April 2022 Out of Office - The Balancing Act

by Andra B. Greene

Younger lawyers frequently ask me how to achieve work-life balance. They perceive me as someone who has it. Perhaps it is because I am a senior yoga-practicing lawyer and my children have survived into adulthood. It makes me laugh because, for most of my 40-plus-year career as a lawyer, I never felt like I had any semblance of a balance between my life as a litigator at Irell & Manella and my family or personal life. I constantly worried that I was failing at one or the other. Nevertheless, I freely dispense advice about work-life balance, and I write and speak on the topic. In the 1990s, I published articles with quaint titles like “The Litigating Mom” and “On Balance” offering tips for attorneys (especially women) who were trying to navigate the challenges of having both a professional life and a personal one, especially when they were parents. The advice I give to younger attorneys now is much more nuanced. It is based on decades of trial and error and learning from the things I did right and those that I got wrong. Looking back, I wish I had known in my twenties, thirties, and forties what I know now. I would have beaten myself up a lot less.

Recently, my daughter and her spouse, who are expecting my first grandchild, asked me for my top tips for balancing a career and a personal life. I was thrilled to be asked, so I shared with them the advice I give to the lawyers in my firm and whom I mentor. Here is what I learned over the years and have now actually incorporated into my own life.

1. Balance is the wrong word. I have always believed that the word “balance” is a misnomer, if one pictures an evenly-balanced scale and thinks that each day will be equally split with eight hours of work, eight hours of family time or the like. Life is not like that. If that is your goal, you are setting yourself up for failure. Instead, I think of balance over a longer time horizon, sometimes weeks, often months. It ebbs and flows. There are times when the practice of law necessarily takes priority over one’s personal life; at other times, it is the opposite. For example, it helped me to realize that while I could spend months caught up in a trial, the trial would end and I could then turn my attention back to my family. What mattered to me was how I felt about the overall split over time.

2. Accept that you may have to miss some of your children’s events and they will love you anyway. Inevitably, there will be scheduling conflicts between your work responsibilities and your children’s activities. There will be circumstances when the demands of your law practice will require you to miss a school play or a soccer game. I always felt terrible when this happened and worried that my children would not love me or would think I was a bad mother. While I am certain they would have preferred me to be there, my children do indeed love me and have turned out fine. In fact, I know now that I felt worse about missing the events than they did.

3. Put on your own mask first. Take time to take care of yourself. Often, when people are busy, they neglect themselves; they don’t eat right, sleep well, or attend to their own needs. Over the long term, this will make you less productive and interfere with your mental and physical well-being. There is no shame in—or need to be apologetic about—taking time for yourself. Indeed, it is essential. For example, exercise and yoga are critical to my well-being. I schedule time for both in my calendar each week just as I would a work appointment.

4. Keep a calendar. Speaking of calendars, keep a calendar that tracks both work and personal matters. Share it with your family members. This will help you manage all aspects of your life and add a greater sense of control. It will also allow you to see and plan for conflicts that may arise.

5. Determine your priorities. People often get caught up in what they are doing at the moment without stopping to think about what is truly important to them. That makes it harder to balance a personal and professional life. So take the time to sit down and carefully think about what things are most significant to you. That process will help you determine how to spend your time. If your top priorities are your career and spending time with your children, then when you are asked to do something that is not a high priority, it becomes easier to say no. I like to spend a few hours in the beginning of January each year thinking about what my current priorities are. That gives me a time to reflect on what I have been doing and refocus if necessary.

6. Focus on what you can control and not on what you can’t. For much of the first twenty-five years of my career, I spent a great deal of time thinking (indeed obsessing) about things beyond my control. For example, I would stress over how the judge would rule on a motion under submission. I would often catastrophize and think about the parade of horribles that could ensue in the event we lost. That did nothing other than distract me and cause needless anxiety. By focusing on what I could control, I felt more in charge of my own life and I could pay more attention to what I was doing, be it in the workplace or at home.

7. Learn to set boundaries. Technology and remote work have blurred the lines between professional and personal life even more than in the past. Because we are so readily accessible, it can seem we are on call to clients and supervisors 24/7. But it is important to set boundaries. They can be as simple as saying, “absent an emergency, we have dinner as a family between six and seven p.m., and I won’t be checking emails during that time.” I know that many junior lawyers are worried that if they try to set boundaries like this they will be perceived as not dedicated to their jobs. This is where communication comes in. If you explain to someone that you won’t be answering emails between certain times but will then be available later, most people will understand that.

8. Avoid comparing yourself to other lawyers and parents. Work-life balance means different things to different people. It can be tempting to look at other people and feel like a failure in comparison. Resist that temptation. Figure out what works for you and forget about what others are doing. Remember, you never really know what is going on in another person’s household. When I was raising my children, I could not be in their classrooms during the day very often. At first, I felt terrible about that, but then found other ways to contribute to their school.

9. Be present. One of the great benefits of my yoga practice has been that I have learned to be present. This means I can enjoy the moment I am in rather than constantly thinking about what has happened or what will happen in the future. It was hard for me to master this, but the effort was worth it. Being present has allowed me to engage fully in whatever I am doing and to savor the experience. When I am working, that’s where my attention is. When I am with my friends or family, I focus on what we are doing. Adopting this mindset caused a seismic shift in my struggle to balance my personal and professional life. It is a way to enjoy that “quality time” we all strive for. Learning to be present doesn’t mean you have to take up yoga. You can train yourself or take up meditation. There are many books and courses about how to do it. Try it.

10. The perfect is the enemy of the good. No matter how hard you try to have a balance between your personal and professional life, there will be times when you feel like you are failing at one or the other or both. This is inevitable. You can minimize the number of times that it happens if you avoid setting up an impossible standard or idealized notion of the “perfect” balance that you can never meet. No one is the perfect lawyer, perfect partner, or perfect parent.

I would sum up my advice in this way. Be kind to yourself. Surround yourself with people who support you and the choices you are making. There is no one right way to manage a professional and personal life. Certainly, the way I combined my career and my personal life were different from how others might do it. But I am satisfied with how all aspects of my life have turned out. That is the best we can all hope for.

Andra B. Greene is a litigation partner emeritus at Irell & Manella LLP. Now that her grandchild has arrived, she plans to be fully present during the time she spends with the baby. She can be reached at AGreene@irell.com.

Out of Office is an occasional column in which authors share ways to make life meaningful and fulfilling during and outside of the practice of law.