Whether you’re looking to delve into a successful career in law or you’re about to jump ship and up your game at a much larger firm, one thing you’re going to have to work out is how to manage your complex work schedule and still have a life outside of work. Below Angela Ferrante, Senior VP of operations at GCG, provides Lawyer Monthly with her top three tips on striking the right balance.
According to the 2017 Retention Report by the Work Institute, the majority of employees leave a position for one of several reasons: career development, compensation and benefits, wellbeing, and work-life balance.
Work-life balance, defined by The Balance as “a concept that supports the efforts of employees to split their time and energy between work and the other important aspects of their lives,” may seem to be an elusive perk for lawyers, one often achieved at the expense of professional growth, respect, or even partnership opportunities.
But this intangible balance between personal and professional commitment can be achieved, even for young lawyers and without sacrificing their career trajectories, if they are committed to prioritizing it from the outset.
Define personal boundaries up front
Everyone defines work-life balance differently. Law students, in many cases, are used to working late nights and weekends while they balance course load, positions as summer associates, and other personal commitments. So, when they make the shift to full-time law practice, many are comfortable dedicating a significant number of hours to their new firms. Others simply are not, and that does not make them less capable attorneys.
Before students accept their first post-collegiate positions, they should spend time in personal reflection to define their work-life boundaries. Asking questions such as: Am I comfortable answering emails in the evening and, if so, until what time? What personal commitments do I have that I am unwilling to sacrifice for professional demands? How important is it that I take one or two weeks’ vacation each year? How flexible can I be with my employer without feeling discouraged or disengaged? Do I want the option to work remotely now or in the future?
Identifying these boundaries up front will shape the conversations recent graduates have with prospective employers, which will help set expectations up front and eliminate difficult conversations when unexpected professional demands arise.
Ask the right questions in the interview
Potential employees in any industry must approach interviews as a two-way street; applicants are not only being interviewed for positions, but are also interviewing employers to determine whether they fit within the organization’s structure and culture.
Law firm applicants should take advantage of the employment interview to ask questions that uncover the firm’s commitment to work-life balance while also adequately conveying their commitment to delivering results. Posing questions in a way that encourages a discussion about existing norms and behaviors as opposed to the applicant’s own work-life preferences will provide truer insight into firm expectations and help the applicant avoid appearing overly self-interested.
Drawing on the personal boundaries they’ve identified, law firm applicants should ask questions such as: You described the vacation policy; how many first-year associates would you say take all of their allotted vacation time? Do you find that associates support one another when personal commitments, such as sick children, arise without notice? How are associates evaluated for promotions and merit increases? The responses that follow will help applicants evaluate the firm within the context of their own work-life needs.
Take charge of the dialogue
Once new lawyers have been hired and are settled into their firms, the real task of maintaining a healthy work-life balance begins. Young associates are often eager to make a good impression out of the gate, and doing so may come with long hours and missed personal obligations. That’s okay. Failing to adhere to any of the boundaries they have identified with their supervisors, on the other hand, could result in burnout.
Young associates should take charge of the work-life balance dialogue with their superiors, sharing positive feedback when things are on track and tactfully expressing concerns when they are not. To ensure this dialogue supports work-life boundaries, consider keeping a written log of successes amassed during your tenure, which can be referenced during formal performance appraisals or in the event your professional commitment is challenged.
Remember, employers know that personal circumstances can change instantaneously, and work-life boundaries may shift as a result. But leadership will look to employees to take charge of maintaining their own boundaries, and that starts with open, honest, and ongoing dialogue.
There are few industries more demanding than the practice of law, which means there are few industries where work-life balance is more critical to the success of its workforce. Young lawyers cannot wait for someone to hand them the perfect work-life balance solution; they must become their own advocates. And they can, by prioritizing both personal and professional obligations and recognizing that having a successful law career and a healthy personal life are not mutually exclusive.