Reality or Impossible Dream? Effective Strategies for Achieving Career Success AND life Balance
New Orleans Bar Association’s Briefly Speaking
“…the more I look at my life as the fabric of my own choices, the easier it is to use all my energy to accomplish what I set out to do.”
Do you believe that “having it all” is impossible? Most attorneys wrestle with the challenge of accomplishing career success without sacrificing the rest of what makes life worth living. The desire to “have a life” outside legal practice is driving increasing numbers of lawyers to reconsider their careers. They are realizing that the more they trade off other meaningful aspects of life - relationships, significant interests, health - the emptier they feel.
You, too, may be realizing that even a big bank account doesn’t fill the void that results from ignoring other aspects of your life. And if you’re still trying to make your practice more lucrative, you probably wish you could do so without forfeiting your personal life.
Many attorneys believe that it isn’t possible to achieve optimal professional success and life balance. Yet I’ve recently spoken with a number of women attorneys who’ve made this “impossible dream” a reality. Obviously their strategies work - their lives exemplify the effectiveness of their approach to “having it all.” Here are brief descriptions of 11 strategies they’ve used:
Strategies that Really Work
1. Be Your Own Advocate
Advocate on your own behalf as you would for your clients. Often, the same woman attorney so effective in a courtroom, feels intimidated within her firm. This is natural when you’re in the minority and don’t perceive yourself as having a power base. But represent yourself as you could a client: do research, cite precedent, develop persuasive arguments, believe in your own rights and interests and prepare your best case.
2. Be Bold in Taking on New Projects
You’ve probably noticed how the men with whom you work eagerly accept assignments outside of their primary area of expertise. They simply assume they’ll fill in any information gaps as needed. In contrast, women attorneys often react first to what they don’t know. Assuming that they must be 100% prepared before taking on something new, they decline the challenge.
The women “experts” of work/life balance follow the model of their male counterparts in this regard. They accept opportunities and meet ethical responsibilities through research and consultation.
3. Remember That No Attorney Is Available to Every Client 24/7
Many women lawyers are vulnerable to complaints that their family, or other personal, responsibilities reduce their availability to clients.
Try to remember that attorneys who have multiple cases are never available to every client simultaneously. They’ve always been putting off one client while attending to another’s needs. Don’t buy into the notion that your family’s needs are a greater obstacle to your responsiveness than the needs of other clients. Tell a senior attorney or client, “I’ll be available on Tuesday,” rather than “My son has strep throat.”
4. Say What You Can Do, Not What You Can’t
When the “experts” of work/life balance know that they will not be able to meet a deadline at work because of a family commitment, they don’t say, “I’m sorry, I have to take my child to the doctor.” Instead, they reply, “I’d be happy to. I can get it to you by Monday. How will that be?” No apologies, no explanations - just a statement of what they can do.
5. Look for Alternative, Flexible Schedules That Protect Your Opportunities for Advancement
Part-time, flex-time, job sharing, telecommuting, and working on contract are gradually gaining in popularity in law firms. (For example, see Endnotes 2 and 3: Chanow, 2000; Lovell, 2000.) Chanow (2) asserts that the typical firm argument that such arrangements are not profitable simply does not hold up. She cites compelling evidence that firms would, in fact, save extraordinary amounts of money by retaining lawyers with flexible work options; otherwise they risk losing “the best and the brightest” through attrition.
Effective alternative work schedules provide access to good cases that allow equal opportunity for advancement; they are not just marginalized “mommy tracks.” I strongly recommend that you read Linda Chanow’s (2) excellent review of these options and the factors that make them successful:(http://wbadc.org).
6. Recognize the Inherent Gender Discrimination in Flexibility at the Expense of Career Advancement
As Professor Joan Williams argues compellingly in her book, “Unbending Gender, ” (4) the “ideal worker norm” - i.e., someone who takes no time off for childbearing and childrearing, who works full time and puts in substantial overtime - is incompatible with women’s bodies and the fact that women still bear primary responsibility for childcare.
The women who “have it all” are unwilling to accept this norm and are willing to acknowledge that is discriminatory to be marginalized in a “mommy track.” They recognize that work/life balance is a political as well as a personal issue. These “experts” are involved with their local and national women’s bar associations. This enables them to recognize they are not alone, reduces their inclination to apologize for their determination to find professional success and a balanced life, and empowers them to work for institutional change.
7. Use Technology to Increase Your Availability
Many successful part-time women attorneys have found that by using email, faxes and electronic research they are able to work from home. This allows them to be more available both at work and at home.
With this option, you may run the risk of working more rather than fewer hours. But if you effectively set boundaries between work and home, this can prove an extremely useful strategy.
8. Find an Advocate
Cultivate at least one strong relationship with a senior attorney or a partner who recognizes your talents and is willing to advocate on your behalf.
9. Know Your Own Worth
You can’t persuade the powers that be to make efforts to retain you unless you believe you’re worth retaining. Partners are notoriously stingy about providing positive feedback. Show work samples (deleting confidential information) to senior attorneys outside your firm. Let them affirm the excellence of your work and advise you on how to improve it. Talk to recruiters. Find out how marketable you are outside your firm. When you know there are other firms that would be eager to hire you, you can advocate for yourself with greater confidence.
10. Be a Rainmaker
The ranks of women in positions of power in the corporate world are steadily increasing. Meeting on the gold course with the “old boy” network is no longer the only way to develop contacts and bring in business.
However, many women lawyers have difficulty seeing themselves as potential rainmakers. To overcome this, realize that every time you discuss your work with someone you have an opportunity to generate new business. Share what you do with people at school functions, social events, fund-raisers, etc. Some of the people attending will be I positions of power in the industry you represent and they’ll be grateful to learn about what you can do for them.
11. Don’t Stop Until You Have What You Want
In her comments at a recent Women’s Bar Association of D.C. Annual Awards dinner, President Marguerite S. Willis asked the 1200 women attorneys in the audience to imagine the person for whom they’d be willing to stand in front of a bus heading directly toward them. “Did you imagine a client?” she asked.
She advised women attorneys to seek support from their workplace for the things that matter most. “And if you can’t get the support, find another place to work. And if your clients can’t support you, find new clients.”
POSTSCRIPT: Many women lawyers find that a personal and career coach can help them develop and adhere to the kinds of strategies that have enabled “the experts” to achieve extraordinary success.