A Bigger Boat - Perspectives on Work-Life Balance

By Amy M. Hoven, Kennedy, Watts, Arellano, & Ricks, LLP, MBA YLS Futures Committee Chair

The Futures Committee recently sat down with a few lawyers to discuss the challenges of maintaining a work-life balance. The group was diverse, from relatively new practitioners to some with over thirty years experience, married, single and divorced, with one child to five. They shared a variety of experiences and perspectives on balance, but had one common trait, in addition to being lawyers; they were men. 

Male attorneys face different, yet significant, challenges than females within the legal profession when it comes to work-life balance. Evan S. Reynolds, of counsel with Perkins Coie, explained that work-life balance is very important from a hiring standpoint. In order to recruit and retain talent, a firm needs to be flexible with its lawyers, both male and female. Nevertheless, Reynolds agreed that the profession requires some personal sacrifices. 

Many of the participants admitted that they work at least one day on weekends and lamented when asked about their hobbies. Reynolds still gets a little daily exercise, but looks forward to having more time for hobbies as his kids grow older. Josh L. Ross, with Stoll Berne, no longer does long-distance bike rides because the training would demand too much of his schedule. Instead, Ross bikes to work and tows his kids in the bike trailer. Indeed, most working parents experience a decline in their personal time with small children, regardless of whether they are a lawyer. 

Ronald A. Johnston, of Johnston, Root and Liebenguth, is a pioneer in work-life balance. A 34-year veteran of the legal profession, he chaired the OSB's Committee on Combining Family and Career, which is now known as the Quality of Life Committee. Johnston, whose wife was a complex litigation paralegal when they started a family, shared his efforts to try and balance their busy careers with two children. He spoke about waking up at five in the morning to work from home before delivering children at daycare and arriving at the office by mid-morning. He and his wife juggled their obligations, including billable hours, alongside a desire that their children spend minimal time with care providers. 

Johnston also creatively adapted to the practice. As a family law attorney, he made himself available outside of regular business hours when his working clients would typically be more available. He also offered to have meetings at his home so his clients could bring their children to play with his while he prepared the clients for testimony. Johnston found that being a good father made him a better lawyer and he encourages practicing fathers to seize every opportunity to spend time with their children, even if it means reading to them from the latest edition of the Bulletin. An avid fisherman, his best tip for balancing a hobby with career and family: "buy a bigger boat" so the whole family can go fishing. 

There was consensus among the participants that male lawyers are now more actively pursuing a work-life balance compared to the old guard, so to speak. This change in atmosphere, however, comes too slowly for some. One associate with children reported that he is more frequently selected for emergency tasks over female associates with children. His perception is that it is understood that family obligations could be handled by his spouse. He also explained that he feels added pressure from senior male partners who did not have some of the advantages available to associates today, such as paternity leave. Such pressure was widely understood by the panel. 

Another lawyer still feels resistance to his firm's progressive paternity leave policy. He feels that such a benefit has to be earned in an unspoken way and is not necessarily as respected as the firm's maternity policy. He feels his office would benefit from having more support or a liaison-type individual who could absorb lawyers' concerns and figure out creative and efficient ways to address those concerns. 

Perkins Coie has such a person. Its Director of Attorney Development works in the human resources department, but is also a lawyer and mother with personal experience in work-life balance. The Director provides many services to the attorneys, including offering seminars and creative solutions for achieving balance and acting as a liaison or advocate with respect to workload and personal obligations. She is described as someone who helps keep the lawyers happy. 

Being understanding and supportive of work-life balance is necessary for 21st century firms, but embracing lawyers with a strong commitment to their families and personal lives can also be an asset. Lawyer Josh L. Lute, also of Perkins Coie, made a difficult decision to take time off to support his wife and their newborn. He was pleasantly surprised when his decision was commended by a senior partner. In addition, Lute uses his personal life to connect with clients, by sharing stories about their children. He also tries to be home in time for dinner, even if that means he must work remotely at night. 

Reynolds, too, found that he can make a six-thirty family dinner and then do some administrative work later in front of the television. Ross often misses weeknight family dinners, but makes a special effort to have breakfast with his family before he travels out of town for work. Ross, who is a busy litigator, revealed his saving grace: an understanding spouse. For example, his spouse began their family's summer vacation to Israel without Ross, although he was able to join them later. 

Collin McKean's return to a solo family law practice, McKean Law Office, gave him the ability to maintain a flexible schedule, albeit a sometimes lopsided one. He relies heavily on technology in order to balance raising his daughter with the practice of law. He admits that in his case he must work more hours when his daughter is with his former spouse, but he finds he can be every bit as productive as he chooses to be within this flexible schedule. 

Having attorneys with lives outside the office can enrich a firm and the legal community. Josh Lute believes that today's market desires such dedicated lawyers. Whether his belief is true seems to depend on one's definition of "dedication." 

Stay tuned for more exciting work from the YLS Futures Committee. Special thanks to all the participants and Sarah Petersen of Bullard Smith Jernstendt Wilson for hosting the engaging discussion.