Working in Good Works

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Vital Statistics

Rebecca Neri

Position: Associate at Devorsetz Stinziano Gilberti Heintz & Smith in Syracuse, N.Y. Age: 28 Goal: to maintain her civic and community volunteering despite the demands of her practice and her family

Our Expert

M. Diane Vogt

Tampa, Fla. based lawyer M. Diane Vogt is a principal in PeopleWealth, a consulting firm devoted to improving job satisfaction for lawyers. She is the co-author of the ABA-published Keeping Good Lawyers: Best Practices to Create Career Satisfaction.

To be a good lawyer, Rebecca Neri believes it’s essential to first be a good person.

Which is why, since joining her law firm three years ago, Neri, 28, has helped organize efforts to build houses for Habitat for Humanity, collected supplies to support a battalion of soldiers stationed overseas, and participated in numerous charitable bike rides and walks.

“When I volunteer, I feel completely revitalized and re-energized–I feel like I can tackle anything. I feel that I even think more clearly,” she says.

Volunteering is nothing new for Neri, who has been involved with charitable and civic causes since she was a child. But now that she has become a new mother, she is feeling the time pinch of balancing her responsibilities as a busy third year associate, her desire to give back to her community and her dedication to her family.

Neri doesn’t want to completely jettison her community service, but cutting back on her work and family obligations is not a viable option, either. Neri thinks that she may have the perfect solution: Convince her law firm that her volunteer work is just as valuable as pro bono work, if not more valuable. That way, some of the hours she spends volunteering can be included in her billable time.

“I would never let my billable hours slip, but I would like it if my firm would let my volunteer activities be a part of my billables because they bring value to the firm,” she says.

Now the question is how to accomplish this lofty goal. Neri says her firm is generous about letting her and other lawyers volunteer their time, but not at the expense of work. “I really want them to recognize the value of it, not only because of the recognition it brings in the community but also for how it raises morale and makes you feel good.”

Neri’s wish is not an uncommon one, says Life Audit work life balance expert M. Diane Vogt. As work and family obligations take up more and more spare time from the lives of young lawyers, many are searching for ways to make time for personal enrichment.

Realistic Expectations

Getting Neri’s firm to count volunteerism toward annual billable hour requirements may seem like a logical option, but it’s unrealistic, Vogt says. Most law firms nowadays recognize the value of charitable and civic work, but the economic realities of billing time tend to trump that recognition factor.

Vogt tells Neri that she will be running up against a brick wall if she thinks she can change a law firm’s perspective on the value of volunteering by appealing to the partners’ sense of altruism. Instead, Vogt wants Neri to realize that the onus is on her to change. Despite Neri’s protestations, Vogt believes the most sensible option is to put her charitable work on the back burner–for now.

“You only have 24 hours in a day. The issue for you is how to spend that time. Having made the choice to have a child, you’ve made the choice of giving up some other things in your life,” Vogt tells Neri. “Put your desire for something else aside. There will come a time, and it’s not that far down the road, when you will have more time.”

If that approach isn’t feasible (and for Neri, it is not–she says volunteering is too much a part of her essence to give it up), Vogt suggests another option.

Instead of taking a break from volunteer work, help the firm develop a policy on volunteering. To get a green light from her partners on this, however, Vogt stresses that Neri cannot simply appeal to their emotions. Rather, she says, Neri needs to act like a lawyer: Draft a sample policy that draws upon everything she knows about the hard and fast benefits of volunteering for law firms. For Neri’s audience, that means being able to focus on concrete topics like the potential for business development.

According to Vogt, more and more law firms are encouraging young lawyers to start marketing activities earlier in their careers. Many law firms also recognize how getting lawyers out into the community is a valuable way to build name recognition. A well-written policy that makes the firm realize the potential for real, tangible benefits to volunteering might win the partners over, Vogt says.

But Vogt cautions Neri to proceed only with a well-thought-out plan that asks for change in a manner that is consistent with how the firm operates. Because Neri is a young lawyer and might not have a full understanding of how the partnership views change, Vogt wants her to enlist the aid of an empathetic firm partner to help her polish the proposal as well as to help her navigate through the firm’s management channels.

Role Model Management

Ultimately, Neri must accept the fact that her firm may never value volunteerism as she does. But that does not mean that she cannot keep this aspect of her life alive. The key is figuring out how to fit it in.

Vogt wants Neri to find another attorney who also has made volunteerism a priority and ask for advice. “It’s a process called modeling,” Vogt explains. “You model the behavior you want to emulate.”

Hopefully that role model can provide Neri with practical advice on how to satisfy her need to volunteer while being a working mother. But tread carefully, Vogt adds. You do not want to ask them for help or to intercede on your behalf. “People are busy, but most are willing to sit down and give you some advice,” Vogt says.

Once Neri finds that role model, keep up the relationship, Vogt advises. Because life is constantly changing, she will need to regularly reshuffle the aspects of her life to maintain a balance that works for her.

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Can You Fit It All In?

Be honest. Ask yourself, “Do I really have the time to volunteer?” If you realistically do not, realize that a “no” doesn’t have to mean “never.” A time may come when personal and professional obligations lessen, freeing up time to make a volunteering commitment. Find a role model. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Find a person who has done what you want to do and get his or her advice on how to do it for yourself. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Look for opportunities to involve the entire firm.

Life Audit Hot Tip: Log On, Get Involved!

Want to volunteer but don’t know where to start? Log on to the Hands On Network (www.handsonnetwork.org) for some ideas. The group serves as an organizational front for some 55 other volunteer organizations and can help individuals, groups or businesses find volunteer opportunities that fit their unique goals and needs.

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