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Sunday, March 7, 2021

Why I Don’t Like the Phrase “Work/Life Balance”

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It’s not because work/life balance is a non-existent dream. It’s because it doesn’t accurately describe what we should be aspiring to in our legal careers.

Work Life Balance - Really?
Well Balanced – Get it?

No Sir – I Don’t Like It

What do I mean? How could I possibly NOT like work/life balance?

Let’s ignore the fact that “work/life balance” has become the sales pitch by firms that don’t offer anything vaguely resembling it.

Let’s also ignore the fact that, for many lawyers, “I want more work/life balance” is code for “I don’t want to work as hard but you should still pay me lots”.

And let’s deal with the substance: we have a lot of dialogue about work-life balance, and no real appreciation of what we’re actually striving for.

It’s the Wrong Impression

I was reminded fairly recently in a conversation I was having with Clarissa Rayward about the importance of having a fully-rounded life. So I wanted to talk a little bit about this elusive shadowy figure that we call “work-life balance”.

The problem is this – “work-life balance” gives the wrong impression. I’ve used the phrase before and I’ll probably use it again, but it’s a misnomer.

Work/Life balance gives the suggestion that there is some sort of fictitious divide between work and life – that the two are separate and distinct items.

It’s as if work and life are situated on either side of a pair of scales, and then you’ve got to ensure that neither side gets too much weight to avoid a disaster. And that’s not a good way to conceptualise working and living as a lawyer.

The Work/Life Balance you Seek is Based on Fiction

Anyone who is honest is going to accept that the law is going to take up a large amount of your time.

And so this pretense that you should be spending equal quantities of your life on each, is, I think, fictitious and potentially harmful.

Because what you’re going to find is that you will start to feel guilty about working hard and long hours.

Or you will start to feel like there is something wrong with you if you actually enjoy doing that.

Does that sound beneficial? Not to me.

So What are we Really After?

Where do we go from there? This is where I get into the concept of being a fully-integrated human being.

Now of course that’s a terrible catch-phrase and you will not find that written on a bumper sticker.

But I talk about it in that way because the importance to your legal career of deliberately considering all of the different aspects of your life is huge.

So let’s take a look at a few examples of what I’m talking about.

Your Family Life WILL Impact your Career

You’ve probably all met (or discussed, heard of, seen or been a few degrees of separation from) a lawyer who’s had a personal family law issue.

Work/life balance would suggest to us that this issue was on the life side and not the work side.

But those events and the lead-up to them are going to have a profound impact upon that person’s career.

Similarly, there is a reasonable prospect that that person’s approach to their career had a profound aspect upon their family life as well. So you look at those things, and you have to ask: “well, what was the deal”?

Was it an issue of work-life balance? Was it that they were spending too many hours at work? Was it the other person’s fault entirely?*

Whatever the issue was, what you can say with certainty is that they had not, in some way or other, dealt with that aspect of their life.

*I’m not getting into divorce and fault and all that stuff, it’s just an example.

Are you Out of Money?

Let’s take another example: finances.

The lawyer who is financially destitute is going to be affected in other areas.

For starters, their social life is going to suffer.

If they’re extroverted, that lack of social engagement might leave them feeling drained, because they are constantly in the office doing paperwork by themselves and that doesn’t feed their need for social contact with others.

If they’re feeling drained all the time, they’re also not going to feel very satisfied with their work.

As a result of feeling drained, they’re not going to be working that well – so their work may suffer too.

As a consequence of their work suffering they’re not going to get very good reviews.

As a result of that, they’re not going to have very good self-esteem. People are going to ask them “why are you here if you don’t actually enjoy what you’re doing?”

And principally this isn’t because they don’t enjoy their work – it’s because a totally separate aspect of their life isn’t functioning properly, and that damage has flowed through to the other spaces – it’s encroached.

It’s All Connected

This is why I talk about this concept of integration. It’s about looking at your life across the board, with a view to having the entire person fully functional. In doing that, you’ll also ensure that the career aspect of your life is similarly thriving.

At this point I could just leave it at that.  I could just say “look at all the aspects of your life, and make them fully functional”.

But that’s not going to be very helpful for you, and I’m trying to avoid blog posts that stay on the surface.

Integration Strategy Number 1

The first thing I wanted to suggest if you are looking to attain a degree of momentum and energy across your entire life is to embrace the concept of self-awareness.

Self-awareness is a grossly undervalued characteristic.

Be self-aware in particular about the things that you are fundamentally passionate about, that you enjoy, that keep you motivated.

It’s the purpose-driven… stuff (sorry) that you really find gets you out of bed in the morning. What is it that drives you? What is it that you’re passionate about?

A lot of people got into the law with a sense of justice and idealism. They were passionate about it while they were studying, because everything seemed so exciting and wonderful and amazing.

Then they get into a legal career, and all of a sudden the idealism goes out the window. They find that billable time takes primacy in their life. Or doing the paperwork on time. Or the never-ending time sheets.

If you lose sight of what it is that genuinely drives you, then that passion can no longer fuel your motivation in any area, whether it’s career or otherwise.

So be self-aware about the things that drive you.

But it’s not all sunshine and lollipops.

You can’t only be honest about the good stuff – you also need to be self-aware about the things that deplete you.

You need to identify the things that are a drain on your soul – whether it’s people or activities or lifestyles or whatever – the things that are you killing you slowly day by day.

For example, let’s say you are on a career path that is leading you towards partnership in a commercial field. If that’s not something that drives you but rather is just the area you landed in, and you are in a position to make a change then what are you doing there? I’m not naive – I get that might take some courage, and a big hit, and potentially a really tough series of decisions.

Sometimes this takes a little bit of brutal honesty as well. Because frankly (and I get this) a lot of time we’re just grateful to have a job.

And we should be grateful. You should be thankful for the opportunity that you have.

If you’re employed, you’re certainly doing a far cry better than a lot of other people. If your employed as a lawyer, then you have all sorts of things to be grateful for, but that doesn’t mean that you should kid yourself about the fact that you might be in the wrong area doing the wrong thing for the wrong people in the wrong place in the wrong city.

So perhaps you need to go back to those fundamentals of self-awareness.

Next – Assess and Review… Everything

Once you’ve embraced that concept of self-awareness, then you need take a look at the entire cross-section of your life.

I’m not going to give you a definitive list of all the aspects of your life – mostly because it’s impossible, but also because some things might matter here and some things might not.

But take a look at, for example:

  • career and vocation
  • social life
  • family life
  • financial life
  • hobbies
  • spiritual life
  • health

Just rank yourself 1 to 10 in each aspect of your life. Don’t overthink this just yet – just go with your gut reaction.

At the very least this will give you a snapshot of what areas you actually need to work on.

Last… Be Deliberate and Avoid Just Following the Rut

I want to suggest that you make some conscious decisions. The biggest issue I think that lawyers have is that we fall so readily into a rut.

We’re in this path that is carved for us in advance, and climbing up the walls of the rut to get out and head in our own direction is so difficult that most people don’t do it.

The rut may or may not be bad – but the problem is that the rut is taking you to a destination that you haven’t necessarily chosen on purpose.

The destination has been chosen on your behalf. You have gotten the job that you so desperately needed, you have stopped eating 2 minute noodles. You’ve got a credit card, you’ve got a loan, and then you’re headed to the point where that path is taking you.

You’re doing clerkship in a large firm in a commercial area, but perhaps what you really wanted to be doing was family law, or personal injuries or something different.

And so you need to make the decision to actually climb out of that rut – it won’t happen by accident.

There are two types of conscious decisions that help here, and the first is by far the most important because it makes you available to do the second.

The first thing you need to do is consciously shed a bunch of stuff.

Have a look at all those areas where you ranked yourself from 1 to 10 before. If you’re a 1 out of 10, why is that? What are the things that exist in those areas that are stopping you from being able to invest fully in them? Those are the things getting in the way of you being a fully integrated person.

Of course then on the other side, what you need to do is you need to make some conscious decisions about how to rebuild those areas.

And you need to break it down. You don’t just say “I need to spend more time with my friends this year” – that’s not going to work.  That’s a New Year’s resolution, and we all know how they go.

What you need to do is you need to be able to actually chunk down your intended course of action and then execute them.

Execution is where it’s at.

Ideas are largely worthless unless you actually do something with them.

It’s As Easy As 1, 2, 3

So I encourage you to go through that easy three-step process:

  1. Embrace self-awareness about the things that drive you and the things that deplete you.
  2. Take a look at the whole cross-section of your life.
  3. Make some conscious decisions and execute on them.


Those are my tips for being a fully-integrated human being. Why do they relate to you as a lawyer?

Because as I said, you as a lawyer need to function as a human being. If you’re not functioning as a human being, then you’re not going to make a good lawyer.

So here’s my challenge – write your decision in the comments. What are you going to do, in what area, by when?

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