Lawyers who are accessible to their firms and clients 24/7/365 lead more stressful lives, burn out faster, and too often fail in their important roles in families and communities. That is the essence of a report from the New York State Bar Association’s Special Committee on Balanced Lives in the Law.
When young lawyers are frequently at their desks on Saturdays, they are not spending free time with their families. And too often they are not making time for the citizenship activities that have been the traditional obligation of lawyers. One contributing factor is technology. E-mail, BlackBerrys, cell phones and other devices make it possible for lawyers to be always on call to their firms and clients.
After 30 years practicing law in the trenches, I have seen pretty much all sides of this. I spent way too many Saturdays at the office as a young lawyer in a firm where everyone was expected to "show the flag" on Saturday. However, I made it to most of my kids’ sports events and a lot of Boy Scout weekend trips. However, to my everlasting regret, I remained chained to the desk when I should have accompanied my son on Boy Scout trips rafting through the Grand Canyon and canoeing through a Canadian wilderness. Those opportunities do not come twice.
The flip side of the coin is that technology enables us to respond to client needs away from the office. There have been times when I was able to use a PDA to quickly deal with a question from home or on vacation, and get back to family matters. The challenge is to remain the master of the technology, and not to let it master you. For me, one positive change has been the switch from an intrusive Blackberry to another device that lets me check for messages when I choose rather than constantly vibrating in my pocket.
I know lawyers in firms both large and small who have done an admirable job of being there for their families on a regular basis. My brother-in-law, who is in charge of the business and real estate practice at a large firm in another state, comes to mind as an example. He found the time to be there for his son’s sports and Scouting activities, including a lot of weekend travel, chaired major projects in the church, and has served on numerous significant boards in his city.
On the other hand, I know lawyers in firms both large and small who have been chained to their desks almost every Saturday and Sunday, missing out on much that is important in life.
When I was coming up, in the days before rampant lawyer advertising, the only way a lawyer could advertise was to be active in the community. Therefore, lawyers were drawn to service in civic clubs, service organizations, and in public office. Now too often those roles are seen as unnecessary burdens and distractions. Our profession and our communities are poorer in many ways because so many people with the intelligence, energy and training that it takes to become successful in the legal profession have been withdrawn from those roles.
But there are cautionary examples of lawyers who launch so deeply into the outside roles that they are overwhelmed by economics. I once knew a young lawyer whose legislative service was making it too hard to make a living practicing law. When the commission chairman of a large urban county resigned, this young lawyer quit the legislature to run for chairman against a high profile candidate with a famous family name. I thought he would go down to defeat in a blaze of publicity, and get back to practicing law. However, he "won" a full-time, high profile public office with a salary of $17,000 a year that precluded any significant law practice. The sad end of that story is that in need of funds for his growing family, he stepped on to a slippery slope that led to a term in "Club Fed."
One of the challenges for Bar leaders is to find ways to alter the dynamic so that lawyers and law firms might find ways to meld family and community involvement with law practice in ways that contribute to their own long term professional and financial success. Nobody said it would be easy.
Ken Shigley is an Atlanta attorney with a trial practice focused on interstate motor carrier and product safety litigation. He is a member of the Executive Committee, and currently a candidate in a contested race for Secretary, of the State Bar of Georgia.