How to Pull Off the Great Balancing Act

Maintaining a healthy balance between work and personal life can be challenging in any career. With the demanding workflow that comes with being a lawyer finding a balance can often prove to be even more challenging. However, recognizing the need for balance and taking conscious actions to achieving it are essential for success in the legal field.

This month’s roundtable features lawyers from diverse practice areas who share their advice on how to maintain a healthy work/life balance.

Our Moderator

Nicholas Gaffney is a veteran PR practitioner in San Francisco and a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board.

Our Panelists

E. Martin Estrada (EE) is a Los Angeles-based partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson. A former federal prosecutor and supervisor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, his practice is focused on trials, complex litigation, internal investigations, and appeals. He is a father of two young boys and his wife currently works as an Assistant United States Attorney.
Laura K. Meier (LKM) is a California family trust attorney and the author of the  best-seller Good Parents Worry, Great Parents Plan.  Laura and her husband Joshua co-own Meier Law Firm in Newport Beach, CA and are the parents of four young children.
Joshua Meier (JDM) is a California family trust attorney and the managing partner of Meier Law Firm in Newport Beach, CA.
Laura French (LF) practices in the areas of wills, trusts, estates (including wrongful death), corporate and business law. She is the founder of French Law Group, LLC, The Mom Lawyer, LLC, and Ladies Who Law, LLC in Conyers, Georgia. Over her 20-year career, Laura has been a counselor and cheerleader of clients, combining her experiences and insights as a mom and lawyer to serve and provide solutions to her clientele.
Gina Marotta (GM) is a former criminal defense lawyer who now counsel lawyers, other professionals and entrepreneurs about engaging their “genius” – their natural talents, passions, and how they most want to impact the world. Gina also speaks and writes on the subject of genius and has been featured in media outlets like The Huffington Post, WGN Radio, and Fox Chicago News.
Benjamin Katzenellenbogen (BK) is a partner in the Orange County, California, office of Knobbe, Martens, Olson & Bear, LLP. He has been litigating intellectual property disputes for over 15 years, with an emphasis on patent litigation, particularly pharmaceutical cases in the Hatch-Waxman context, and also chairs the firm’s recruiting committee.


What has been your biggest challenge in maintaining a healthy work/life balance? How have you had to be creative with regard to working hours/location/etc.?

EE: I believe that achieving a healthy life/work is key to maintaining a successful career and an enjoyable life. Because it is so important to me, I have discussed this issue with many attorneys and other professionals in various sectors. What I have learned is the life/work balance is different for everyone, depending on their personal and professional circumstances. Also, even for the same person, the life/work balance can change over time as their circumstances change. For me, that has certainly been the case. Like most people, I have many interests: family, friends, community service, professional satisfaction, athletics, etc. The emphasis I have placed on those interests has changed as I started a family and my children have gotten older. I spend less time playing sports and more time coaching sports, which is a choice that has made me happy and satisfied.

I think a major challenge is identifying the right life/work balance for you, and then taking the necessary steps to achieve that optimal balance. Sacrifices always need to be made, but, in the end, making those choices leaves you happier. I feel satisfied with my life/work balance, but achieving it would be impossible without having a spouse who is understanding and also willing to sacrifice. My wife is a highly accomplished and successful attorney, and we constantly work together to ensure that our number one priority—our children—are taken care of, while at the same time enjoying our work as lawyers. This requires consistent, open communication, and a willingness to help each other when family or work demands increase and pull us in different directions.

LKM: Wanting and needing to be two places at once. I review my calendar each Sunday night and coordinate with my husband on how we will meet the needs of the practice and our kids for the upcoming week. This requires us to work from home at times or after the kids go to bed.

JDM: Having to be interrupted throughout the work day to run and pick up a kid or handle a personal matter. Feeling like I have to continually choose between work matters and home matters. I have to work from home at times to accommodate.

LF: The biggest challenge really lies in two areas: the daily prioritization, and in the implementing of long-term goals. On a daily basis, I am faced with sorting out the logistical needs of our family, and the production of client matters. My husband is of tremendous support and help, but due to the ridiculous commutes in Atlanta, he simply doesn’t have the flexibility I enjoy as a business owner. With flexibility comes a tremendous challenge of managing those hours, and choosing what fits where and how to accomplish what must be done daily.

In terms of long-term goals, it is very hard as a solo practitioner to carve out blocks of time to work on creating the “new.” The “new” may be business lines or other endeavors that would serve not only my clients, but my creative energies as well.

GM: My biggest challenge personally was knowing what balance is and believing it mattered in my career. It appeared to me that working hard, often dogged hours, was valued above all else. I began to recognize the profound positive impact that balance does have on one’s career once I started prioritizing happiness in my career and life. And I now see balance as having two components: (1) a fulfilling work life and (2) a joyful life outside of work. A fulfilling work life includes: doing work that fits your natural talents and passions and that also feels of service and useful to others. A joyful life outside of work includes activities like: adequate rest; enjoyable social and family activities; focus on physical, mental, and emotional health; a spiritual practice; time pursuing creative arts or passion projects, and time outdoors.

I now know that balance is essential to success, and this has allowed me to easily prioritize balance. But as with changing any ingrained behavior, it took time and a lot of patience.

BK: My two biggest challenges are that my wife and I are both IP litigators, and we do not live near extended family who could provide support. Having a spouse who understands the demands of the job is great, but coordinating our schedules is difficult, to say the least. We both have to make a conscious effort to make time to spend time with each other and our kids. We steal a few hours here and there working before the kids wake up, or after they go to bed, and one of us can usually cover if the other has to be at the office late. It probably would not be possible at many firms, but Knobbe Martens has a low billable-hour requirement and our “vacation” days count toward meeting our annual hours requirement, so vacation means taking time off, rather than merely time shifting.

What role does your employer play in helping you and other attorneys find a healthy work/life balance?

EE: Clearly, an employer plays a key role in allowing you to achieve a healthy life/work balance. I’m fortunate to work at a firm that has great regard for its attorneys’ lives both in the office and outside the office. This is not just a product of the firm’s policies, but also part of the firm culture. Attorneys are encouraged to have healthy pursuits outside the office. And, attorneys help each other to accomplish that—when family or other outside interests demand time, other attorneys will step up to assist.

LKM: We take time off ourselves to show our employees by example that we value personal time. We try and support our employees when they take time off by providing them back-up at work. We allow our attorneys to work from home and pay our employees personal time off. We attribute our low turnover rate to our investment in our employees’ work/life balance.

JDM: We allow flexible schedules for all of our employees. Many of our attorneys work remotely and from home. We have a set infrastructure to process clients so everyone knows their roles and deadlines well in advance and can plan accordingly.

LF: Well, since I am my own employer, I am going to take a different approach on this question. As I mentioned before, I am able to control and adjust my own schedule as personal and client demands dictate. I try to afford similar flexibility to my employee team members. The people in my office work tremendously hard for the cause of our clients. I want my team members to enjoy work/life balance, and I afford to them an “all adults” policy—meaning we are all adults here, we know what it takes to get the work done, and if someone needs to work at home, or nontraditional hours from time to time, then we accommodate those personal situations as much as we can.

Our office is also currently studying Brene Brown’s CourageWorks program to create a bolder, braver, and more creative work environment.

GM: Unfortunately, many legal and other professional firms are overworking their employees at a mental level much like old factories did at the physical level. The truth is, this overworking has many pitfalls. An overworked person is emotionally imbalanced and behaves in ways that are stereotypical of the bad rap lawyers face, like being short-tempered, overly aggressive, unkind, and closed-minded. Overworked people also suffer from physical ailments ranging from anxiety and fatigue to cancer and heart disease.

Forward-thinking companies like Google understand that people want to both (1) do good work and (2) experience a joyful life outside of work. So, these companies are exercising responsibility around creating cultures of balance and empowering and encouraging balance among employees. This is smart. They know this helps to attract and retain the best talent.

The legal industry can learn much from companies like this, especially where talented lawyers, particularly women, are dropping out of firm life and the profession altogether. Fostering a culture of balance is especially important in the realm of legal work. Activities like adequate rest, physical fitness, and focus on emotional health promote mental clarity, which is important for the intellectual side of legal work. Also, engaging in playful, creative, and social activities promotes open-mindedness and creativity, which is important for lawyers in developing creative and novel arguments.

BK: Law in general, and IP litigation in particular, is very demanding. Clients involved in bet-the-company cases rightfully expect you to be available and responsive, as do judges and opposing counsel. There is not much any firm can do to lessen these external demands. Knobbe Martens does a great job of eliminating needless internal stresses. I am very fortunate to work at a large firm that prioritizes family over the last marginal billable hour, truly promotes teamwork through a collaborative partner compensation model, and is supportive of taking time off when work and client expectations permit. Because partners are not compensated on a traditional formula system, we can focus on keeping our clients happy, rather than who is getting the credit. That promotes a client/team focused approach, and along with the lower billable hour requirement and true vacation time, makes it possible to have a life outside the office.


Why do you think maintaining a healthy balance of career and social life is especially important for lawyers?

EE: The law is a high-pressure profession. A healthy existence outside of work and a support network of family and friends is important in dealing with the stresses and demands of our jobs. Moreover, as professionals, we are ultimately leaders and members in our communities. It’s both incumbent upon us and rewarding to give back to the community through pro bono work and other public service activities. It’s also important to be plugged-in to what is happening in our world, our country, and our towns to be effective counselors and advocates.

LKM: It’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day tasks of lawyering and get overwhelmed by other people’s problems. Personal time allows us to take a step back, see the bigger picture, and find clarity. When I skip personal time, I actually become less efficient and less productive at work.

JDM: One of the best ways to get referrals is from people who know, like, and trust you, so it’s important to have a social life where your interactions with others is not just business. Legal work can be personally consuming, so taking time away can help you see the bigger picture beyond the task at hand.

LF: Attorneys get lost in their own heads and in the demands of their client base. It is extraordinarily important for lawyers to have something outside of their work to provide perspective. This is how we learn and grow, by having interests and a life outside of the law.

GM: An abundant network is essential for anyone’s career. Engaging with people on a social level creates connection and trust and is a wonderful place to create opportunity for your career—be it in developing client leads, cultivating information or opportunity for your clients, or being in the know about job opportunities. For myself, I have experienced that keeping an active social network and engaging in passion projects has allowed me to build a network I can turn to for any professional needs.

BK: I doubt that maintaining balance is more important for lawyers, but doing so may be harder. It is all too easy for lawyers to wake up and start emailing clients in Europe and attorneys on the East Coast, have a conference call on the drive into work, spend the day in meetings, at court, and in the office, check email a couple of times during dinner, finish reviewing a brief after putting the kids to bed, and then email clients in Asia before going to bed. Modern technology makes it possible to spend every waking moment working, so you really have to remember what you are working for, and make sure to take active steps to take time for yourself and your family.

How do you handle clients whose needs may encroach on personal time?

EE: This is not an easy matter to deal with, but I find that making clients aware that you have family or outside demands and being clear with them that you must devote time to those demands is helpful. At the same time, as previously discussed with regard to sacrifices, sometimes, when appropriate, outside interests have to take a back seat to an immediate case demand. In trial, time with family and friends suffers; that’s simply the nature of the beast and what is required to perform at your best. Once I finish a trial, I always try to take time off to spend with my family and, just as importantly, make sure my time with family is quality time.

LKM: I have a great system in place at work, and great support staff, so if I do need to step away for personal time, my clients’ needs can be promptly handled. I have found that when everything is scheduled at work, and clients always have a point of contact at the firm, clients are less likely to encroach on my personal time.

JDM: I set clear expectations as far as my availability and when I work. For example, if it’s baseball season, I let them know that I leave early on certain days to attend practice and games. It’s important to work with clients who value family time themselves. If they value their own family time, they won’t expect you to give up yours.

LF: Managing client expectations is a huge issue for attorneys, and I suspect perhaps more so for the small or solo firm. I have a phenomenal associate attorney on my team, as well as other wonderfully talented team members. Upfront and ongoing, it is important I set the expectation for clients that they may hear from others on the team, and not always from me directly. This is coupled with the reassurance that I oversee everything going on in the office.

There is a distinction between client needs and client demands. If a client truly needs something from me, I do try to balance my personal life and family circumstances to accommodate the client. You know the saying “your lack of planning doesn’t make it my emergency.” In these situations, I tend to address the immediate issue, which usually involves nothing more than a brief phone call to talk the client off the ledge, provide perspective on the concern, and set a game plan to address the client need within an appropriate time frame.

GM: One of the essential roles of lawyers is advocacy. I personally enjoy sharing about my balanced approach to work and life with clients as a way to be an advocate on this topic. And I also make sure clients know that I will always be there for them in an emergency situation. That type of trust is essential.

BK: Communication. It depends on the client, but I am generally candid with my clients about my personal schedule. My clients are reasonable people who also have personal lives. Letting clients know (ahead of time) that I will be unavailable because one of my kids has an event, or that I would like to get feedback on a draft earlier than usual because I am going on vacation, usually elicits a positive response. It also encourages my clients to feel comfortable telling me when they would like me to plan things around their personal schedules. Combining that open dialogue with making sure my clients know I will always take care of emergencies, strengthens and my professional and personal relationships.

What role does technology play in helping or hurting a work/life balance?

EE: It can harm life/work balance if you let it. Constantly checking e-mail or messages while with family will negatively impact the quality of your time away from work. I have to constantly be vigilant about making sure I put the phone aside when spending time with my kids or wife or parents. At the same time, technology helps me to connect with my family while away on business travel. I get updated on daily happenings through phone calls and photos, and home seems less distant.

LKM: On one hand, my smart phone allows me to step away from the office to be with a kid, but at the same time it interrupts my family time a lot. I struggle with shutting the phone off and sometimes I think we would all be better off without them.

JDM: It helps because it allows flexibility as far as when and where you work. It works because it’s very difficult to turn off and disconnect, so it makes you feel like you are always on.

LF: Technology is a blessing and a curse. Our mobile work world means I can work anywhere in the world. I can travel for work or pleasure, and, if needed, I can respond to client situations. Technology has allowed me to work with clients all over the country who have issues in my home jurisdiction of Georgia, and in Alabama where I am also licensed. Video conferencing allows me to work with clients who live far away, and it lets me work with my team if any of us are out of the office. The technological support available via the internet is amazing, and a godsend for a small firm.

The curse of technology is the blurring of boundaries between work and life—for the attorney and the client. I have become as stringent as I can with turning off work email after hours and on weekends. The mind has to rest, you know.

GM: At its best, technology promotes flexibility. We can now work from anywhere and do our work at any time of day or night. This allows taking ownership of your schedule so that you can create balance. You can go to a yoga class in the middle of the day to break from the pressure. You can go home and have dinner with your family, and pick up work for a couple hours again after you put the kids to bed. You really have the power!

BK: Technology creates the impression of making it easier, and for the most part, it actually does. It facilitates time-shifting and working from home, which makes it easier to spend time during the morning and early evening with my kids. Technology also makes it less stressful to commit to going on school trips or taking vacation with the family. I can always be reached and contribute. The downside is it makes it harder to unplug completely from work, makes it easier to work while on vacation, and generally contributes to internal and external expectations of always being accessible. I have had vacations where I worked for a few hours before my family got up, spent the day with them, and then worked for a few hours after they went to bed. While perhaps not ideal, that is far better than not being able to go at all. I will also confess to responding to work email while riding on ski lifts, and finding it much more enjoyable than responding from my office. I would rather spend a day skiing and occasionally checking email than be in the office wishing I were skiing.

How have gender expectations affected your work/life balance?

EE: Unfortunately, it seems that efforts to achieve a life/work balance are sometimes viewed differently for women versus men. Too often, the work culture looks upon men taking time off work to help out at home more favorably than when women do the same thing. Luckily, I haven’t seen that at my firm. It’s important for professional longevity and performance to have an unbiased view of life/work balance.

LKM: I think I am the one who primarily places gender expectations on myself- wanting to be a successful lawyer, yet still pass as a stay at home mom in the eyes of my kids, and never age a day. I think our culture has gotten much better about not placing these expectations on women, but many of us continue to place them on ourselves.

JDM: Now that I have my own firm this is not an issue. At my old firm, my employer made work a priority over family. His wife was a stay-at-home wife so his expectation was the husband worked and the wife took care of the kids, which was a different dynamic then what I had at home. This is one of the major reasons I left to start my own firm, so I could have more balance.

LF: Whoa—this is a doozy of a question, and one that has been weighing on my mind for some time. I’ve had many conversations with other women in the law (including everyone from law clerks, secretaries, paralegals, associates, partners, elected officials, etc.).

The expectation is that female lawyers should be able to make partner one day, and run a household and mother like June Cleaver, all while making it look like you are Clair Huxtable (perhaps the most iconic lawyer mom ever on TV). The expectation of women in the law is that their personal and family commitments will take a back seat to their work demands. Women still face the concurrent joys and demands of marriage, caring for children, supporting aging parents, running a household, and managing their career (all to be done while looking good, staying in shape, and eating well). Family and personal obligations continue to fall upon the “wife/mom” and firms, in my experience, have not adjusted to the new work order. The conclusion of many female colleagues is that really, nothing has changed in the 20 years we have been practicing. This has led to my founding Ladies Who Law, which I hope will lead to great things for women who work in the legal field, at every level.

I am extraordinarily fortunate to have a husband who believes in me, my dreams, and my work. I know I have an advantage in achieving work/life balance because I own my firm, and I have worked very hard to obtain this structure in my life.

GM: No comment.

BK: At least outside our firm, I think it is often assumed that, as a man, I have a spouse at home to take care of the kids. When I tell clients or opposing counsel that I am unavailable because I have to pick up or drop off my kids, I suspect some find it more acceptable than if I were female, and some less. It may be easier because I do not have to worry about being viewed as a negative stereotype when I put my family first. Being a more active parent than gender expectations might predict can also have its advantages. A few years ago I had a call with a mediator while I was at home and after a few minutes of distinctively escalating little voices in the background, I had to take a break to address the catastrophe of the moment. I think the mediator was surprised and impressed that a male litigator was open and unapologetic about being at home taking care of his kids.

What tips do you have for other lawyers seeking to find a healthy work/life balance (particularly young lawyers)?

EE: I was fortunate enough to participate in the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity fellowship program this past year, where I had a chance to speak to others and think a lot about life/work balance issues. One of the main takeaways was that achieving a healthy life/work balance requires being honest with yourself about your goals—professional goals and personal goals. As I said in response to the first question, the right balance will not be the same for everyone, and circumstances change over time that can impact your views about the right balance. In addition to being honest with yourself, I think it helps to speak to others about your goals and what makes you happy professionally and personally, and even list those things out on paper, and then come up with a plan to achieve those various goals through a healthy life/work balance, being cognizant that tradeoffs or sacrifices will inevitably be necessary.

LKM: Look at the life of the partners and then you’ll know what your life will be like. Are they well-balanced, fit, happy in their relationships, and willing to invest in you and what’s important to you? If not, find a firm that will or start your own.

JDM: Take a close look at the practice area that you are choosing because some practice areas offer a lot more flexibility than others. For example, practices that deal regularly with the courts often provide the least flexibility and longest hours. Also, learn to leverage your support staff so you can take the personal time you need while still meeting the needs of your firm and clients.

LF: Young attorneys should be encouraged to have a life outside of the law. We are inundated with expectations from the bar, our communities, charities, our children’s schools, etc. I think this is because we tend to be natural leaders holding positions of prominence in our communities. It is critical young attorneys find a way to spend some time meeting some expectations that are, of course, important to one’s career. At the same time, young attorneys should understand it is okay to draw boundaries and establish a life full of family, friends, and interests outside the profession.

Finally, young practitioners should identify a mentor. This doesn’t have to be a formal relationship. It can be with someone inside or outside of the law with whom you can discuss the challenges of balancing a legal career with a life. I think this is even more important for women, who still face the concurrent joys and demands of marriage, caring for children, supporting aging parents, running a household, and managing their career (all to be done while looking good, staying in shape, and eating well).

GM: My advice is to not add pressure to yourself with this topic. You already have enough of that. Let adding balance first and foremost add fun into your life. When you feel happy, your mood elevates and you do everything better. So don’t start to add balance into your life with a practice that feels hard and stressful. Start with something that is highly appealing to you, whatever that might be. For some that would be adding time to read a book or for others that might be adding fun time with friends. Above all else, be patient because you’re creating change, and change always takes time.

BK: Choosing the right workplace environment makes a huge difference. Particularly when interviewing, many lawyers focus on talking to attorneys at their level or a year or two ahead of them. I encourage attorneys to talk with those who are 10 and 20 years ahead. If the senior attorneys have lives you would like to have, that is probably a good place to work. If the senior attorneys are not people you would like to be, that is probably not the place for you.

Send this to a friend