Life in Question…Continued
Five Years Later, the Lawyers Who Shared Their Struggles for Work-Life Balance Continue Adapting in the Face of Challenge and Change
Posted Jul 10, 2006 11:26 AM CST
By Jenny B. Davis
In the Spring of 2001, we called on five busy lawyers and asked them to open up to our readers. They lived diverse lives in different parts of the country, practicing in different areas of the law and dealing with different kinds of family demands.
All had experienced a recent event that compelled them to question how they wanted to live their lives. And all had taken thoughtful, affirmative actions toward crafting an individualized answer.
Fast-forward five years.
At the request of the ABA Journal, these remarkable lawyers have again agreed to let readers into their lives, sharing how they’ve responded to challenge, change, heartache and joy while continuing the self-examination they find crucial to balancing life and the law.
MELINDA BURROWS Progress Energy Raleigh, N.C. Melinda Burrows left a partnership at a major law firm in Washington, D.C., for an in-house job in slower-paced North Carolina. In 2001, she told us the change gave her more time for her family and herself.
Looking back to where I was five years ago and where I am today, I think I understand myself and my motivations a lot better. When I first moved to North Carolina from Washington, D.C., I had the opportunity to really ramp down a couple of notches. But I soon discovered that I needed more challenging work. Fortunately, the leadership in my company also realized this, and three years ago I was able to move to a deputy general counsel position.
Now my scope of responsibility has increased, and in addition to being a lawyer and providing hands-on legal advice, I manage a staff of lawyers and nonlawyer professionals who provide support in a number of different areas.
Although I am busier than I was five years ago, I continue to have much more control over my hours than I ever did in private practice. My time with my husband and daughter—especially dinnertime—is very precious to me, and I try to protect it when I am not traveling. Shutting down when I get home is a challenge because I compress as much as possible into the time I spend at the office.
I often start organizing my day the minute I get into the car and end up catching up on my e-mail after my daughter has gone to bed.
One thing that’s helped my family to thrive is living in a more scalable city. I live 12 minutes from work, and my daughter, who is now 8 and in second grade, goes to school five minutes from home. I am able to have lunch with her at her school once a week and spend time with her and her friends. I would never have been able to do this if we still lived in Washington, D.C. I also have a leadership role in the local Girl Scout council and am active with the children in my church. Spending time with my daughter as part of a community is very important to me. To be a part of that piece of her life is precious, and I want to take every opportunity that is in front of me.
Maintaining balance continues to be a journey. Right now, I am managing in a way that is achieving balance, but I don’t think it’s ever something that I can take for granted.
Balance is a common topic among the women in an ABA group I belong to, the Employment Rights and Responsibilities Committee. These are women from all over the country who do all sorts of different kinds of lawyering work. Yet, as different as our lives are, the day-in and day-out issues we face are very similar. We’ve decided to start coming to our annual committee meetings a day earlier so we can spend time talking about the challenges we face in our personal and professional lives. Having that face-to-face time to share is refreshing, and it renews me when I can come home knowing that there are no right or wrong answers, just answers that work for you personally.
The time I spend with these wonderful women makes me laugh and realize that the things that trip me up are not so unique. And I also get some great ideas on how to squeeze a few more hours out of my days!
The most important thing I have realized over the past five years is that I can make a difference in the balance in my life. I have the ability to control how much I take on, and to work through the external factors in a way that makes sense for me, my family, and my personal and professional community.
Sometimes I get so busy and overscheduled that I don’t have time enough to sleep, but I understand that I can take actions to control what I bring on myself. Even with a sometimes crazy schedule, I consider myself extremely fortunate that I have been blessed with the opportunity to make these kinds of choices. My balancing act is a work in progress. Everything in life has its ebbs and flows. You have to look at the continuum over time and stay focused on the things that really matter to you.
R. ROGGE DUNN
Clouse Dunn Hirsch
R. Rogge Dunn told us in 2001 that he was able to spend more time with his family and still respond to the demands of his practice by getting in to work before 5 a.m., which allowed him to be home in time for dinner.
If anything, my work schedule has gotten more intense and more complex over the past five years. I am getting bigger, better cases all across the country now, and I feel like that’s come with age, experience and reputation. I still love what I do, and I seldom say no to projects unless I am in trial or about to go to trial.
There have been a couple of important changes that affect how I am able to balance my work and my family: My kids are now all in school, and technology has advanced so significantly that, if you use it properly, I truly believe it gives you a flexibility that wasn’t possible in 2001.
I still work the early mornings that I used to, getting in at 4:30 or 5 a.m. and leaving by 5 or 6 p.m. However, now, instead of carving family time out each day, I am carving out bigger chunks of time to take family trips. I am finding that this is more rewarding because there is more quality time. It allows a greater amount of time with the kids than an hour here or an hour there during the week, especially when there’s a conflict between them wanting to do their things—going to a game or seeing friends—and spending time with you.
When you can get out of the city on a trip, and especially if you can go to a more rural environment, there are fewer demands on the kids’ time—there’s no homework and they can’t text message their friends—so it frees you up to have fun as a family. You’re out of your routine, away from people you know, and it just puts you in a different mood.
Every August, we sit down with everyone’s schedules and figure out when we can take vacations. We’ve gone to Africa twice as a family for two weeks at a time, and I went once with just my son, Ross.
My son and I also went to Normandy for two weeks in June 2004 for a Band of Brothers veterans’ tour, and we go to one big football rivalry game a year. Two years ago, we bought a ski house in Utah, and that’s been great. I just got back from an Indian Princesses campout with my 5-year-old. When you’re out there in the middle of East Texas and it’s dark and she’s holding onto your hand so tight, that’s the best.
I am definitely working harder during the week so I can get these chunks of time. But I also work while I am away, thanks to technology. I have a full home office at the Utah house, and everything’s set up so that—as long as I put in two or three hours a day, checking and returning calls and delegating—I can be away without missing a beat. I can work in the morning from 5:30 to 8:00 and be on the slopes with my kids by 9:00.
I also have a BlackBerry. Believe it or not, it actually worked in Africa, and I was literally sitting in the bush, returning e-mails. The client was ecstatic. But when Ross and I did a weeklong whitewater rafting trip on the Colorado River, nothing worked. I had no phone and no Black- Berry for six-and-a-half days, and I did freak out. My clients might think it’s nice that I’m taking time with my kids, but I think their primary focus is, Rogge better be taking care of my legal problems while he’s having fun.
My wife and I haven’t had many chances to get away, just the two of us, and I guess that’s the sacrifice. That’s something we’ll have to work on. But right now, I’m just grateful that I’ve been freed up to work remotely, and been able to take some very special trips that I hope my kids remember as long as they live. I know I will.
RUTH N. HOLZMAN Reed Smith Los Angeles In 2001, Ruth N. Holzman told us how dealing with her son’s autism and cancer helped make her a better lawyer and a more involved parent.
In 2001, life was great. My 10-lawyer boutique had merged with a larger law firm, and it seemed like a step up and a great opportunity to grow professionally. Then, in 2002, my son, David, who had already survived cancer as a toddler, was diagnosed with cancer again. A tumor was pressing against his spine. By the time the doctors were able to diagnose the problem, he had become paralyzed from the waist down. On the way to the hospital, I called the managing partner and said, “Here’s the story: I don’t know what he has, and I don’t know how long I’ll be out.” And he said, “That’s why we have other partners. Don’t even think about it.”
David needed immediate surgery, and thankfully, the doctors were able to remove the tumor. A couple days later, David was up and using a walker—he was 10 years old, autistic and crying that he wanted to go home. At this point, we were told that because this was his second cancer, his survival prognosis was 50/50. He was in the hospital a total of six weeks, and my husband and I took turns sleeping there with him. When he was finally discharged, we were told he was going to be in and out of the hospital for 48 weeks of chemo and six weeks of radiation. I took a six-month leave from the firm so I could be at the hospital every day. When I returned, I worked part time for a year while my son finished his treatment.
When I came back to work, I remember people saying, “How can you be here?” And I said, “This is recreational. Practicing law is a diversion!” My partners were very understanding. My son was hospitalized many times without any notice, and I tried to only work on matters that were not time-sensitive in case I was out of the office unexpectedly.
At the end of 2002, my “new” firm merged with another firm, a 1,000-lawyer firm with offices across the country and in the U.K. This happened while my son was in the middle of his 48-week chemo treatment. Fortunately, the new firm also was very understanding and so I was able to continue my part-time arrangement until David finished his treatment.
That’s when I knew I needed to go back full time. I wanted to know what was going on, and I hadn’t been to enough of the partners’ meetings to know the specifics. I wanted to be whole again, and returning full time to the practice of law was what I needed to become whole.
Professionally, 2004 was the best year I have ever had. The work at the new firm was stimulating and took me to the next level. But in January 2005, when David had one of his quarterly check-ups, his doctor told us that the cancer had come back. It was the same cancer that he had in 2002.
This was very unexpected; even his doctor was flabbergasted. He’d been cancer-free for 20 months, and we all had thought he’d beaten it. I felt that just when my life was finally back together—my son was healthy and things were going great professionally—I would have to put everything on hold again. Everyone at the firm assured me that I would have another great year when I came back.
From mid-January to mid-September of 2005, David went through a third treatment regimen—eight months of chemo and radiation. We were told that the prognosis was not good. After all, this was his third cancer.
Thankfully, he responded to treatment, and I was able to return to the firm in September. Today, my son remains in remission. He returns to the hospital every 12 weeks for extensive medical tests to make sure the cancer has not returned. The doctors told me that they’ve never had a child survive a third course of treatment for cancer. Of course, the treatment really took a toll on him. His hair will never grow back fully, and he’s still very tired. But it is so amazing to me that he is alive and flourishing.
For me, all of this has been a tremendous adjustment.
I have only a vague memory of the months I spent at the hospital during the last five years because it’s been so traumatic. But through it all, we remained a very strong family. We had so much moral support from friends, family, our synagogue, the hospital and the firm. My son was in constant need of blood transfusions, and the firm held a blood drive and even covered everyone’s time off so they could donate.
One of the reasons that I took a leave when my son was sick was that I wanted to spend time with my daughter, too. She’s a remarkable person, and I wanted to make sure that this ordeal did not make her a negative person. I think that the time I spent with her during her brother’s illness made a big difference.
Not having worked for any other law firm, I can’t say whether I would have had the same flexibility at another firm, but I can say, both times, that I am so grateful that there are such kind and caring people at my firm. I joke that they could afford to be nice because they weren’t paying me while I was on leave. But I was able to come back and pick up right where I left off, and that means a lot. After I came back, if one of my clients called one of my partners rather than me, that partner would tell the client, “Ruth is back now—why don’t you call her?”
Today I feel like my life is somewhat back to normal, although it will take a long time for me and my family to heal from the events of the past five years. The most important thing is that my family is alive and happy. And professionally, I am in a good place. I like being a lawyer, and I want to enjoy it.
D. MICHAEL DUNAVANT Carney, Wilder & Dunavant Ripley, Tenn. D. Michael Dunavant joined a veteran solo practitioner after his graduation from law school. Nine months later, the veteran died at age 44, and Dunavant took over the practice. In 2001, he told us how hard work and supportive colleagues helped him learn the ropes.
The last five years, I have made more money than I ever have in my entire life. I am busier than I have ever been, and I feel like I am hitting my stride. I don’t have a learning curve anymore—I am pretty much there.
I am no longer the young lawyer that I was after Bob Wilder died and I was trying to do 200 things at once. I work smarter now, and I feel like I am getting better at time management.
That said, I am now attempting to completely abandon my private practice and go into public service by being the district attorney general of a five-county region. It’s a slight cut in pay, but there are some areas where I feel like I can do things better and make a difference. I’ve been in the trenches for 11 years, doing criminal defense and handling cases that deal with victims who are children and offenders who are juveniles. I’ve seen how crime touches families. And I feel like I want to go in that direction. The election is in August; I have two opponents.
It’s not easy to practice law and campaign in five counties. Right now I am trying to balance my obligations to my clients with my obligations to get out and meet the people and share with them why I feel I should be their next DA. I still do a lot of community service—I feel like I am on every board and every committee of several organizations—and I am still very active in my church.
My home life has also changed. I am married now with a 3-year-old son, Hutch. It’s definitely made me more sensitive to issues involving children. I find I have a more difficult time dealing with clients who harm children, but I try to concentrate on my obligation to the Constitution and to the judicial process. After Hutch was born, my wife quit working outside the home. It was a decision we both made, but I knew that I would have to increase my income and work harder. So I am busy because I choose to be busy. But in general, I am happy. I feel fulfilled.
But I still have a plan for my future. I have sort of entered this comfort zone, where there’s not much of a learning curve anymore. I think it’s time for a change. I want to move forward. I could do criminal defense for the next 50 years and be fine, but I don’t think I could satisfy the plans and goals I have personally and professionally.
Five years ago, my focus was more on surviving. Now it’s on refining and getting better, on being effective and finding the area where I can make the most impact. And I feel like if I can do that, the money will come. Some months may be bologna; some months may be steak. But I believe that if you do a good job and you are a confident and effective lawyer, it will work out. That’s a lesson that’s been a long time coming, especially since I spent so long worrying about where my next case was coming from and how I was going to pay the next bill.
If I won the DA position, it would be an eight-year term. It would be a major career change for me, but I am also hoping it would result in some positive changes in my home life. Right now, I am really torn about how I allocate time with my family. Sometimes I feel like I only get to see my son on the weekends, and I miss out on a lot of things because of my work schedule. In private practice, if you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done. If I won the DA election, I would have a staff to help me; so while the workload would likely be the same, I would have a bit more flexibility in my schedule. I could be home for dinner more.
Of course, I am not all work and no play. We’ve taken some trips. We’ve done Orlando, and last year we went to Boston, took in a Red Sox game. We went to San Francisco. I go to college football games; I play golf sometimes. Two years ago, I even bought a Harley-Davidson. Lately, though, I’ve just been doing a lot of driving around the five-county region. It’s quite a large geographic area. Not on the Harley—just in my car with the campaign magnets on the side.
This election is my maiden voyage into politics, and it seems a bit disingenuous to me. But I have to play the game to get the opportunity to serve as a prosecutor. I am coming to the position from outside the prosecutorial arena—I have always been a defense attorney—so my slogan is that I offer a new and fresh approach. I am attempting to look at the law from a different perspective, and once I have attempted to achieve some sort of justice, I will feel more like a well-rounded person.
FREDERIC K. ‘JERRY’ CONOVER
Frederic K. “Jerry” Conover told us in 2001 how he took a five-month sabbatical before shifting from an active trial practice to mediation and arbitration work. He said that when he first became a lawyer, law practice was probably more collegial, and it was easier then to maintain work-life balance.
I am 72, and I recently became of counsel at a new firm. Although I had been instrumental in starting my former firm’s Denver office and in founding its dispute resolution division, the firm had a mandatory retirement policy, and I knew there would be no exceptions.
It was professionally disappointing in that I think law firms are slow in recognizing the upcoming aging of baby boomers and the growing number of lawyers who can be contributing to those firms. It’s a loss for those firms that are not able to respond to the change in those demographics. And it was personally disappointing for me to the extent that I left some wonderful people with whom I had practiced law for 10 to 20 years. But it was expected; it was written into the partnership agreement—70 just came faster than I expected.
I still do what I did before, but in different proportions. I work at law-related matters anywhere between a third and a fourth of the time, but I work smarter. The nature of mediation is to look for creative solutions and not be engaged in the granular details that the practicing lawyer necessarily must engage in, and that comes with experience and the passage of time. I am also available to contribute counsel and advice to younger lawyers at the firm. Mentoring has always been a joy for me, and this is a wonderful part of being at the firm.
Another thing that’s been very rewarding for me is the foundation I started three years ago. It’s called Hope for Generations, and it’s a nonpolitical, bipartisan group of Colorado citizens. The idea behind it is to enlist seniors to contribute all or part of their Social Security payments to a fund that spends the money on early childhood development. It’s a very small percentage of seniors who can do this, and that’s why we haven’t made it a political movement. There are all sorts of reasons why Social Security is necessary, but there’s also a small subset of people who don’t need it to put bread on the table, and many of these people feel that it’s common sense to take their entitlements and share them with poor kids. I mean, these kids don’t have an AARP lobby!
The foundation was born from several competing ideas. One is the sense that the entitlements received by the middle- and upper-income seniors are way out of balance in comparison with what kids receive. Another motivating factor is intergenerational, helping people who want to give back to the needy kids in the younger generation.
We give the grants to organizations as varied as pediatric dentistry and creative childcare programs to one called Invest in Kids, which is an effort for home nurse practitioners to visit first-time mothers from birth through the third year to improve the well-being of the kids. It’s been wonderful, and the degree of satisfaction from the donors has been high. And it has resonated nationally. We’ve had wonderful coverage in the New York Times Sunday edition and in Time magazine.
Right now, we’re in the process of trying to export the idea, and I am talking to other organizations, like Social Security reform groups, about partnering on these efforts. We started three years ago giving $60,000, and this year we’re giving gifts of $120,000—grants of $10,000 each to 12 different organizations—just in Colorado, and I think we can do a lot more.
Jenny B. Davis, a lawyer, is an assistant managing editor for the ABA Journal.