Biglaw schedule.

In our soccer example, don’t join a soccer league with friends who work 9-5 jobs, where the games are always at 6pm.  Instead, join a league that plays their games later in the evenings or on the weekends.  Anticipating conflicts and avoiding them ahead of time means that the chances will be higher that you’ll be able to make your commitments.

Try to push the most important, non-negotiable things you want to do to the weekends.  It’s much more likely you won’t have to miss something on the weekend than on a Tuesday night, where it will be assumed in Biglaw that you will be at your desk (or at the very least available to work from home).

Manage Expectations:

Lastly, you must learn to manage your expectations.  This is Biglaw, after all, so things will come up and plans will be made and plans will be missed.  Do your part to not make plans that are unreasonable and hopefully you won’t have too many you have to cancel.

Have You Found Your Balance in Biglaw?

 

If you follow each step I’ve outlined here, I guarantee you’ll be on your way to finding more balance at your Biglaw job than before.  Hopefully you’re well on your way there!

But what if you already are following everything I’ve outlined here and still find yourself missing out on too much of your life outside of your job? I think there are two likely reasons for that.

  1. Your expectations for how much a Biglaw associate works are too low.
  2. Your firm is not respectful of the boundaries you are trying to put in place.

Take a good look at which camp you fall into and make a decision.  Are you going to accept that maybe you need to work more, or are you going to move on and find a job that is more compatible with your life goals?  Are you going to try to push back more and stick firmly to your boundaries, or maybe you, too, need to move on and find another, more compatible job?

For all the Biglaw associates out there, how have you managed to find balance in life while working at a demanding job?  Does Biglaw offer you enough time outside of work to pursue everything you want?

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