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Finding work/life balance in the law; Leadership Academy speakers share their tactics

By Maria C. Anderson, Esq posted 10-12-2017 13:28

The latest session of the Leadership Academy presented information to assist the fellows in finding work/life balance in the law. The information was presented by six speakers, four of whom were female attorneys, who provided both practical tips on the personal and professional obligation we should all seek for individual self-discovery and assessment. As an attorney who has been practicing for 24 years, I found their shared insights and experience refreshingly honest and consistent with my own experiences. In summary, we were presented with these simple truths: We all must determine who we are and what we need; make choices consistent with our value system; then set boundaries and teach others where they are.

Simplify Life
First, New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Anne Patterson described her journey as a trial attorney that began as an associate in a large law firm, her move to the public sector, a return to private practice as a partner, and now a member of the New Jersey Supreme Court. She provided practical tips for eliminating activities that are time consuming to allow for a personal life. Specifically, she suggested living within a short commuting distance from the office to avoid traffic delays, refraining from work gossip and setting a timer when using technology or browsing the internet, all of which consumes hours in each day.

Hearing her speak reminded me of my own personal experience working for a law firm that required me to commute 40 miles on the Garden State Parkway, and my commute ranged from 45 minutes to four hours on any given day, which when added to a 12- to 14-hour work day, became a crushing burden. When I decided that moving closer to my job was not possible and I accepted a position eight miles from my home, the hours removed from my commute changed my stress level and my personal life overnight.

Focus on Wellness
Cedric Ashley, who is chair of the association’s Law Office Management Committee, next presented material that focused upon taking care of yourself in order to regain life balance. He stressed, and I think correctly so, that there is no work/life balance, there is only life balance, and to achieve it we first need to determine what are values are; what we are and are not willing to do; and make choices that work for us.

As a law student, I always understood that there was one path to success: get high grades; be a part of law review; become an associate at a large firm; work day and night, with the ultimate reward of becoming a partner. As I progressed in my career and was lead further away from that path, Ashley’s advice affirmed my choice that to diverge from this path was the best decision for me. During his presentation, he was asked a question whether an attorney in a firm, particularly, a young associate, has the power to object to certain work that contradicts their values, and it caused me to reflect on my own experience. As a young associate, or even as a newcomer to an organization, it can feel like we are powerless. However, in my experience, when you have demonstrated your ability and become an asset to an organization, it is possible to set boundaries when communicated appropriately. For me, this first happened during my 11th year of practice, while I was working for a law firm as a trial attorney and had a 98 percent win record. I was assigned to represent an individual accused of molesting children under the age of seven. My objection lead not only to the file being reassigned, but to the start of an intelligent conversation about the type of work the firm would handle.

Next, Cheyne Scott, who works at Chasan, Lamparello, Mallon & Cappuzzo, presented the fellows with information about the benefits of mindfulness. She shared that stress from trial work had disrupted her sleep and led her to the practice of mindfulness. She advised that living mindfully is staying in the present, and suggested making to-do lists before leaving the office in order to let go of work worries when home.

At the end of the presentation, Scott lead the room through a five-minute meditation, and when I opened my eyes the faces around me were visibly softer and more relaxed. I also discovered the practice of mindfulness during my eighth year of practice, when I was stressed from trial work, had difficulty sleeping, and was traumatized by Sept. 11. At that time, I listened to books on tape during my long commute, and several years later I began studying guided meditation. Today, I step away from my desk for 15 minutes to perform walking meditation. These practices have allowed me to release stress about work so that I sleep better and am more fully present at home.

Practical Tips
Bill Jawitz presented a number of strategies to assist with time management. Specifically, he suggested creating a list of how time management would improve our lives, because the simple act of writing it down would increase the likelihood that we would follow through. He also suggested blocking time on our calendar monthly or quarterly to assess our progress in meeting our objectives. At the beginning of each day, he suggested that we look at the work needed to be done that day, assess how much time each would need to accomplish it, assign resources to each, acknowledge which ones are not possible for completion that day, and prioritize the top three. As time-saving measures, he provided resources for tracking tasks to be done (Wanderlist) and quickly locating electronic documents ( Because meetings prevent other tasks from being done, he suggested consolidating meetings or scheduling them during lunch or dinner. To ensure that your personal life is given priority, he suggested blocking time on your calendar for vacation or friends. He also demonstrated the amount of time lost by distraction and the amount of time it then took to refocus could be viewed in terms of $125,000 in lost revenue each year. I was immediately motivated to implement his strategies for avoiding distractions. However, by not implementing them the day I chose to write this article, and allowing phone calls, email, my secretary, and the internet to distract me, it took me two days rather than the two hours I anticipated it would take to complete it.

Finally, Jeralyn Lawrence, NJSBA secretary, and Lora Fong, a former association trustee, provided their personal insights as to how they each achieved work/life balance.

Lawrence’s strategies included hiring people to do what you don’t have time to do yourself, such as childcare, baking, and making Halloween outfits. She suggested finding a passion other than the law to reduce stress, to learn to let things go and approach each day as a fresh start, and to be careful about sharing personal information with your adversary.
As a seasoned attorney, Fong provided advice similar to Ashley’s. She affirmed that we should take personal inventory, find our own calling, and make choices based upon our individual needs. She acknowledged that we all have conversations within ourselves about where we would like our careers to be, but that we should make decisions based upon real opportunities available to us. She advised that we shouldn’t make choices out of guilt, and that once we make our choice, we need to be okay with it. If we are unhappy where we are and are considering making a significant change in our careers, Fong suggested we look for volunteer opportunities and dip a toe in the water through these pursuits to get a sense of what we are considering doing before we dive in. Finally, referencing the movie “City Slickers,” she recommended that we find the “one thing” that sustains us.

What that one thing is? Well, according to Fong and “City Slickers’” Curly, we have to figure that out for ourselves.

Maria C. Anderson is associate university counsel in the Office of the President for Montclair State University. She is a member of the NJSBA’s Leadership Academy.