When I speak to law firms, bar association gatherings, or other lawyer groups I often do an exercise that goes like this. I ask them who in the room actively pursues work-life balance, and who in the room believes that the practice of law involves just too many demands for work-life balance to be a realistic goal to pursue.
Most lawyers usually say they actively pursue work-life balance—probably because that’s what they’re told by the HR people and bar associations to do—while some of the more candid lawyers admit that work-life balance is not a realistic goal to pursue.
I then do something that no book on public speaking would ever recommend that speakers do: I tell them that they’re all wrong. I tell them that the entire concept of work-life balance is based on the faulty premise that work and life are two separate things; that they exist apart from each other and can somehow achieve some sort of balance with each other.
Of course when you think about it, work and life cannot balance. Work is part of your life. You cannot balance a part with the whole. So while work-life balance is something we are encouraged at every turn to strive for in our lives, the whole concept is completely non-sensical.
Then I acknowledge that what the proponents of work-life balance really mean is that you should try to achieve some sort of balance between your work and everything else in your life. I say that this makes a little more sense, and lawyers usually agree.
Then I ask the lawyers to help me figure out what everything else in life actually is. I write work/career on the left side of a whiteboard, put a line down the middle, and then I ask them this question: Other than work, what in your life is worth spending some time, energy, and resources on?
The first answer, almost always, is health. Other answers come quickly and plentifully, usually beginning with an “F”. Family, friends, finances, faith, and fun. I write these on the right side of the whiteboard. Other responses from lawyers often include love, learning, relaxing, sex, hobbies—even pets. This is not an exhaustive list.
At the end of the exercise, the whiteboard looks something like this:
|Work/Career||Everything Else in Life:Health
I then ask them this: are you sure the goal we should be striving for is to balance work with ALL of this other stuff in our life? Does work really take up 50% of life’s pie, with everything else lumped in to the other half?
For many lawyers who do this little exercise, which takes all of about three minutes, it is the first time that they have ever really considered that your career is only one out of a number of important dimensions in your life. Very important, yes—but success there at the expense of other dimensions does nothing to improve your overall wellness or quality of life. Having a thriving law practice is great—but not at the expense of your health and fitness. Being healthy and fit is great—but not if your love relationship is all messed up. Being the world’s greatest spouse is wonderful—but not if your financial life is a disaster. Sustained health and vitality requires success in every important aspect of your life. You need to operate at a high level in each of dimension of your life.
Make no mistake, it IS possible to do this. It’s not easy, however. But then neither is the practice of law. If we wanted easy, we wouldn’t be lawyers. There are lawyers who get this and who put it into practice (although there are many more lawyers who don’t), so there are role models to emulate in our profession. Find one and ask them how they do it. Or refer to this article I wrote for the ABA’s Law Practice Magazine which outlines my 4-step process to achieving greater life balance.
If as a profession of lawyers we’re going to talk about balance (and we should), please let’s start calling it LIFE BALANCE and not work-life balance. Let’s do ourselves all a favour and banish the concept of work-life balance to the scrapheap where it belongs.