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The Life-Work Balance in the Legal Career

This Legal Problem Solving post is by David Hyun, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2019.

For those just starting their careers, many are pushed to work long hours at almost all costs. Those later in their careers either choose to push harder or slow down for other priorities. In a modern and globalized society, the reward for hard work is more work. Amidst all the demands in life, the ideal “work-life balance” often discussed by many working professionals has become difficult to maintain or even achieve.

Life as a Young Professional

Prior to law school, I had the opportunity to work at a large legal services corporation in Los Angeles. Work hours could reach 80 hours per week. Of all my work experiences so far, this one was definitely the most unforgettable:

I would ideally sleep from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. Shower, eat breakfast, and catch some morning news until 7 a.m. Morning commute for forty-five minutes. Work from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Eat dinner at my desk or nearby, and work until 9 p.m. Evening commute for twenty-five minutes. Once home, I would (seldom) run, wash, prepare law school applications, and get ready for another work day. On Sundays, I would attend morning church service then go to work for a shorter eight-hour day.

My short-lived experience is obviously nothing compared to the sweat and tears of many working professionals. But, what I can’t forget is the constant rush to eat, wash, sleep, and exercise—all just to get back to work. The reality is that this is a typical work week for many professionals across various industries. It is hard to imagine burning more hours, but with more complex and intense work. In particular, practicing law can be especially demanding. One take away from this small experience can be to carefully examine how we should budget our time when choosing our jobs.

Time to Think About Time

In a seven day work week, there are 168 hours. Depending on how much you sleep per night, you can cut a third or quarter of those hours right off the bat. That should leave you with about 126 to 112 golden hours per week.

These hours can be used to exercise, learn a new language, read novels, or spend time with family. As many are aware, that extra hour spent studying or at work per day is time taken from other good moments that make us human.

In this digital age, I think it is hard to take time to think about what really matters most in life. Especially when we can find everyday stories of big Wall Street bankers and high-powered attorneys making history. Having lucrative or prestigious careers becomes ingrained in our minds, and necessary to buy all the luxury goods seen on television or the internet. However, to get the big jobs and shiny things, it’s going to cost time. A whole lot of it.

Maintaining a Work-Life Balance

In order to begin forming a work-life balance, self-reflection and being honest with yourself is imperative.

The Legal Problem Solving course and human-centered design all begin with understanding the self. A good place to begin when recognizing personal strengths is by taking the Strength Profile survey. My top three strengths were fairness—treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice and not letting feelings bias decisions about others; spirituality—having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe and knowing where one fits within the larger scheme; and judgment—thinking things through and examining them from all sides and weighing all evidence fairly. Perhaps, these strengths may lead me away from wanting to work long hours for clients that I do not want to serve. Or perhaps, these strengths can push me to work those long hours, knowing that I can serve clients objectively and set my subjective opinions aside. Regardless of how you interpret your strengths, the key is to understand yourself. By understanding your strengths, you are better able to select a job that fits your lifestyle and personality.

In addition, I think it is also important to carefully contemplate your principles and priorities.

Your principles and priorities are likely to be tested throughout your legal career, so it is important to set them now. Perhaps, you can be asked to do something unethical or break the ABA rules to help your client. Will you say no and risk your current job? Or will you say yes and risk your career? It’s easy to provide an answer when you’re not in such a situation. But many attorneys are confronted with these big dilemmas everyday! For example, an attorney I met from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) made sure to stress abiding by the ABA rules at all times. He was kind enough to share how he had quit his old firm job because he was asked to do something unethical. This attorney stayed true to his principles, and demonstrated that his work would not overtake his life and what he stood for. He can now continue working as an attorney, knowing that he will never be asked to do something unethical at the Commission.

Or perhaps, you can be asked to one-day defend a large tobacco company. If you accept the case, you can stay on partner-track. If not, you become another casualty of the “move up, or move out” mentality at many law firms. Another attorney I had the opportunity to meet at the SEC was in this very same scenario at his old firm. For him, it was clear that he had to refuse the case. He had long protested tobacco-use given his family history with smoking and cancer. Even when offered the case directly from the chairman of the firm, he refused to break his principles and refused. He can also continue practicing law, knowing that his principles won’t be challenged and that he can work on behalf of the public trust.

Whether you see your profession as simply a job, an identity, or your entire life is up to you. However, in order to achieve a true work-life balance, I believe it is essential to start by being true to yourself, and establishing your principles and priorities. Then, when weighing job opportunities, one can carefully consider whether a given job is appropriate by comparing it to your predetermined values. Be conscious and deliberate in how you spend your time, and how you invest your limited hours. Because in the end, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

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