Flipping the Switch

After 12 years at a BigLaw firm, I finally made the switch. I left my beloved law firm for a favorite client, which provided me with the opportunity to finally answer the “Big Question.”

I am a lawyer, but I’m also a mom, and during the mom parts of my life, I run into a lot of other lawyers (especially lawyer moms). I see them at swim lessons, at dance classes, and at school meetings. I think we might all wear some sort of invisible sign (exhaustion perhaps?) that draws us to one another. When I would realize that one of these lawyer moms had made “the switch,” I would stare at them wide-eyed—imagining the change, the loads of free time to spend time with my kids and on myself. Maybe I could learn how to bake!

In an effort to confirm my daydreams, I would subject my new lawyer-friend to my not-so-subtle 10-point quiz, all the questions circling around one basic theme: “Is it really so much better? Do you have… work-life balance?”

The answers I got were not particularly satisfying, amounting to something along the lines of “Yeah, for the most part, sort of.” To be fair to them, from where I sit now, that’s pretty much what I want say when someone asks. It would be a lot easier on the editors if I just stopped there, but that’s not my point.

I could pivot instead to talk about how I don’t miss billing hours (shocker). But then I could detail the stress of being a cost center instead of a money-maker, and perhaps mention how much I miss the stocked “school supply” room with its multi-colored pens and the tech support team only a few floors away. But again—that’s not my point. That’s the easy stuff.

The stress, I have to tell you, is all still there. We are still advising our clients on incredibly complex matters. Responses are still frequently needed in short periods of time. I have outside counsel, but to engage them they have to be, well, engaged, and run conflicts and be paid by somebody. As in-house counsel, I’m already here, so I need to be up to speed on corporate policies, new laws, old laws, areas of law (ahem, tax) that I prefer not to touch with a 10-foot pole, and generally be ready to issue-spot just about anything because the least-expected quandary is always what pops up in my inbox at the worst time.

My point, now that I’m finally getting around to it, is that I want that stress. I want to know all the laws. I want to be there at all points, reading every document that comes through, pushing to make sure that our outside counsel is doing things right, following every aspect of everything that could possibly touch my desk, as well as keeping up with the business teams and their new efforts and projects. And now I’m tired again.

Perhaps you can now see why the answer to the question about work-life balance and the in-house dream is not such a simple yes. It’s our ambition, our drive, our personal definition of success that pushes us, and we continue to push no matter what role—lawyer, parent, homeowner, board member, athlete—we choose to take. The demands of my job have lessened a bit through my move in-house, but my own demands on myself transitioned right along with me. We are, as a profession, competitive, driven perfectionists who will never be willing to compromise our standards regardless of what we are doing—and that’s OK.

If the problem is not necessarily the job but instead ourselves, then is the dream of work-life balance always going to remain a dream? Frankly, I don’t think balance is what we need. Balance implies that the scales are always even, that we are always giving just as much to one side as the other. But one side is always going to require more of us in a given moment. Trying for balance will only ever lead to the feeling that neither side is getting enough.

Instead of pushing for an unachievable balance, my “switch” allowed me to pause and reevaluate how I was spending my time at home and the office, to be more thoughtful about what needed to get done right away and what could be removed from my mind until after family dinner (or put to the side until after that conference call). Multi-tasking is not always our friend, no matter how fantastic we are at it.

I can now see that I can focus more at my desk when I have also fit in my kickboxing class without feeling guilty about it. I can relax through some unscheduled hang-out time with the kids without checking my phone. I can be excited about the real vacation on my calendar because I know I am actually going to take it. And that doesn’t have a thing to do with me being inside or outside a firm (maybe except the vacation part—I have vacation days now!).

So the answer may be a switch in your job, but it might be that you don’t need that at all. Switch how you work. Change your goals. Change your mindset. Prioritize the moment you are in and know the other demands on your time will wait until you are ready to focus on them. And don’t forget to take that vacation—you deserve it.

About the Author

CrossMelody R. Cross is vice president and corporate counsel at Prudential Financial, Inc., and formerly was a partner at Schiff Hardin LLP.

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