Work-Life Balance

Letting It All Hang Out

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Mitch Kempker
Photo courtesy of Mitch Kempker

Economic meltdown, thousands of lost lawyer jobs, big-firm careers teetering on the brink: What could be worse for an attorney trying to build a successful and balanced life? Or, really, what could be better?

Economic collapse is perhaps the ultimate wake-up call, and experts say this year’s crisis has created a unique opportunity for lawyers to re-examine priorities and create a better balance between work and life. While transitions are admittedly uncomfortable and disruptive, for the many lawyers experiencing what psychologist Ellen Ostrow calls “life on a conveyer belt,” job insecurity or loss can provide a life-changing jolt.

“They put their heads down, and it’s relatively infrequent that they peek up and ask if this is where I really want to be today,” says Ostrow, a certified career coach in the Washington, D.C., area.

A layoff or transition forces a reassessment of lifestyle choices: Do I really want to work this much? Do I really need to make this much money? And this, experts say, is where the upside emerges.

“Think of it as different seasons for different aspects of your life,” says Debby Stone, an Atlanta-based certified career coach and attorney.

“A transition time gives you an opportunity to focus on something other than work, whether it’s your faith, relationships or hobbies that matter to you. It’s a great time to think about what’s really important to you and how you can shift your focus to those values,” Stone says.

Mitch Kempker, 31, a transactional attorney who was laid off from a large St. Louis firm in January, went to law school to “get out of the large-business way of life,” but he was ultimately lured by the salary and opportunities offered by the big-firm career.

The layoff has forced him to re-evaluate his priorities. Kempker moved to Kansas City, Mo., to be closer to friends, and he hopes to land a job that will give him more time for his favorite hobby, hang-gliding.

“The fact that there are almost zero opportunities with large firms indirectly guides you toward jobs with more balance,” he says. “All attorneys work a lot, but this is forcing me to step back and look around to see what else might be out there. Maybe a smaller firm or government work could give me more of a balance.”


Photo courtesy Mitch Kempker

In the first two months of 2009, at least 3,500 lawyers and staff were laid off from firms. But in spite of this upheaval, many firms have continued their quest to create more balanced work environments. The number of applicants to the 2009 Working Mother/Flex-Time Lawyers survey of best law firms for women remained virtually unchanged from last year.

And though the economy was already spiraling downward last year, near­ly 75 percent of lawyers spent time doing pro bono work, an increase from 2004, according to an ABA study. It might seem odd in such difficult times, but experts say providing free legal services for the disadvantaged can be a psychological boost (and resumé enhancement) when billables aren’t there.

“For lawyers who are working, look at what you’re actually accomplishing,” Stone says. “And think about ways to make yourself more marketable, whether it’s learning a new area or building relationships that will lead to more business. Find ways to become more involved in the community; think about what you can do to give back, and you might end up connecting with some­one who can bring you more business.”

For out-of-work lawyers, Stone counsels that while looking for work should be your job, it shouldn’t be your life. Balance is still important.

“When you’re looking for a new opportunity, it’s easy to cut everything else out,” Stone says. “But really, it’s the perfect time to be involved with other things that are important to you.”

Becky Beaupre Gillespie is a journalist who has written on work-life balance issues for several major metropolitan newspapers. Hollee Schwartz Temple is a professor at West Virginia University College of Law.

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