PSP Member Discussion: Work life balance and liking what you Do?

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The Park Slope Parents’ Law specialty group discussed how to maintain a work life balance in an industry notorious for its long and demanding hours.

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Original poster writes:  

 

I am wondering who has found the life work balance in their career, while enjoying the work and getting appropriately compensated for it? I am a new mom and I am currently on maternity leave, but I am getting anxious thinking about going back to work. I work in compliance at a bank and while I love the work and I am thankful to be doing something that is challenging and interesting, it is also intense and very stressful, and I am wondering where that balance is more attainable. I would love to hear what industries and firms are better for the work life balance and interesting work or if you have advice generally on how to find that balance?

 

Responses:

 

Use your priorities to guide your job search:

“I don't know if it is a holy grail, but it is absolutely possible to love what you do, get paid well for it, have reasonable hours and flexibility and still be open to further developments in the future (i.e., not be stuck in a job that's just good for now).  Certainly, it is not possible to have all those things in all fields, especially the getting paid well for it part, but I think if you love your work in finance you should be able to find what you are looking for.  Also, as I think others have mentioned before, the more senior you are, the easier it is to obtain flexibility in how you do your job.
I certainly have found such a job on all fronts when I left a job at a good law firm to go in-house in a financial firm.  And it wasn't the only one available at the time.  Perhaps it was luck, and maybe some luck does play into it, but I think it also comes down to being very clear about your priorities and guiding a job search towards those priorities.  Happy to chat more offline if you like!”

 

A good workplace policy for employees (e.g. flexibility) can make a huge difference:

“Our work is very very intense but the hours are generally reasonable. When I'm not on trial (which happens no more than 2x/yr, often less) or working a night court shift, I almost always work from 9- 5:15, with a 20 minute door to door commute on each end.  Our pay is low, but our benefits and vacation package are pretty excellent. I'm about to take my second 6-month maternity leave in 2 years. Last one was fully paid (3 mos leave + accrued time) and this one will be about 80% paid. And the atmosphere is generally family friendly--we have a pocket of leave that we can explicitly use for staying home with sick kids or other family responsibilities. leaving mid-day for a pediatrician appointment or to take a preschool tour is totally culturally fine, etc.
I really like what I do, but I don't love working full time. I would love to spend more time with my daughter. I would love for work to be a part of my life without it being such a huge part of my life. Some kind of significant part time work would be wonderful, but I can't really figure that out with loan repayment and benefits riding on my job.”

“Thanks for getting this conversation started. These issues are constantly on my mind. I work at [Firm Name] and I represent children who are abused or neglected or in foster care. It is emotionally taxing but can be very rewarding. It is also extremely flexible. Most of my co-workers are parents (mostly women) and we all cover for each other. I took two maternity leaves that were mostly paid for 6 months each. I leave at 5:00 every day with no issue and have over 5 weeks of vacation and unlimited sick time. The pay is certainly a major downside but the ability to help children paired with the flexibility to see my own children makes it worth it.”

“I love my job and coworkers and have decent flexibility when it comes to working remotely and setting boundaries to get home for the kids. It is still a struggle to manage it all.”

“When I work later in the evening or on the weekends, it's been almost entirely by choice, and I often get to count that "overtime" as extra vacation, which increases my flexibility.  I also have an official lunch hour that I'm really supposed to take, and I use it to make doctor appointments, do online grocery shopping, and other home-related things that I have less time to do at home.
While I took a significant pay cut in leaving big law, I generally feel like I'm fairly compensated and the compensation is more generous than other areas of government (state, city) or the public sector, and I'm guessing it's more akin to what you might expect at a small firm.  I also find my work interesting, rewarding and, for litigation, lower stress than what I had before -- I am a consumer protection litigator and I love doing 100% public interest work.”

 

Try a four day a week or a 60/80% schedule:

“I have worked at several legal jobs from big law firm to city agency and I now work in house at a hospital. And I work 4 days. This is totally unhelpful, but I think the holy grail is completely elusive, AND it changes as the kids' get older. That being said, in house is a pretty nice gig. I make a decent salary, have predictable hours, home for dinner, no travel, work about 20 mins from home and almost never work on the weekends. It's varied enough to be interesting but no pressure to generate revenue. Now that my kids are a little older and I wish I were there after school a little more for homework, etc. A few moms I know were able to transition to a part time 8-3 kind of thing when their kids got older.  That really worked for them and seems like a dream to me!” 

“I am a litigator at a Big Law firm and returned on an 80% basis after my daughter (now 2) was born. It mostly works, but my firm is generally very supportive and I can be flexible because I have a lot of help at home. But I nevertheless have plenty of anxiety about the future (whether it would work with a second kid, whether it's sustainable long term, to the extent I am interested in other career paths, what I'd be getting into...).”

“As an appellate public defender for a non-profit, I have regular hours, independence, fairly low stress, and an intellectually challenging job.  In return for those non-lawyerly perks, however, is low pay.  Further reducing my pay was my decision to go back to work only 4 days/week after my first child was born.  However, if you can swing it financially, I highly recommend it.  When my kids were really little, I got a whole day of them to myself - we went on adventures, had playdates, just hung out - without worrying about weekend errands.  When the older one went to elementary school, I had a good (half) day of bonding with the younger one (school lets out insanely early).  Now that they are both in elementary school, I have one day where I get to pick them up at school and spend an afternoon with them, or I can swap the day for another when they have a field trip or some in-school event that I otherwise wouldn't be able to attend.”

 

It’s not just work policy that matters. It’s the people around you, too:

“I do think sadly there is no magic sector of the profession (although some are likely more conducive than others) but it matters a lot about the place, the other people and the people in charge. I am a public interest lawyer and as [a previous oister] noted that doesn't automatically mean better balance in comparison to a firm (and certainly not as well compensated but comparatively to many people roaming this city just fine).
I have been a parent at 2 organizations and found both very flexible and balanced but for slightly different reasons. The first was 11 people (6 lawyers) and I was one of 3 under 55. My current one is 35 people and only 4 over 45. The former were people who had dealt with shit working experiences already and were just past it all and also had limited the person who became a parent before me and she left so I was able to get more and work 80% time for a year and a half after my first and 7 months after my second. The 4 day week is great. Even as a litigator I was able to stay on top of things but have more time for family and life.
Now I do work full time but at a place where over half the staff has small or school aged kids and there is a general understanding of what that means in terms of needing to get home for a specific time and school/community obligations. There is a trust that you are doing your work and doing it well. Two people just came back from leave on 80% time as well. Not sure what I am saying here but that the people setting the tone can matter as much as policies - at least in smaller places."

 

Find workplaces that value diversity, family rights, and equal representation of women:

“I think the holy grail is probably different for each of us but I do feel like I've found mine, as much as any job can be.  I work for the City's Law Department.  I do interesting work with a fair amount of responsibility and flexibility. The law department is a large agency with many divisions and some of them - particularly the litigating ones - may not have the same level of flexibility but my non-litigating division has always had very reasonable hours been very flexible with my schedule and family obligations. I spent a couple of years working 8-4 to be able to pick my kids up early from after-care and have brought them in to the office on days off on many occasions. And more than 50% of the attorneys here are women.   Not sure if one would consider public sector work well paid, though.  After over 10 years here, I finally make more than what  I made at a big firm when I was first out of law school. There are opportunities to work part time (3 or 4 days/week) but I'm not sure I could afford it.   If you need to be making $200k, this is not the place but I love my job and  I don't for one second regret leaving the private sector.”

“I'm fortunate in that my firm has made retaining women a priority and has been introducing initiatives to address work life balance concerns (flex time, providing support to work remotely, etc.), but in practice it is difficult to realize the benefits of such programs when work schedules are unpredictable and so much of what we do is client-driven.  I really enjoy what i do and love the people I work with, but I am always considering what my next "move' should be.”

 

Having support at work is key:

“I've now worked at 4 law firms and support is so key. My current firm has almost no one in my area I can delegate to which is a huge lifestyle problem and something I'd suggest avoiding at any firm as you gain seniority, and I'm in a small group so it is harder to take time off. These are not good for work/life balance.”

"I'm a first time mom with a 5 month old and recently went back to work and have been having a hard time "doing it all".  I frankly wonder if being a lawyer and being a mom can happily co-exist (with the balance that I want)."

 

Maintain a predictable schedule:

“For my part, I have VERY poor work/life balance as a deal lawyer at a firm and I dislike that a lot - at 10:30 pm I'm headed home from work now, I tend to work late/start very early some days and leave work early others like some days when I'm seeing my 11 year old son (I tend to work late 2 out of 4 weekdays and once in awhile on a Friday or weekend). The worst part is the lack of predictability and control.”

 

Contain work to to working hours:

“I am a litigator (civil). I worked at big firms for almost 10 year and just recently (2 months ago) moved to a tiny firm where I work 4 days a week. I have a 14 month old daughter. 
I had a really hard time finding a job as a litigator that paid enough (I am the primary breadwinner) but had reasonable hours.
There are some in-house litigation jobs out there, but man they aren't easy to get, and most government jobs just didn't pay enough to cover my modest mortgage (I wish so much that they did). It took a while to find a place that was open to a 4 day schedule, but I'm so glad I did. I'm still trying to figure out the pacing of my new job and how to get home at a reasonable hour -   I find that much harder than treating Friday like a weekend, for whatever reasons. I'm not sure if that's litigation, my working style, the culture of my firm, or the fact that i do childcare on Fridays.
I think one of the biggest institutional problems with law firms in particular is that they are often run by men who have little experience/motivation to manage work in a way that allows people to walk out of the door consistently at, say 5pm. I really think it's possible and when I used to manage big teams, tried my hardest to keep work within working hours. But it requires a certain level of organization and advanced planning that seems to be lacking among many managers.”

 

But as other members point out, is containing work to working hours realistic?

“As for law firms managing to keep work within business hours, I do think that corporate and securities practices are always not realistic for that. For example, an sec filing deadline of 5:30 means you may end up filing at 5:29 and not being able to walk out the door until 5:40. This is just the nature of the beast.”

“I definitely struggle with the balance and I tend to go after as much work as I can because I am the primary bread winner, and always will be, thus making less money is not an option. Having spent 9 years in big law, and knowing many in house attorneys, I do think the law is particularly hard profession for parents. It's the high level of responsibility coupled with a service based business that is based on a billable hour is in part, I think, what makes it so demanding.”

 

Maybe it’s unrealistic to have it all and there needs to some compromise:

“I'm currently in-house at a tech company, and in many respects have a pretty good work-life balance. I typically work 9:30/10 to 6/6:30, but there wouldn't be an issue if I left at 5 or earlier and came back online later, and I almost never work weekends and don't travel. I'm getting 4 months paid maternity leave, and am confident that I can either ask for more time off unpaid and/or to work part time when returning. My company pays me less than what I could make at a competitor's, but I'm comfortable on my salary.
The work can be interesting at times because the technology is cutting edge, and I've somehow gone from a leverage finance attorney to a product attorney. However, I find that I am always frustrated because the clients I work with are unsophisticated and don't have much accountability or understanding of their roles (i.e., a sales person should know the product they're selling and not asking me simply because it was described in writing). Because of this frustration, I find myself thinking about leaving despite the flexibility, and after reading through this string, am wondering whether that would be a mistake. Maybe the dream work/life balance, with flexibility, responsibility and interesting subject matter and sufficient salary simply don't exist, and one has to make due with 2-3 out of the 5?”

 

Become your own boss:

“I have a solo practice that is almost entirely virtual as my intellectual property clients are all over the country. I brought my office home just before my daughter, 11 mos, was born. I love my work and the clients I serve (mostly female entrepreneurs - many of them moms), but maternity leave as a solo practitioner was less than ideal. I had an urgent matter arise 4 days postpartum and regret that I felt so much anxiety at a time when I would like to have been completely present for my new family. I now work 3 short days/week and although I would like to be more engaged with work, I feel that it makes most sense to have another child in the near future rather than build up my business again and commit to an office space, all to lose momentum again a few years down the road. Logistically, it's sort of a circus with our nanny and baby in the next room while I work and speak to clients, but I love being able to take breaks to nurse her and put her down for naps. My husband is a real estate attorney at a mid-sized firm. His hours vary (30 to sometimes 90 per week), but in general the weekday household and parenting tasks are my responsibilities, which I for the most part enjoy.”

“I started my career at big law and felt similar frustrations to those that everyone is describing in this discussion. Part-time at my firm was an option to me, but being a corporate lawyer to emerging growth companies, I knew that in order to give my clients the kind of service they expected, I would end up working the same amount while making less than everyone else. I briefly explored going in house, but was worried that I'd grow tired of reviewing the same form of contract day in and day out.
A year and a half ago, I left my job to start [my own company] with my business partner who also came from big law. Our firm acts as outside general counsel to technology startups and, while it definitely is not easy, I can say with a straight face that I love what I do. My partner had her first child three months ago and I'm expecting mine any day. Running a law firm does mean both my partner and I don't get much of a maternity leave, but we decided that giving up a maternity leave was worth the sacrifice to be at home at night and around on the weekends with our families.
We've seen tremendous growth in the last year and a half and have been scaling our firm. We do work with startups so our main mission is to keep legal services affordable without sacrificing the quality of work. As a result, our salaries cannot compete with big law, but we are committed to creating a work environment that is supportive of families. I'd love to hear from anyone that might be interested in joining our team and also happy to chat with anyone about my transition from big law.”

 

Men should help out too:

“I'm also curious where the men are in this discussion (I'm assuming based on the names of those who've responded that all the responses have come from women, and my assumption may be wrong). It seems to me that everyone who has a job and a life would be invested in figuring out how to achieve a satisfying balance between the two.”

“I'd also like to hear from the male lawyers in this group and whether work/life balance is a problem.  My understanding is that it's absolutely not just a female-lawyer issue and yet only the women have responded so far.  For those of you males that are open to weighing in, if your work-life balance is better, is that because you're the primary breadwinner and you have someone at home who handles things so you can work to your heart's content?  In other words, does a traditional family setup make it easier in some ways?  (not espousing that, just wondering)
A male colleague yesterday with grown kids told me yesterday that his wife was the emotional support for their kids and he worked as and when needed.  In some ways, it made me sad for him that he missed something - but perhaps in his mind he didn't - and in other ways it made me sad for people who are constantly betwixt like me and are rarely where they want to (or should) be at any time as they get pulled in 4 directions at once... and living in NYC doesn't usually make it easier between high expenses and commuting issues.”

 

From the male perspective:

“To respond, from the male point of view, I have a solo criminal defense practice, which requires me to be available all of the time.  I am in court and doing work during the day and often networking at night.  I often only have one day off on the weekends and work past the point where my kids are in bed 3 nights or so a week.  My job is unpredictable and would not be possible without an extremely flexible and supportive wife (who also works full time as an attorney)."

“I won't let [the previous poster] be the sole male voice here.  Frankly, I didn't chime in at first because I don't have any good advice to offer.  I'm the father of two (ages 5 and 2).  
I went from being a Big Law associate to starting my own solo practice.  I would say both are equally family unfriendly.  Big Law had the benefit that I could afford paid child care more easily, the solo practice's main benefit is that I work in the neighborhood, and I'm available to pick up sick kids, go to a field trip, or program and then pop back into the office.  But building a practice takes a lot of hard work, including networking meetings, committees and boards.  I'm in a fairly niche area and it requires a lot of face time at the right events to be recognized as a peer by the more established practitioners.
I started my practice because I felt something almost akin to a calling to do it.  And there were no other jobs I could bring myself to apply for.  I did not do it because I thought it would be a family friendly thing to do.  It has it's moments, but it's harder than having another child.”

“In many ways, my wife and l, both lawyers, have found a good balance. Our kids are 8 and 6. Soon after the birth of our second child, my wife moved in-house from big law. I've been with the federal government -- the SEC -- the whole time. Both jobs require fewer hours than big law, allow for some flexibility, and respect time outside work. To put numbers on it, I'd say we each work 45 hour weeks, give or take, depending. I'm sure we'd both be more successful in our careers if we worked harder and took less advantage of the flexibility our jobs allow. But we've decided, more by osmosis than anything, that time outside of work is more valuable to us than that extra success. We've inadvertently achieved another balance, that is, neither of us is the main breadwinner. And now we're beginning to wonder if that's a good thing or whether life would be more manageable if I moved to the private sector for more money, at the cost of more hours and less flexibility, so my wife could cut back and be at home more. Chiefly, because my wife would like to be at home more and we both think it would be good for the kids. I'm guess I haven't much of a point (the grass is always greener?) but thought I'd respond to the call for more input from dad-lawyers.”  

 

It’s possible with the support of an understanding spouse/partner:

“I've had two kids while at my current position (now 2.5 and almost 8 months old) and loved the fact that I had 7-month maternity leaves for each of them. I just came back from my second leave and work 4-day weeks. I love the flexibility and sane work hours of my job, plus the work is interesting, but it's definitely significantly lacking in the pay department. The benefits are great though and my husband's salary makes it possible.”

 

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