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No Return: How I learned to find work-life balance during the COVID-19 pandemic

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I am at the pinnacle of my profession. I lead a team of 80 people who provide civil legal assistance each year to more than 3,000 low-income and vulnerable residents of Queens, the most diverse borough of the largest city in America.

I direct a cadre of talented managers who in turn supervise a dynamic, dedicated and determined team of lawyers and paralegals. Our work is interesting, highly relevant and intellectually challenging. I love my job, but in this current phase of the pandemic, I’ve realized that I can never go back to working the way I did before.

From the time the pandemic hit in March 2020, I’ve been fortunate to have the ability to work from home in Brooklyn. In September 2021, my kids returned to school in person, and I’ve since had an ideal work environment.

Each morning after getting the kids to school, I get hot coffee and a pastry, return to my apartment and typically log in to a virtual court appearance or Zoom meeting from a small desk in my bedroom, wearing a wrinkled dress shirt and tattered blazer over my sweatpants. After “court,” I go to the gym in the basement of my building to get some exercise. I return home, shower, cook lunch, then it’s back to a series of Zooms or calls from my couch for the remainder of the day. I tinker with a chapter of a nonfiction book I am writing about working in housing court. I also try to learn Spanish online. Mi español esta mejorando—my Spanish is getting better.

I am usually home when my kids return from school around 4 p.m. Sometimes I meet them at school at the day’s end and we go to a bookstore, or if the weather is nice, we go on an outing somewhere, anywhere.

A few times a week, we have family movie night; we microwave popcorn and watch a Marvel movie on Disney+. I’ve also been voraciously reading novels.

This was not my life before the pandemic. Back then, I would rise at 5:45 a.m. to try—on most days—to get some sort of physical exercise. Between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., my wife and I would rouse two lethargic kids from bed, feed them, dress them and pack lunch (no peanut butter!), then I would take them to school. From there, I would board the subway for the 75-minute trip to Queens Civil Court, where I would run around for four hours looking for lawyers, clients and colleagues and wait for judges to call my cases.

On a good day, I would get back to my desk to return calls and messages by lunchtime. On a bad day, court would continue in the afternoon, or I would travel another hour to Manhattan for an in-person meeting and eventually commute home. At home around 7, I’d have an hour or two to wind down with my family before getting back online to answer emails and Slack messages for another two hours. I would fall asleep around midnight, only to wake again.

Now, I dread what returning to normal would mean for my work/life: less sleep, less exercise, fewer hobbies and more stress. What lies ahead for me is a tangled knot of issues, including office-space challenges, workload grievances and low morale. As a middle manager, I will continue to be the buffer between upper management and the union workers—taking hits from all sides; however, much of this was true before the pandemic.

I have the perspective of the pandemic and the lives it has taken and the changes it has forced upon our society. I ask myself how I want to spend my time in the 20 to 30 years that I have remaining in my professional life. Do I want to engage in the high-stress, low-stakes battles at work at the expense of my sanity and my personal time? Do I want to be constantly on the move, hustling from one place to the next, always late and never prepared?

Lately, I seem to be getting signs from the universe that a transformation is underway. Just the other day, a colleague texted me that she urgently needed to speak with me. On the phone, she told me that she was leaving our nonprofit and taking a position at a local law school. The sound of relief in her voice struck me most—like she had been bearing, and was now letting go of, the weight of the world.

Days later, I read that the head of another major New York City nonprofit law firm was stepping away from her job to return to the “basics.” In December, two other attorneys quit my team. One is working in politics and the other, a new father, is moving back home to Minnesota. Another attorney on my team is taking a long leave to work on a memoir. Are we all feeling the same push and pull?

I realize that my job won’t love me back. Those who do love me—my family and friends—haven’t been able to compete with my dogged dedication to my work.

Eventually, if things continue in the way they were going before the pandemic, my sense of self and my self-worth will melt away into my professional identity.

As I write this, I’ve learned that a former colleague—age 64 and recently retired—passed away in his sleep. He had retired during the pandemic to begin a new creative phase of his life: making music. He had delayed doing what he loved, assuming that there would always be time.

I now realize that I did not have a healthy work-life balance for most of my career. I was sleep-deprived, constantly moving from meeting to meeting and was never able to reflect on what was and is most important to me. I need to protect myself from the exhaustion, burnout and cynicism that was building within me about my work. I need to save time for those moments in life with my friends and family that I will cherish at the end of the road.

I will move forward with this perspective, grateful for it, fortunate about the privilege that I relied upon during the pandemic and eager to pass this insight on to others.

Sateesh Nori is attorney-in-charge of the Queens office of the New York City Legal Aid Society. He is also a clinical adjunct professor at New York University School of Law.

This column originally appeared on on Jan. 11.

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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