Myths – Balancing Personal Life, Family, and Career: What Does it Mean?

By Robert G. Deveny
Originally appeared in January 1998 OSB Bulletin

My wife, Lori E. Deveny, who is also an attorney, and I are exploring just what “attaining balance” might mean. We want to address some of the myths surrounding this issue. What we have discovered, in our attempts at a definition, is that “balance” must have a different meaning for each attorney, and for each member of that attorney’s family.

One thing we find to be certain, paraphrasing a recent nameless commercial, is that “at the end, none of us will look back over our lives and wish we had spent more time at the office.” Nor will members of our family, who look to us as son-in-law, daughter, brother, father, stepmother, husband or wife, remember how much service we provided to our clients or those late nights spent to get the job done a few hours sooner. What they will remember are the times that we weren’t there, the lost opportunities and the unmade memories.

Of course, for decades, many men have held this behavior up as a badge of honor, indicative of how dedicated they are to “providing” for their families, or how “committed” they are to the firm. Equally true, unfortunately, is that in many cases this is simply an excuse to stay away from a home life they no longer enjoy. Fortunately, with more and more women in the profession, these “ideals” have begun to fade. However, that brings us to Myth No.1, which is:

“The desire of many women, and men, to achieve more balance between personal and professional activities, and the push for alternative work hours (read “part-time”) is about children and child care.”

First, anyone who has tried a “part-time” arrangement, at least with a firm of any size, knows that what it quickly degenerates into is part-time pay for full-time work. That neither increases the time spent with children, nor facilitates childcare.

Second, as the baby-boomer generation ages, there may be any number of reasons for an alternative to the 60-hour week, e.g., political activity, community service, aging parents that require additional attention and care, or simply a desire to have a life that isn’t dictated by a daily planner.

Each of us must, of course, strike his or her own balance. Although every firm has a right to expect a certain level of commitment from its members and associates, that level of commitment can and should be handled as a compensation issue, not as a measure of an individual’s competence as a attorney, which brings us to Myth No. 2:

“Lawyers who don’t work 60 hours a week aren’t committed to the law, the firm, or the clients, or are otherwise less capable than others.”

We believe the primary source of this myth is economics. What is really meant by many of those expressing this point of view is that any partner or associate who doesn’t want to work 60 hours a week isn’t making enough money for the partnership. If that’s the real issue, then we are talking about compensation. Economic concerns can, and should, be addressed in economic terms.

With respect to the idea that someone with other interests is a less capable attorney, the converse may in fact be true. Any person with interests outside the practice of law will meet more nonlawyers (read “potential clients”) and may have more of an ability to relate to nonlawyers than the library rat with the green eyeshade.

Stereotypes aside, each of us can benefit from interests outside the law. As shown by the OSB Bulletin’s “Profiles In the Law” series, those interests sometimes lead away from the law altogether. How much richer would the profession be if we were able to retain, on even a part-time basis, those creative souls that we all too often lose because of a lack of flexibility?

For those of you struggling to achieve your personal balance, it may be a cliche that time management is the key. Personally, I believe that too much time management, which fosters the notion that life is some kind of race, is an issue unto itself. The idea of scheduling time to be spontaneous seems doomed to failure.

Lest we fall prey to those who see achieving some sort of balance as a personal issue of commitment, let’s look at Myth No. 3:

“The balance of personal and professional life has no place in firm planning.”

The practice of law is about people: clients and lawyers. All people have balancing issues. We constantly read about how lawyers are making more money but are less happy. Articles abound about the low morale in the American workplace. While many factors contribute to this malaise, at least one is the lack, or perceived lack, of a balance between the priorities of family and the demands of work. But, happy people make better “widgets” and so do happy lawyers. Better widgets mean happier customers, and like any business, law firms need happy customers who will either return or send someone else through the door.

In the coming year we hope to demonstrate that achieving a comfortable balance between personal life and professional commitments is possible, economically feasible, good for the individual, good for the firm and most important of all, good for the clients.

After eight years with a large regional law firm, the author recently moved to Brownstein, Rask, Arenz, Sweeney, Kerr & Grim in Portland, where he has a general business practice. He is a member of the OSB Committee on Balancing Personal Life, Family and Career. If you have any questions about resources regarding alternative work arrangements, or any issue that you would like to see addressed in this space, feel free to contact him at (503) 221-1772.