Balancing Act

by Beau Steenken

Recently I returned from vacationing with relatives in California. The combination of a week away from work, conversations with one of my aunts who recently retired from a career in H.R., and seeing my three-year-old son’s unrestrained glee at his first-ever interactions with the ocean got me to musing about work-life balance—those practices that enable employees to meet both family responsibilities/lifestyle goals and work expectations. A good work-life balance is generally recognized to benefit both employees and employers. Providing work-life balance was the impetus for the FMLA, and the Department of Labor continues to stress both the importance of work-life balance and the success of the FMLA in helping to achieve it.

It seems, though, that law is a field that struggles with balance. NALP periodically reports on the number of billable hours associates work, and Yale Law School has used the data to describe what one’s schedule would have to look like to hit typical billable hour targets. Strikingly, Yale notes that it did not include time for personal calls and also assumed zero personal or sick days. Achieving work-life balance in such an environment is challenging, and, unsurprisingly, the legal profession suffers from high rates of suicide, substance abuse, and depression. Achieving better work-life balance is often suggested as something lawyers can do to avoid becoming a dire statistic.

Furthermore, lawyers’ poor work-life balance is a recurring theme in news and pop culture. Personally, I like the Coen Brothers’ portrayal of it in Intolerable Cruelty, though more sinister imagery is also effective. I can’t help but think that the portrayal of miserable attorneys’ focusing solely on their careers to the detriment of relationships and happiness is as much a part of the decline in law school applicants as is the attention on debt. After all, there has been significant attention paid to the fact that millennials value work-life balance more than previous generations and will take less money for better balance—a concept that is anathema to traditional law firms.

Therefore, I think it is important that we set good examples for our students and instill them with habits that will enable them to achieve work-life balance in their  careers. At UK Law, our Academic Success office runs sessions on mental health, stress relief, mindfulness, organization, and other techniques that help students develop habits that lead to better balance. My colleagues and  I often participate in the programs and reinforce the lessons by offering similar advice to students (we’re particularly good at the organization bit). However, I sometimes wonder if I actually set a good example. I tend to answer student emails at night and on weekends, and even answered a few while I was on vacation. While I’m sure my students are happy for the timely feedback, I don’t necessarily want them to come away with the idea that they need to answer emails at all times of day when they start their professional lives, as doing so blurs the lines between work and home. For these reasons, some French workers are actually banned from checking work email after 6 p.m.

My difficulty arises, I think, from the fact that my work demeanor and habits aren’t really that much different than my non-work demeanor and habits: I read a lot and answer people’s questions. And I’ve been doing this on my own since elementary school. I know I’m not the only librarian whose personal life traits and work life traits mirror each other.

Still, I am wary of inadvertently leading my students astray, so I make a point of emphasizing how I do maintain a healthy work-life balance (which admittedly may be easier in academia than in private enterprise). I tell stories about my toddler. I talk about our faculty softball team. I have even managed to play a session or two of pick-up soccer with students during traditional workday hours.

In conclusion, while I want all of my students to get jobs, I also want them to be happy and successful. Helping students to realize the importance of work-life balance and how to go about achieving it are therefore worthy endeavors.

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