It's About Work-Life Choices, Not Work-Life Balance
By Kendra Brodin – September 28, 2011
We all make dozens of choices every day. From the moment our alarm goes off in the morning, we are deciding whether or not to get out of bed or to press snooze. We are choosing what to wear, what to eat, what to put in our child’s lunchbox, whether or not to bring our own lunch or buy one, and so on. The choices we face every day are countless, and each one brings a consequence of some sort—positive or negative, large or small.
When it comes to the topic of work-life balance for lawyers, the discussion is often lengthy, sometimes heated, and always feels unresolved. Some say that we are now living in a “post work-life” era. Even though I speak, teach, and train on work-life balance a great deal, I am at least partially persuaded by this argument—that we are not seeking true “balance,” but are instead making choices congruent with our individual values, priorities, and professional and personal goals.
Facing Never-Ending Obligations
As lawyers, we know how consuming our profession is. At any given moment, we are juggling a variety of client obligations, consoling and counseling individuals in the most trying moments of their lives, trying to stay abreast of the most recent developments in our areas of practice, not to mention handling administrative tasks like rainmaking, learning the newest social media techniques, and managing staff and our finances.
On top of that, we are trying to remember who is picking up our children from soccer practice, whether or not we have clean undergarments to wear tomorrow, and, despite our best efforts to actually have a warm dinner, whether or not we actually turned on the crock-pot this morning or still have one last frozen pizza.
On top of that, many of us have other outside commitments born of our dedication to public service and our desire to do something for the greater good. Obligations like bar association meetings, coffee dates with law school students we are mentoring, and non-profit board roles consume the little time that we have left at the end of the day.
We are constantly juggling and tossing up multicolored balls representing our various commitments and obligations, trying desperately not to let any of them drop to the ground and shatter. And yet we seek the elusive idea of having work-life balance.
Reframing Work-Life Balance
As lawyers, we know how to reframe an issue. And in this case, the issue that likely requires some reframing is the notion of work-life balance.
Try this on for size: Instead of thinking about work-life balance, think about the work-life choices you are making. I know it’s a nuanced difference, but stay with me for a moment.
Until and unless the billable hour model dies its inevitable death (at least in some practice areas), we must recognize that in many cases, our profession is one where our income is directly linked to the hours we are contributing. As individuals, we each have professional and personal choices to make. What is important to one individual may be more or less important to another.
One major choice is whether or not we choose to work at a large law firm. If you choose to work in a large-firm environment, then you are also choosing a model that will certainly require a specific number of billable hours from each lawyer to stay profitable. A choice to work at a large firm brings known benefits and known drawbacks. It’s a choice.
Another choice is to work as a lawyer in a smaller, different kind of firm. Many newer firms are moving away from the billable hour and toward a value-based, flat-fee model. Or, they still have a billable model but require fewer hours. Again, there are known positives and negatives in choosing this career path, depending on the choices you make.
And there are other choices. We can choose positions with more predictable hours, such as in-house or government positions. We could also change our practice areas to those that have greater consistency in hours, such as trust/estate work instead of litigation. Some choose to leave the legal profession completely. There are countless choices each of us faces in shaping our legal careers.
In the midst of this, the work-life debate rages on, yet it is evolving. The terminology is changing, and the implications of achieving balance are morphing. What does it mean to have work-life balance? What does it look like? It’s a nebulous concept that changes from person to person. As the profession changes, the role and expectations of the lawyers change.
Consequently, the meaning of balance and the likelihood of having it changes as well. This leads me to reassert that it’s not so much about balance, even though I believe the terminology will likely linger on for quite awhile yet. Instead, it’s about making choices that are in alignment with our values and what matters most to us.
It’s About Choices
As former GE CEO Jack Welch told the Society for Human Resources Management, “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices and you make them, and they have consequences.”
Ultimately, I have to agree with Welch. Even though we are experiencing evolution in our legal practices and every other part of our lives, we continue to chase some phantom idea of balance that refuses to take into consideration the way the world is changing.
So what kind of balance do you want to strike between your professional and your personal life? Harvard business blogger Ron Ashkenas wrote an article called “Assessing Your Work-Life Balance” in the December 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review. In his article, he noted that a key (if not the key) to reducing regret about your work-life balance (or lack thereof) is to consciously make decisions regarding the tradeoffs you are willing to make as you pursue your professional and personal goals.
If we don’t place our decisions in a larger context, we are likely to make small decisions each day that don’t seem to mean much (e.g., staying late at the office, skipping family dinner or a child’s school event, cutting vacations short) that, taken together over time, create a lack of balance and lead a quality of life that we dislike at best and despise at worst. Our minute-to-minute and day-to-day choices add up and snowball, and suddenly we are asking ourselves, “How did my life end up like this?”
So work-life balance (or anything else we value having in our lives) is ultimately about making choices. Every single day, we make choices that move us closer to our goals or further away from them. If we want to feel good about the way our personal and professional lives are intersecting and integrating, then we must make consistent choices that make it possible for us to feel balanced and good about the lives we are living and practices we have built.
For my clients, I recommend remembering an acronym—ACT—when it comes to making positive changes in improving your feelings of work-life balance (or making any other kind of positive change in your life.) ACT stands for Awareness, Choice, and Take Action.
The first step in improving and achieving work-life balance in your life is to develop awareness. What is really going on around you? Don’t just look at the surface. How are you really feeling? How are the people around you really feeling? How solid are your relationships? How good is your health? How balanced are you, really?
When you recognize room for improvement, you become ready to make changes. When you can embrace the idea that there is a better way of doing things, you become more open to ideas, possibilities, and opportunities for change.
Ashkenas suggests some questions we could ask ourselves to help us make choices in line with our values that will move us toward greater balance in our lives.
- What balance do you want to strike between personal and professional success?
- If you had to honestly choose, is one more important than the other? (Consider this question in the big scheme of things, recognizing that we must make day-to-day decisions that sometimes favor one over the other.)
- What are your goals in each of these areas, and what can you do to optimize both?
These are tough questions to ask at any point in your life or career. There aren’t easy answers. But if you can get in the habit of asking these kinds of questions of yourself as much as possible and consistently, they become habitual.
The second (and key) ingredient in improving your work-life balance is making a conscious choice to do something that is more in alignment with the balance you are hoping to have in your life. Human beings have a power and capacity to choose like no other living creature, and that ability allows us incredible freedom to create the lives we desire.
With increased awareness of where you are and where you want to be, you will find yourself regularly and systematically making choices that move you closer to your goals, your desired outcomes, and your vision of work-life balance. As soon as you have the awareness that you want something to change and you are honest about your own values and priorities, you can start to make choices that are in line with that awareness.
It may feel like a small thing at first, but making these solid choices is actually incredibly powerful. Those choices build up and quickly become our life experience. Just like we learned in junior high science class, every action comes with a reaction. Remember this when making your choices, even when they are difficult ones.
Finally, making the decision is only half of the battle. If you make a decision and don’t act on it, it’s not really a decision. You will see no results. When you are consistently making choices that are helping you create more balance and more quality in your life, you will start to trust your own decision-making process more and more. Suddenly you find of your decisions moving in a way that truly excites you rather than in a direction that you know you do not want to go.
Remember, change comes from having awareness, making solid decisions rooted in your values and priorities (not based on what others think you should do), and then taking action on them. You have the power to have more balance in your life. It comes down to your work-life choices. Those daily choices will propel you toward having what really matters to you in your life and law practice.
Kendra Brodin is the director of career and professional development at St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, Minnesota.