Cases and Chaos: Work-Life Balance Strategies for Busy Lawyers

  • Jatrine Bentsi-Enchill

Today, an increasing number of lawyers are experiencing burnout, low productivity, insomnia, and stress related illnesses due to a lack of balance between their work and personal lives. It’s well documented that one of the main reasons lawyers consider leaving the profession is the desire to spend more time on personal and family needs.

The most commonly reported obstacle to a balanced life is the sheer number of hours lawyers are required to work. Although many firms give lip service to promoting work and life balance, their expectation that attorneys work long days and meet increasing billable hours is clearly inconsistent.

What is balanced for one person may differ for another because individuals have various goals, values, and definitions of success. However there are some common definitions of balance that include:

  • Having a sense that there is enough time in the day to effectively accomplish work-related tasks.
  • The ability to get through your daily work and family responsibilities without feeling drained.
  • Having the ability to participate in activities you enjoy on a regular basis.

At the heart of successful work-life balance is:

  • Accomplishment: getting the stuff we need to get done accomplished, and
  • Enjoyment: having the time for loved ones, fun, rest, exercise and hobbies.

Although the concepts of achieving balance are simple, actually creating a balanced life isn’t easy—but it is definitely worthwhile.

Here are some steps to help you on your journey toward work-life balance. It’s a process, so be patient with yourself, and take it one step at a time.

1. Determine your values and priorities
Sometimes, it feels like everything is a priority. Yet too often, our time and energy are spent on things that we don’t really care about.

Once you’re clear about your values and priorities, you can begin saying “no” to those things that move you further away from life balance, and ”yes” to those things that are in alignment with your values. You can begin to structure your life in a way that supports the personal and professional goals you want to accomplish.

Determining the goals you want to accomplish and the quality of life you want to live will help guide you toward finding balance.

2. Identify your balance “blockers”
Balance blockers are those thoughts or actions that stand in the way of achieving balance. It’s basically a perspective we maintain to justify our inability to pursue balance-related goals. Some examples of blockers are:

  • Living for the expectations of others at work and at home;
  • Consistently putting the needs of others before your own;
  • Fear of change;
  • A hang-up on appearances; and,
  • Perfectionism.

Once you identify your blockers, pay attention to when you use them as excuses to justify a lack of balance in your life. Explore ways to accomplish your goals in spite of your particular balance blockers.

3. Balance your mind
The key to balance is all in your head. Begin to think differently! Many attorneys feel guilty about focusing on work-life balance or they believe taking time out for themselves, away from work, is unproductive. I’ll tell you what I tell my clients: GET OVER IT!

Most of the time, we treat our cars better than we treat ourselves. When you notice your car is low on gas, you fill your tank. Well, living a more balanced life is about filling your tank. Those initially cynical lawyers who reluctantly committed to living a more balanced lifestyle now report that they are more relaxed, have more time for themselves and haven’t sacrificed their jobs or their level of professionalism in the process.

4. Create “non-negotiable” time blocks twice weekly
Non-negotiable time is personal time that you set aside for yourself that absolutely cannot be rescheduled or canceled—it’s simply non-negotiable. Devote at least 30 minutes to these time blocks. Write the non-negotiable appointment in your palm or day planner as you would for any other appointment. You can use the time for anything non-work related. This time is allocated to focus on you.

Go workout, get a massage, take yourself to the park or just do nothing! Just pick something that you’ll enjoy. It may feel strange at first, but commit to do this for at least 6 weeks.

5. Consider hiring a professional coach
When you’re trying to achieve a more balanced life and everyone around you is being rewarded for working around the clock, it’s tough to stay focused. The truth is, making change that will affect you personally and professionally can be challenging, even when the change will have a positive impact on your life. This is primarily because familiar patterns are hard to break.

The bottom line is that lawyers need someone to talk to; not a partner in the firm, significant other, colleague or friend, but someone whose only job is to help you plan your career, manage your life, and set goals to keep you on track. That is the job of a professional coach.

6. Create a vision
Having a vision of what you want to accomplish is a powerful tool for achieving any goal. Write down your vision of a more balanced and fulfilling lifestyle. In creating your vision, consider what you would have time to do if your life was more balanced than it is today. What would you no longer do? How would your career improve? What impact would a more balanced life have on your relationships, your quality of life and your clients?

Working at the expense of your mental and physical health will ultimately lead to burnout. Instead, set aside some quality time and begin incorporating some work-life balance strategies. Be patient with yourself and seek support as you implement the changes. At the end of the day, you'll be a healthier and more effective lawyer.

Jatrine Bentsi-Enchill, J.D., CPCC is an attorney, speaker and the founder and director of the Esq. Development Institute, an organization committed to helping lawyers excel personally and professionally. The Esq. Development Institute specializes in Executive and Personal Coaching for lawyers and training processes for law firms in the areas of leadership, communication, diversity, cultural competence, management development and work-life balance.