How to Pull Off the Great Balancing Act | Law Practice Today

| Ben Katzenellenbogen

Maintaining a healthy balance between work and personal life can be challenging in any career. With the demanding workflow that comes with being a lawyer finding a balance can often prove to be even more challenging. However, recognizing the need for balance and taking conscious actions to achieving it are essential for success in the legal field.

This month’s roundtable features lawyers from diverse practice areas who share their advice on how to maintain a healthy work/life balance. Partner Ben Katzenellenbogen's perspective and advice is featured below. For the full article, see the ABA Law Practice Today website

What has been your biggest challenge in maintaining a healthy work/life balance? How have you had to be creative with regard to working hours/location/etc.?

My two biggest challenges are that my wife and I are both IP litigators, and we do not live near extended family who could provide support. Having a spouse who understands the demands of the job is great, but coordinating our schedules is difficult, to say the least. We both have to make a conscious effort to make time to spend time with each other and our kids. We steal a few hours here and there working before the kids wake up, or after they go to bed, and one of us can usually cover if the other has to be at the office late. It probably would not be possible at many firms, but Knobbe Martens has a low billable-hour requirement and our “vacation” days count toward meeting our annual hours requirement, so vacation means taking time off, rather than merely time shifting.

What role does your employer play in helping you and other attorneys find a healthy work/life balance?

Law in general, and IP litigation in particular, is very demanding. Clients involved in bet-the-company cases rightfully expect you to be available and responsive, as do judges and opposing counsel. There is not much any firm can do to lessen these external demands. Knobbe Martens does a great job of eliminating needless internal stresses. I am very fortunate to work at a large firm that prioritizes family over the last marginal billable hour, truly promotes teamwork through a collaborative partner compensation model, and is supportive of taking time off when work and client expectations permit. Because partners are not compensated on a traditional formula system, we can focus on keeping our clients happy, rather than who is getting the credit. That promotes a client/team focused approach, and along with the lower billable hour requirement and true vacation time, makes it possible to have a life outside the office.

Why do you think maintaining a healthy balance of career and social life is especially important for lawyers?

I doubt that maintaining balance is more important for lawyers, but doing so may be harder. It is all too easy for lawyers to wake up and start emailing clients in Europe and attorneys on the East Coast, have a conference call on the drive into work, spend the day in meetings, at court, and in the office, check email a couple of times during dinner, finish reviewing a brief after putting the kids to bed, and then email clients in Asia before going to bed. Modern technology makes it possible to spend every waking moment working, so you really have to remember what you are working for, and make sure to take active steps to take time for yourself and your family.

How do you handle clients whose needs may encroach on personal time?

Communication. It depends on the client, but I am generally candid with my clients about my personal schedule. My clients are reasonable people who also have personal lives. Letting clients know (ahead of time) that I will be unavailable because one of my kids has an event, or that I would like to get feedback on a draft earlier than usual because I am going on vacation, usually elicits a positive response. It also encourages my clients to feel comfortable telling me when they would like me to plan things around their personal schedules. Combining that open dialogue with making sure my clients know I will always take care of emergencies, strengthens and my professional and personal relationships.

What role does technology play in helping or hurting a work/life balance?

Technology creates the impression of making it easier, and for the most part, it actually does. It facilitates time-shifting and working from home, which makes it easier to spend time during the morning and early evening with my kids. Technology also makes it less stressful to commit to going on school trips or taking vacation with the family. I can always be reached and contribute. The downside is it makes it harder to unplug completely from work, makes it easier to work while on vacation, and generally contributes to internal and external expectations of always being accessible. I have had vacations where I worked for a few hours before my family got up, spent the day with them, and then worked for a few hours after they went to bed. While perhaps not ideal, that is far better than not being able to go at all. I will also confess to responding to work email while riding on ski lifts, and finding it much more enjoyable than responding from my office. I would rather spend a day skiing and occasionally checking email than be in the office wishing I were skiing.

How have gender expectations affected your work/life balance?

At least outside our firm, I think it is often assumed that, as a man, I have a spouse at home to take care of the kids. When I tell clients or opposing counsel that I am unavailable because I have to pick up or drop off my kids, I suspect some find it more acceptable than if I were female, and some less. It may be easier because I do not have to worry about being viewed as a negative stereotype when I put my family first. Being a more active parent than gender expectations might predict can also have its advantages. A few years ago I had a call with a mediator while I was at home and after a few minutes of distinctively escalating little voices in the background, I had to take a break to address the catastrophe of the moment. I think the mediator was surprised and impressed that a male litigator was open and unapologetic about being at home taking care of his kids.

What tips do you have for other lawyers seeking to find a healthy work/life balance (particularly young lawyers)?

Choosing the right workplace environment makes a huge difference. Particularly when interviewing, many lawyers focus on talking to attorneys at their level or a year or two ahead of them. I encourage attorneys to talk with those who are 10 and 20 years ahead. If the senior attorneys have lives you would like to have, that is probably a good place to work. If the senior attorneys are not people you would like to be, that is probably not the place for you.

Posted with permission from ABA Law Practice Today