Stolen Moments

My associate told me during the pandemic that as difficult as life was at home with a baby and a toddler, she was immensely grateful for the “stolen moments” with her boys and her family. I think about that – about stolen moments – all the time. Time with your family, your friends – those should never feel stolen. They do. Those moments are replete with guilt because there is always more work you feel you could and should be doing. There is always an email or call that needs a response. You’re physically with friends or family, but you’re never fully present. You constantly feel like you’re missing something related to a client or a case, you’re disappointing someone, and if you just worked for one more hour, everything will be better. It never will. What does feel better? Stolen moments. The goal is to make those moments feel less stolen and more normal. As the owner of a small law firm, you have control of this transition.

Of course, I am the worst offender of buying into the “one more hour” mindset. That attitude almost killed me years ago. I still slip. Frequently. But I also cancel plans less. I have more spontaneity in my life. And I am trying to run a law firm that encourages the people I work with to think of those moments less as stolen and more as an integral part of life. Achieving this balance for me is particularly challenging. I don’t know quite how to get there yet, but I do know that asking for help, outsourcing some of what we do, establishing systems, and delegating, is part of the answer. Still, there are several principles that I believe have helped toward achieving this transition for me and for those with whom I work. The most important was to determine my firm’s mission and values. Then I surrounded myself with people who shared those values. Everyone here knows what we’re working toward and their role in achieving our mission. That shared mission is central to having a better sense of job satisfaction for all of us. It also makes those hard moments, those days when balance is harder to achieve, easier to deal with.

Law firm owners talk a lot about improving the client experience. We don’t talk about improving the employee experience. We are all struggling. It is incumbent on us as leaders to do what we can to alleviate some of that struggle. Begin with ensuring that your employees have access to the best health care possible. Make sure that coverage has access to mental health treatment. Offer to pay for memberships to a gym if your employees are interested. You can offer yoga and meditation once a month as boxes you check to show your commitment to well-being, but those are not long-term solutions.

Feeling like you lack control of your work and schedule is a significant contributor to the mental health challenges individuals who work in law firms face. So, allow your employees to work remotely. And as a part of a remote workforce, allow your employees to work when it is convenient for them. The law is a 24/7 job. Does it really matter if your employees are at their desks from 9 a.m  to 5 p.m. every day? It doesn’t. Does it matter if they take off afternoons to spend time with their families, to go to beach, and open their laptop again at 7 p.m. if they need to? It doesn’t. Our firm has been functioning this way for years, and while we’ve had bumps along the way, not one client has noticed and not one deadline has been missed. This is not to say that there isn’t merit to getting together in the office every once in a while. Physical proximity helps to strengthen existing relationships and to build new ones. Those are values worth supporting.

I’m not going to lie. It takes effort, investment, commitment, and work by everyone to make a fluid workplace work. There are times I’ve been frustrated and felt overwhelmed by transitioning from the way we used to do things to this new world. But it can work. Technology makes it possible. Of course, the evil of technology is always being accessible. But that accessibility is a choice. I fall short as a leader in many ways. But I shut down my electronics the minute the workday is done. I turn off alerts on my phone. Our firm’s phone system runs through an app on our cellphones, so clients do not need our cell phone numbers. Everyone here knows that calls and emails do not need to be responded to after hours. Be clear with your clients as to the boundaries of your accessibility.

Most importantly, we do not track billable hours. We ask that people account for at least six hours of their time a day. But salaries, bonuses, benefits – none of that is based on billable hours. Attaching bonuses to the number of hours an employee bills rather than their commitment to the firm, each other, and our clients is a short road to the mental health challenges we face in this profession. Revenue growth is not a mission. It is a goal. An important one. But it is not, and cannot be, the most important goal in running a firm. Revenue allows us to live the lives we want, but it isn’t a value. Well-being is a value. And it is a value we desperately need if we want to find happiness.

About the Author

Mala M. Rafik is a partner at Rosenfeld & Rafik, P.C., a law firm in New England representing clients denied access to health care as well as individuals seeking short- and long-term disability, life and long-term care benefits from private insurance carriers.

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