“Full engagement begins with feeling eager to get to work in the morning, equally happy to return home in the evening and capable of setting clear boundaries between the two.” – Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz
As I was checking out of my hotel recently at the end of a business trip in Australia, I was talking to the hotel clerk and she asked me what I do for a living. I told her that I teach and train positive psychology and resilience skills to busy professionals, and on this trip, I was teaching educators how to become more resilient to stress. A big smile came across her face, and she said, “Ooh, you have one of those jobs that makes you want to jump out of bed each morning, don’t you?” I smiled and said enthusiastically, “Yes!”
Paula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is a stress and resilience expert who works with attorneys to help them perform at optimal levels and avoid burnout. She also teaches resilience skills to soldiers in the U.S. Army. www.marieelizabethcompany.com
As a law student, then as an attorney, I envisioned balance much like I pictured Oz – a far off land that I could reach if I followed the right yellow brick road. What I learned is that despite what we’ve been told, work/life balance doesn’t exist, and we need to reframe the discussion about what work/life balance is.
Why is the term “work/life balance” so problematic? First, it implies that either you have it or you don’t, and since many of the lawyers I talk to feel nowhere near it, they keep searching for something they never find, which produces unproductive guilt. Second, balance is both self-defined and comprised of a lot of other things that people prioritize differently. Third, when lawyers say “balance,” managers hear “work less,” and as a result, important well-being initiatives get ignored during budget planning and policy making. Whatever term is used, it’s a big issue for lawyers.
In a 2011 State Bar of Wisconsin survey of more than 900 attorneys, 30 percent of the respondents cited work/life balance issues as one of their top personal struggles (only time pressures ranked higher, at 37 percent). According to a separate study, 68 percent of attorneys working in the public sector report being satisfied with their work/life balance, with only 44 percent of lawyers working in large law firms reporting the same.1 In addition, more than 30 percent of the male lawyers and nearly 50 percent of the female lawyers mentioned work/life balance among the top reasons for selecting their current employer.2
Components of Balance
When thinking about how your work and life fit with each other, it’s important to think about the components of balance. Here are five:
1) Focus on Well-being. Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, identified five elements that make up well-being – positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment – identified by the acronym PERMA.3 For myself, being achievement-focused while having a great deal of meaning associated with what I’m doing on a daily basis gives me energy. If I feel depleted, then I know that one of those buckets isn’t getting the attention it needs.
2) Identify What Restores You and What Depletes You. Work and life circumstances are fluid, especially for lawyers. You don’t know how many fires you’re going to have to put out when you walk into the office on any given morning, and those fires will affect the rest of your day. Balance suggests a zero-sum game in which either work depletes you and home restores you, or vice versa. According to Dr. Edy Greenblatt, it’s important to split up the equation. Specifically, identify what restores you and depletes you about work and what restores you and depletes you about nonwork. Your goal is to maximize the amount of time you spend doing activities that restore you during both work and nonwork activities.4
3) Figure Out What You Can Control. A common source of dissatisfaction among lawyers who work in law firms is lack of control. Research regarding predictors of physicians’ career satisfaction, work/life balance, and burnout showed that the strongest predictor of work/life balance was having a measure of control over one’s schedule and hours worked.5 High job demands in combination with low control is a particularly problematic combination that frequently undercuts balance. While you can’t control the facts of the case, the relevant law, opposing counsel, or how a judge reacts, you can control your level of preparation, the way you present information, and the way you react and respond to colleagues.
4) Manage Your Energy. Jim Loehr, coauthor of the Harvard Business Review article, “The Making of a Corporate Athlete,” describes an ideal performance state as prolonged and sustained high performance over time.6 Lawyers who successfully manage their energy are adept at moving between energy expenditure (stress) and energy renewal (recovery). Burnout is a reality in the legal profession, and it’s imperative to your health that you include sufficient breaks to rejuvenate.
5) Identify Mindsets that Limit Performance. Lawyers frequently have specific, achievement-oriented beliefs about the way they should live and work. Having spent years focused on accomplishing big goals, here are four common deeply held beliefs I see within the legal profession:
- I have to be perfect and do things perfectly.
- I should be able to manage it all and accomplish it all without feeling stressed or tired.
- I can’t relax until I finish what I have to do.
- I can handle it all on my own.
If you recognize some or all of these in the way you think, ask yourself these questions:
- What is this belief costing me?
- How is this belief helping me?
- How can I change the belief in a way that will maximize its benefits but minimize its costs?7
Not all deeply held beliefs are limiting, but it’s important to recognize specific ones that can get in your way.
WisLAP Can Help You Cope
The Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) provides confidential assistance to help lawyers, judges, law students, and their families cope with life's problems. Helpline available 24/7.
WisLAP (800) 543-2625
As you move forward in your law practice, it’s critical that you define balance and well-being on your own terms, based on what works for you. Balance is not a zero-sum game; it’s about finding meaning, managing your energy, identifying mindsets that set you up for success and undercut your resilience, and doing more of what helps you flourish. And isn’t work/life balance, or whatever we seek to call it, really just about having a life that we want to jump out of bed for each morning?
1 Ronit Dinovitzer & Bryant G. Garth, Lawyer Satisfaction in the Process of Structuring Legal Careers, 41 Law & Soc’y Rev. I (2007).
2 Nancy Levit & Douglas O. Linder, The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law 173 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press 2010).
3 Martin E.P. Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being 24 (New York, NY: Free Press 2011).
4 Edy Greenblatt, Michael Allan Kirk, & Erin V. Lehman, Restore Yourself: The Antidote for Professional Exhaustion 14-19 (Los Angeles, CA: Execu-Care Press 2009).
5 Kristie Keeton, Dee E. Fenner, Timothy R.B. Johnson, & Rodney A. Hayward, Predictors of Physician Career Satisfaction, Work-Life Balance, and Burnout. 109 Obstetrics and Gynecology, 952, 949-55 (April 2007).
6 Jim Loehr & Tony Schwartz, The Making of a Corporate Athlete. Harvard Business Review 122 (January 2001).
7 Karen Reivich & Andrew Shatte, The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles 128 (New York, NY: Broadway Books 2002).