Updated: Aug 5
When does your work day end?
That question seems simple in most professions and the answer is oftentimes tied to a schedule, a calendar, or some sort of start and end times. In the legal profession, however, the question is not simple and the answer is vague.
A response to that question addressed to a lawyer often begins with, "I usually stop working around..." and is followed by "But I get back down to work for a few hours after dinner/the kids are in bed/my partner is asleep/the dog is down for the night." Even more common is the email checking, texting, or phone call during dinner, or game night, or other family moment. The issue is that the legal profession is all-encompassing, seeping through crevices of our lives like water in a jug filled with rocks. It gets everywhere. It is the glitterbomb of work.
Evidently, the notion that we should be constantly available and perpetually responsive is to blame. But underlying that, if we were to look at things a little differently, is the idea we should have "work-life balance." Balance indicates that work and life are of equal value and, most importantly, that we are of equal value to both aspects of our lives. But they aren't and we aren't.
As you may know (if you've read other blog posts) in October 2020 I nearly died of a pulmonary embolism. I've also had two burnouts, which taught me a tremendous amount about protecting my well-being. One statement that hit home particularly hard was "You are dispensable to your company but indispensable to your family." I have been pondering and revisiting what that means for months. I had already spoken about the first half of that statement, telling a group of women lawyers not to believe the hype of indispensability in the workplace, but I hadn't quite made the connection to the second half of that statement.
A later conversation with someone close to me further crystallized what it means to be indispensable to my family. They noted they didn't have "time" to do something; I answered that I felt the same way for a long time, until I made the switch to being a full time working mom and the primary caregiver for my kids. When that happened, every day the kids needed me for puck up or for after school activities so I was there. How? Because I created boundaries between work and life, rather than merely balancing them. When the "kid shift" began (the after school ceremonies of pick up, homework, swim classes, chilling, dinner and post-dinner chilling) I was done with the work shift: no overlap.
The water jar is not the same as the rock jar. They are different and apart.
And then it dawned on me that as long as we talk about balance, we treat work and life as though they can tangle with each other, which is a false paradigm.
First, assuming the two should coexist, work always wins. Work is "urgent," work has to be handled "right away," and work always needs "one more minute."
Second, the reality is that there have to be inviolate bubbles for life because connection requires focus of attention and purpose. Our kids, our partners, our families, and our friends can't be fit between two emails; meaningful conversations and moments require immersion, without outside interruption.
Thinking of work-life as a boundary requires a paradigm shift, for sure, but it is a healthy one and it is a more honest one. Can we create a workplace where work stays at work? What is stopping you from not checking your email and not answering phone calls during family time? And if your colleagues or bosses are expecting you to answer after-hours, is that fair?
When we rethink the legal profession for "the great uncrushing," as I refer to it, we need to set boundaries between our work and our life, and stick to them. We shouldn't be balancing our life with our work, we should leave them in their separate places.
As a caveat (or disclaimer), I work from home, with four kids. Work and life are not physically separate, necessarily but (in my case) they are temporally and substantively separate. Work is from a set time to a set time. The kids know that during certain hours, I'm working. Largely, they abide. However, at the end of my "day" I walk out of the office and neither email nor work text get looked at or answered until the next morning. Did my life-threatening episode cause some of this? Sure. But is it wrong? No!
If you are looking to create a more healthy workplace, change the conversation and the culture to one of work-life boundaries rather than work-life balance. You'll be completely changing the quality of people's lives.
Dr. Giugi Carminati, Esq., JSD, CIPP/E, CEDS, LPM, is Director of Innovation and Legal Practice Management at Order of Proof. She is a legal and e-discovery project manager, as well as an e-discovery specialist and privacy professional (EU). Giugi created Livable Law to deliver legal and e-discovery project management that prioritizes efficiency, efficacy, and personnel well-being by implementing agile project management techniques and intelligent use of legal tech.
Giugi uses her decade-plus of litigation experience, in federal and state courts, as well as a track record creating her own law firm (The Woman's Lawyer), to bring practical solutions to law firms.
She is licensed in Texas, Colorado, DC, California, and New York. Giugi currently works with a number of firms, both internally and externally, to provide project management and deliver coaching so that firms can implement their own Legal Project Management solutions. She publishes LPM and e-discovery blog articles at Geek Like a Girl. She speaks four languages and is a PADI diving instructor. She splits her time between Hawai'i, Colorado, and Texas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.