The Myth of the Work-Life Balance
By Lisa J. Zastrow, Esq.
As an eight year old child, at the dinner table I would use a large chunk of sweet white onion fresh from my mother’s garden as a spoon for delivering bites of delicious mashed potatoes into my mouth. My step-dad, who passed away in September, would look at me with a puzzled face and lovingly say “eewh, that’s gross” every single time for over a decade. This same man on a near daily basis would empty an entire pack of salty peanuts into his Mountain Dew and say “ah, that’s delicious” while my sister and I laughed and said “eewh, that’s gross.” We are all different. Our desires, needs, drive, ethics – tastes – are all different. Our differences are evident. Yet as a society, most of our institutional systems seek to box us into categories that may not always address our unique qualities. This is true with respect to the practice of law. As a human, mental health issues present uniquely, yet our profession requires a robotic deference to a litany of rules. The two “rules” most often imposed are: (1) extreme billable hours in private practice; and (2) unrestrained workloads.
“By law’s dark byways he has stored his mind with wicked knowledge of how to cheat mankind”- author unknown
Here is a dirty little secret not taught in my folksy little law school in Oklahoma. During some point in your career as an attorney, practicing law will deny your unique qualities and demand a certain amount of conformity. The example I always use only relates to private practice, but is an easy target and has caused me debilitating internal conflict. I have found myself in law firms honoring the “high billable” hour over wins, ethics, and quality of work. As a young attorney, this model teaches associates that a robotic practice of entering time, making sure to capture all of the .1’s, will advance your career faster than quality work. This practice can also result in pervasive inflated billing, which is not challenged in many firms because more billable hours is more revenue.
In those firms, I was never reminded of Nevada Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.5(a)(5) which limits all billable hour engagements to actual time worked. I was certainly never reminded of NRCP 1.1 which requires competence in the representation of the client, including skill and thoroughness. As attorneys, many of us entered the practice expecting to spend our days fighting for justice, making arguments, pouring through information looking for a smoking gun, and doing all of the substantive things that we actually still do. But when the praise comes from the “billable hour,” it can be mentally conflicting and disturbing to many in the practice, causing vast cynicism and burnout.
There is virtually no way for attorneys to spend all their waking hours “billing hours” while still devoting time to their family, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and staying true to their personal moral compass. Yet, in all of these firms I was routinely the recipient of newsletters or firm wide emails touting the importance of “work-life” balance.
It’s all a rouse.
These institutions are founded on the single goal of cheating mankind at all cost for the sake of money or power, or both. They will never change. There is a negative inertia that is created from leadership that will not transform.
Tip #1: If you are working in practice and find yourself up against institutional norms that are poison to your soul and will never change (my example was the billable hour badge of honor), you must quit your job. Find another job first, then quit. Sayonara. Exit stage left.
I am not suggesting that earning a good salary or compensation is not a worthy goal, it is. But compromising ethics and your health and happiness for money and power or praise from unethical leadership, or by allowing yourself to be reduced to a machine, is a recipe for burnout.
“The human mind is a very fallible thing, but it’s the only thing that I can really know…” – Grimes
The practice often denies the existence of human fallibility. How many times have you submitted a proposed stipulation to extend discovery deadlines because <insert reason here> only to have the “stipulated” order denied. Your “due diligence” reason did not cut it with whomever the judge was. Hopefully, this does not happen to you often (certainly not in the Eighth Judicial District Court or U.S. District Court of Southern Nevada, wink wink Judges to whom I appear often), yet anyone who has practiced law in any jurisdiction for more than a decade understands this example. My point is simple: we are human, but our profession demands perfection.
Moreover, many times we find ourselves seeking extensions and making mistakes because we do not have the ability to say no to more work. As fallible humans, the more tasks we are responsible for, the more things will fall through the cracks. Picture yourself juggling three balls, then 30 balls, then 100 balls…. at what point do you drop a ball? Trust me, when you miss a single ball, they can all come crashing down. If you find yourself in a pattern of constantly seeking extensions, moving deadlines, or juggling 100 balls, you must make some changes. I was once told in a firm that “this is the practice of law” and to “get used to it.” That was ingrained in me and when I could not juggle all the balls, I believed I was an incompetent failure. I have had many epiphanies in my career and one came when I had spent a few months in that firm on one case all the way to victory and the client thanked me, repeatedly, for the focus and work on her behalf. The partner whom I was working for did not offer any thanks, was angered by my devotion to the client, felt I had developed too close a relationship with this client; yet this partner was no doubt happy to see all of those billable hours. See, this partner and this firm denied not only my fallible human qualities, but my personality. I knew then a change would come soon.
It does not make me a bad attorney because I am unable to juggle 100 balls. I am fallible. I am human. And it does not make me a bad attorney because I am not a machine and I build relationships with clients who appreciate the attention to their matters as their careers are on the line.
Tip #2: Accept that you are human and fallible and learn to say no when you are juggling too many balls lest they all come crashing down.
Let me end with a few final thoughts and tip. In September 2017, the American Bar Association (“ABA”) created a Working Group (“Group”) to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession. The Group soon launched a pledge asking legal employers to take steps to raise awareness to improve lawyer well-being after increasing levels of alcoholism, mental health problems, and suicides in the profession. See https://americanbar.org. The pledge includes, among other promises to “disrupt the status quo of drinking-based events,” “provide confidential access to addiction and mental health experts and resources to all employees, including free, in-house self-assessment tools,” and “highlighting the adoption of this well-being framework to attract and retain the best lawyers and staff.” Id.
So let us get this straight, firms can “pledge” to acknowledge what is already widely known, deemphasize booze at events, and give “access” to self-assessment tools. Ah, but certainly retain the best lawyers and staff. Newsflash – individuals with mental health issues and addictions do not seek these tools, certainly not from their employers, thus making tools available is not helpful. It may create a touchy feely press release for the ABA or for your firm should it sign the pledge, but improve the life of the lawyer it does not.
Most attorneys in firms would never make their addictions or personal health issues known to management for fear of losing their jobs and those fears are legitimate. You don’t believe me? Walk on into your managing partner’s office and tell him or her that you spend your evenings knee deep in pills and alcohol and trolling the funniest “being a lawyer sucks” Instagram memes. Watch the look on his or her face turn from viewing you as a reliable billable source – to pity.
There are exceptions to this general rule and my firm is certainly one. I knew it when I called up my now managing partner years ago and said to him “I want to work with you or I’m going to work at the mall because I hear Victoria’s Secret is hiring.” I was hitting burnout. I was convinced the practice of law was a gutter career, but I called him because the firm defends lawyers and I decided that is what I needed to do. I said to the managing partner, “I am tired of working to make my bosses more money on the backs of insane billable hours, at the expense of my integrity and dignity, spending my evenings doubting my worth and doubting my qualities as a human.”
Tip #3: Trust your gut and follow your passion.
If you are an attorney, you are worthy of happiness. Work in an office that holds your moral norms to the highest and allows you to juggle the right amount of balls. Forget about trying to find a balance. When you begin sleeping well at night, you will know you are in the right place.
About the author:
Lisa J. Zastrow, Esq. is a Partner at Lipson Neilson PC and has two decades of success as a trial, administrative law and appellate attorney. After spending a majority of her career in the male dominated world of commercial litigation, Lisa course corrected and found renewed passion defending attorneys and professionals in malpractice lawsuits and before administrative bodies.
This article was originally published in the “Mental Health” issue of Communiqué, the official publication of the Clark County Bar Association, (June-July 2020).
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