What does a lawyer seeking work life balance need the most? Is it time management and To Do lists? Or exercise? Or less work? Maybe, but none of these will work without the most important element of all: mindset.
Mindset is the key to work life balance in the law.
Several years ago I was getting ready for three jury trials and I felt completely out of whack in my life. After telling my family around the dinner table that I’d be in town for my next trial my then 14 year old son said something that changed me: “Dad, even when you’re here you’re not here.” Everyone else silently agreed and I realized then that I was failing and I needed to change. I promised myself that after the trials finished I would begin a study of what was going on with me so I could change it.
One of the many areas I studied led me to a presentation by a psychologist on balance called “Achieving Sacred Balance”. While I initially found his talk unusual the more I listened the more I saw their clear application to the practice of law and my life.
His view was that in order to be balanced we needed to have the proper mindset, which he defined as a habitual way of looking at and responding to situations that arise. We all have a mindset, every single day, but does it work for or against us?
Mindset consists of four elements: mind (thinking), body (acting), emotion (feeling) and spirit (purpose). The order of how we put these elements to use controls balance in our lives.
A basic example: Lawyer X is in a pretrial deposition when his opponent says something which greatly upsets X. X angrily responds, terminates the deposition and storms out. In his drive home X rationalizes his actions by blaming the other lawyer or the system or whatever. He then goes home and does whatever he does (exercise, talking, drinking, etc.) which calms him down and makes him feel “centered” again.
This is a classic example of an out of balance mindset. Lawyer X initially gets upset and reacts (emotion), then storms out (body), rationalizes his actions on the ride home (thinking) and finally gets re-centered (spirit). This reactive mindset is when circumstances are allowed to control the person and are in the exact opposite order of a balanced mindset.
Balance in the law requires a “correctly ordered” mindset.
Let’s look at the example again from a more balanced perspective. A different lawyer, Lawyer Y, determines before a deposition that she will not get emotional no matter what steps her opponent takes, and that she will do her best to be competent and professional. She is consequently centered and focused throughout the deposition, ignores any comments and completes it without any drama. She leaves and moves on with her day not only feeling satisfied with her actions and work, but not dragged down by emotional turmoil. She goes about her after-work activities already in a position of peace, rather than struggling to return to it.
Although these are simplified examples they demonstrate the need to order the elements of mindset correctly to achieve balance in our work and life. In the latter example the lawyer became centered ahead of time when she first determined how she wanted to act overall (spirit/purpose) and planned accordingly (mind/thinking). She then acted in accordance (body/action) with that thinking and felt good about her actions that day (emotion/feelings).
Again, these are simple examples but the message is clear: balance requires us to act in alignment with what we initially determine to be our overall spirit/purpose. Our thinking or planning follows, then action, then emotion. Doing so allows us to control the circumstances, not the other way around.
Balance limits stress for an attorney
Practicing law and consulting with lawyers has shown me that a lot of stress comes to lawyers from the uncontrollable part of our practices: What will the judge rule? Is there a case out there I missed? Why is my schedule and life controlled by others? Why is there is no clear cut answer to this problem? Where will my next client or job come from? And on and on.
And this doesn’t even begin to address all the uncertainty that comes into a lawyer’s non-work life: Am I working too much? Am I being true to myself and those I love? If I’m so “successful” then why am I so miserable? And on and on.
When you combine uncertainty with an attorney’s natural characteristics of perfectionism and pessimism you get stress, and lots of it. The structure of a balanced mindset helps to control the stress. It gives us a framework to move forward when those inevitable uncertainties come up.
The goal is to make work life balance second nature in law and life.
Since 99.9% of life is unrehearsed we seldom have the luxury of planning on what “correct” option to take. Knowing our purpose/intention first, however, provides us instinctive guidance on what actions to take at any moment. It also gives us a guidepost to return to when we fall out of alignment, which is inevitable.
While the examples here deal with law-related issues their principles also apply to life issues as well. It is essential to have a spirit/purpose outlined for important parts of our lives, such as people we love, mental, physical and spiritual health, money, fun as well as career-related matters. I have a three ring binder with outlines of my Purpose in all of these areas.
Specific goals and planning (thinking) follow but making the outline of your spirit/intention/purpose is the essential first step toward finding and keeping balance in your work and life. The simple fact is you can hammer down as many To Do lists as possible, but until you have the architectural plans of your life down you don’t know what you’re building.
This is a critical first step to balance because the direction they provide helps control your work and life so that it doesn’t control you.