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TCL > February 2013 Issue > Work and Life—I Choose Both

The Colorado Lawyer
February 2013
Vol. 42, No. 2 [Page  5]

© 2013 The Colorado Lawyer and Colorado Bar Association. All Rights Reserved.

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In and Around the Bar
CBA President's Message to Members

Work and Life—I Choose Both
by Mark A. Fogg

 
   

It’s Christmas Eve. I need to get this article written so that I make the deadline for the February issue of The Colorado Lawyer. If truth be known, I would rather not work today. The kids are coming over soon and we are all leaving for Mass at the Jesuit Retreat House in Sedalia in a few hours. Why didn’t I write this sooner? There are too many other things going on. My wife is going to be upset with me. But this isn’t really work, is it? Still, I promised myself that I would try to write meaningful articles during my term as CBA President. I made a commitment and I don’t want to let anyone down.

Sound familiar? It seems we lawyers are always struggling to find the time to get something done. On top of this, we impose a somewhat artificial work–life balance requirement that we must somehow achieve. The reality is that there is not a clear demarcation between work and life and that we can only develop our individual strategies to be productive—yet sane—lawyers.

In this article, I will describe some of the strategies I have used to try to stay sane, as well as strategies that other lawyers told me they use during times of great demands and stress on the job. I spent six years in the Denver District Attorney’s Office, twenty-six years in private practice as a trial lawyer, and a little more than a year now as a general counsel, so I understand how stressful our profession can be.

I also want to talk about a pilot program the CBA is developing with the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program (COLAP), under the leadership of COLAP Executive Director Barbara Ezyk. COLAP is designed to help lawyers develop skill sets to address stressful issues in our lives. It is here to help us—not only with problems such as addiction, stress and anger management, and mental health issues, but also with law office or law practice management matters, financial issues, and problems associated with aging in the profession. The fact is that lawyers have become the professionals with the highest clinical diagnosis of depression. We need to stop being so hard on ourselves. Also, there are skill sets we can learn to balance work and life that can make our personal lives happier and our professional lives more productive.

I also should note that The Colorado Lawyer has been publishing a very good series of articles called "A Dialogue Between Generations."1 The series is coordinated by Ron Sandgrund and deals with a host of topics relevant to attorneys. The January article was on the very topic of work–life balance. I encourage you to read this excellent exchange2 and share your comments.

Time Spent Flows From My Choices

I remind myself often that I can always choose how to spend my time. If I can be honest that something is important for me to accomplish, I try not to feel guilty about doing it, even though it takes me away from important relationships and other activities.

We want to get the best results for our clients under the circumstances, we don’t want to let our partners down, and we have income expectations (sometimes not so healthy). A private practice lawyer’s personal purgatory is that, even though he or she is so busy and can’t see straight, there also is an incessant worry about where the next case is coming from. We have to accept many such realities in our practice. We also must acknowledge that it is important for us to excel at everything we do and then try to explain it to our loved ones so they understand.

By the same token, when we put in fifteen-hour days for several weeks on end, perhaps we have to acknowledge that we are in fact choosing our practice over our loved ones for that period of time. When and if it no longer is viewed as a choice and becomes our way of life, we lose all sense of perspective. I try not to kid myself that sitting in my office on a Saturday night getting ready for a trial surrounded by pictures of my family substitutes for my spending time with them.

It’s All About Relationships

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to integrating our important relationships into our professional lifestyle. I have thoroughly enjoyed being a lawyer and assisting clients, but I adore being a father. A good friend of mine, Rich Caschette (now his Honor), recommended early on that I spend at least one full day a week with my kids, which was usually Saturdays. I succeeded in doing this almost every week during their youth. I remember those golden Saturday afternoons when I would quietly tell God that He (She?) could freeze-frame life at that moment because it couldn’t possibly get any better.

Early on in my kids’ lives, another lawyer recommended that I take a trip every year with each one of my three children. I started taking the trips when they were 4 years old and continued taking a week-long trip with each of them annually through college. They called them "dad and me" trips. It was one of the best things I ever did, because it was just me and the one child doing whatever we wanted to do together—and it fit my lifestyle, given my passion for traveling. The key was not to give in to the temptation of skipping a trip or rescheduling, which often was very difficult. In so doing, I would have been setting an unfulfilled expectation that I just would feel guilty about.

Of course, taking the time for the trips was made easier because I married one of the nicest, most understanding people on the planet. Pat also was instrumental in developing my practice. When I was at the height of doing business development during my first ten years of private practice, she and I would go out with a client almost every Friday night. To this day, clients I met twenty-five years ago like her more than they do me (a fact to which everyone seems to readily agree when I mention it). It was a comfortable thing for us to do together. Again, this approach is not for everybody, but it definitely was something that fit our lifestyle and still allowed us to spend time together.

The Art of Delegation

Trying to learn how to practice law initially is like trying to catch a runaway freight train. It is equally hard to learn how to effectively delegate. However, those lawyers who don’t develop delegation skill sets are usually among the most miserable in our profession. There are several things I have found to be helpful. For example, whenever I have a large case, a big project, or an important obligation, I make it a point to find a strong, reliable co-chair. By doing so, I can accept the fact that there are times when I just cannot be at a proceeding or finish a project myself.

We attorneys have to be willing to let go of some control—if for no other reason than it relieves a lot of stress. We also have to be willing to concede that, even though we think we can do an "A" job at a deposition, for example, that assessment may not be totally accurate when there are time constraints or other pressures. It’s altogether possible that another lawyer with more time can do a superior job.

Many associate attorneys would like to be able to connect on at least a semi-regular basis with an experienced attorney to discuss their career options. With this in mind, about once a week, at his or her request, I meet with a young lawyer who wants to discuss career-related matters with an experienced (a.k.a. old) lawyer. From these discussions, I have come to realize that there are striking differences in how partners and shareholders delegate to associates. One of the biggest complaints I hear is that the associates work on only pieces of a case and feel they have no understanding of the case as a whole. Consequently, they do not believe they are developing as lawyers. Sometimes, this can’t be avoided, given the size and breadth of a case; however, improved communication with associates at the firm and increased delegation of work can go a long way toward making them feel part of the team and help to fine-tune their practice skills.

Billable Hours

With today’s job market, lawyers don’t always have the luxury of choosing—let alone figuring out—a firm’s work culture before taking a job. However, in speaking with young lawyers considering job offers, two of the first three things they tell me about the prospective job are the necessary minimum billable hours and the bonus structure. They usually mention these things before they talk about the type of work they will do or with whom they will work. This often gives me pause and makes me wonder whether we established lawyers are introducing new lawyers to the practice of law in the best way possible.

Frankly, I am opposed to minimum billable hours—not because I don’t think lawyers should work hard, but because I believe imposing minimum billable hours makes lawyers mediocre. Instead of focusing on the best result for the client and the hours that flow from that, all too often the focus is on the billable hour as an end in itself. There may be several years that a lawyer works well beyond the minimum because the work itself demands it; there also should be years that are less demanding. It appears that younger generations of attorneys may be resisting these high minimum billable hours. Perhaps we workaholic baby boomers can learn from that.

Find Your Zen

The importance of exercise in reducing stress can’t be overstated. It’s also important to find those activities that "make time melt away" while keeping your thoughts about cases or legal issues to a minimum. Many lawyers extol the virtues of yoga or meditation. Although I kid a lot about my fly fishing addiction, that "feeling of Zen" is exactly what I gain when I’m out in the water. I can spend three hours trying to catch one rising fish without thinking about anything else.

Dealing With Digitalization

During my local bar visits, I ask participants what they think professionally and culturally are the biggest impacts on our profession and its core values. Without exception, our digitalized culture is mentioned among the top three things, and almost always in the context of increased stress on lawyers. The one- or two-day turnaround time for getting back to clients is reduced to hours; contact between lawyers is increasingly depersonalized; and everyone is overloaded with information. Some of the strategies lawyers recommend to deal with the stress created by digital immediacy are:

  • Starting with the first meeting with a client, establish boundaries and expectations for how and when you can be contacted and the turnaround time for your response.
  • When receiving a non-emergency e-mail request for something, acknowledge the e-mail and advise the sender of a realistic time frame for completing the request.
  • Develop an increased sensitivity about nonproductive e-mail exchanges, and pick up the phone and call the other lawyer.
  • Always put potentially "unfriendly" e-mails in draft form and reflect on them before sending.
  • When geographically feasible, go out of your way to personally introduce yourself to an attorney you do not know to help facilitate future discussions on a case or project.

COLAP Can Be a Lifeline

COLAP was established in June 2011 pursuant to the Colorado Supreme Court’s adoption of Rule 254 establishing a confidential assistance program for judges, lawyers, and law students. In addition to the assistance set forth in its Mission Statement,3 COLAP can refer to career or financial advisors and to therapists, and has a number of mentor volunteers to assist on many issues. COLAP also emphasizes education on recognizing the signs and symptoms of a fellow lawyer who is struggling, so as to help with early intervention.

The CBA is working hard to get the word out about COLAP. If you or a colleague needs assistance, or if you would like more information about the program, please contact Barbara Ezyk at bezyk@coloradolap.org, (303) 986-3345, or (855) 208-1168 (toll free). Visit COLAP online at www.coloradolap.org to find information about COLAP’s one-hour ethics program for all types of groups.

A New Pilot Program

The CBA and COLAP are partnering on a new pilot program, "Becoming a Sane and Productive Lawyer in 2013—A Monthly Series for Professional Wellness." This program will consist of a series of ninety-minute seminars. The first program that is being evaluated will take place in Denver and will comprise approximately twenty-five participants who will discuss many issues related to sustaining a healthy, successful career. Among the seminar subjects are: Healthy Mind, Healthy Body; Coping With the Digital Fire Hose; Meditation—It’s Not Just for the Yoga-Minded; The Billable-Hour Treadmill; Avoiding the Hidden Traps of a Busy Practice; and Resiliency—Balancing Work and Life. The CBA and COLAP also will evaluate, based on response to the Denver program, whether it should be offered on a statewide basis.

Strive for Balance

Finding a healthy balance of work and life doesn’t happen overnight. It can mean a lifetime of trial and error, learning from our mistakes, and seeking counsel from people we trust. It’s important to accept that professional decisions made in our day-to-day practice may have an impact on our personal lives—and vice versa. I suggest that the choice is not between work or life, but how we choose to integrate our interests, relationships, and work in our professional life. We can help each other by suggesting strategies and teaching skill sets.

We are interested in hearing your strategies for achieving balance in your life. Join the ongoing discussion among lawyers and judges. Send your comments to Ron Sandgrund at rsandgrund@vsss.com.

Notes

1. "A Dialogue Between Generations" is a seven-part series beginning in November 2012 and continuing monthly through May 2013. It is available online at www.cobar.org/tcl.

2. Sandgrund, "A Dialogue Between Generations—Work–Life Balance," 42 The Colorado Lawyer 65 (Jan. 2013), available at www.cobar.org/tcl/tcl_articles.cfm?articleid=7925.

3. COLAP’s Mission Statement reads as follows:

The mission of the Colorado Lawyers Assistance Program is to protect the interests of clients, litigants and the general public by educating the bench, bar and law schools regarding the causes of and remedies for impairments affecting members of the legal profession, and to provide confidential assistance to lawyers, judges and law students who suffer from physical or mental disabilities or other impairments that affect their ability to be productive members of the profession.

© 2013 The Colorado Lawyer and Colorado Bar Association. All Rights Reserved. Material from The Colorado Lawyer provided via this World Wide Web server is protected by the copyright laws of the United States and may not be reproduced in any way or medium without permission. This material also is subject to the disclaimers at http://www.cobar.org/tcl/disclaimer.cfm?year=2013.


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