May 2012's President Column
By Robert C. Dortch, Jr.
Balance: "equipoise between contrasting, opposing, or interacting elements"; "a means of judging or deciding"; "mental and emotional steadiness"; "physical equilibrium". Merriam-Webster On-Line Dictionary (and Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1986).
I had a conversation with an attorney recently that led to a discussion about the issue many practicing attorneys struggle with throughout their careers: balance. This attorney -- let's call her "Rasheda" -- called me about an area of law my firm specializes in and wanted to know if we could help her. Ultimately our conversation meandered to law firm related issues: how's your practice going, have things picked up, are you hiring anybody - the usual economy-driven topics many of us have struggled with for a few years now. Rasheda shared with me that she hung out her own shingle after being a partner in her prior firm for many years. I asked her what had led to that decision. Rasheda's family was concerned that her busy, litigation oriented practice had seriously limited her time with her family and now appeared to be negatively impacting her health. Her family did not like the fact she missed so many family events and they were concerned her law practice was going to "kill" her. The family's concern got her attention. She met with her law partners and asked for some help -- changes had to be made so she could achieve some balance in her life. Needless to say, Rasheda was more than a little surprised when her partners, instead of hiring an associate or another paralegal to help her, took out a key man life insurance policy on her. Gee, thanks.
So Rasheda opened her own office and the issue of "balance" took a new turn. She went about interviewing and hiring associates to try to gain some balance between her professional and personal lives. Given the current state of the economy she expected there would be a line of attorneys out the door wanting to sign on as a litigation associate in her busy firm. Once again she was surprised when people eager for work were not willing to put in the nights and weekends necessary to prepare for trial -- "there's more to life than work" she heard more than once. Where's the balance?
Balance is oftentimes difficult to achieve. As attorneys we hold ourselves to high standards. We are ethically required to be "a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system, and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice". RPC 0.1. That's no small task. We are charged with the responsibility of zealously asserting our client's position in our unique adversary system. And all the time we are to do so while honestly dealing with others. We're a competitive lot by nature. We all want to "win." As a result of our professional duties and our competitive natures, we spend an inordinate amount of time in the office or away from home and family. It's easy to become "unbalanced."
Do you hold yourself to the same high standards on your personal and home fronts? What is the quality of your personal and home lives? Do you or your family suffer because your professional life is out of balance with your home life? What are you doing about it? I think it is safe to say that we all have had periods of time when our profession have taken over our lives -- working around the clock to close that deal, getting ready for and trying those cases, traveling hither and yon deposing witnesses -- but I don't think it is equally as safe to say that all of us took the time to get back in "balance." We're off to put out the next fire or try to meet the unreasonable expectations of the next client. Of course, the "imbalance" leads to stress because we cannot possibly do it all.
We've all seen the articles that tell us stress has so many negative impacts on our mental and physical health. We stop taking care of ourselves. We drink or eat too much. We become depressed. This tough economy has only made things worse for many of our Bar members. Balance becomes harder to achieve. Lawyer depression is no secret. If you find yourself feeling seriously "out of balance," I encourage you to visit www.MeckBar.org and click on the "For Attorneys" tab and then click on the NC Lawyers Assistance Program (NC LAP) tab. Confidential assistance is available. All you have to do is contact the NC LAP.
There will always be a tug-of-war between our personal and professional lives. Personal and professional calendars and schedules will not always be in sync. On any given day or week, our professional or personal demands may require more attention than the other. I encourage you to take a look at the bigger picture. Were things in balance when you look back over a month or quarter? Maybe it's not as dire as once thought. And if it was, what can be done about it?
I admit that I was surprised when I heard Rasheda recount her difficulties in finding someone willing to put in the night and weekend hours necessary for a successful litigation practice. But after thinking about, I'll now admit that I admire those young folks' honesty in not taking a job just to have a job. I encourage all of you to strike a healthy balance. Do something that is fun, fulfilling, stress relieving. Give your family the same "quality" that you give your clients. Find your balance. With that said, there are no deadlines tomorrow, so I'm taking the wife for a ride on the Harley and definitely try to stay "balanced," whatever the definition may be.