5 ways to have the perfect work-life balance while building a legal career

Ask any legal professional about their work-life balance and they might just laugh in your face: after all, a career in law isn’t exactly synonymous with surplus down-time. For many well-seasoned lawyers, cancelling an evening out or skipping a lunch date with a friend is common practice when client work piles up. In the name of “putting the hours in,” they sacrifice their free time until the job is done – but the job is rarely ever “done” when you’re in the business of law.

Due to the nature of the profession, there will always be one more task on your To-Do list once everything’s crossed off. While cultural evolution is beginning to influence the traditional model, many legal professionals still struggle to perfect their balancing act when it comes to work and home. However, it isn’t impossible to thrive in your legal career and still maintain a rewarding personal life. It just takes a few conscious decisions:

1.     Keep strict office hours

When work keeps you in the office all evening, every evening, it’s time to rethink your schedule. While climbing the legal career ladder relies on unwavering commitment, no job should keep you from enjoying your personal life. Make it clear to your colleagues and even your clients that you will not be available past a certain time – perhaps 6:30pm or on weekends.

It isn’t an unreasonable request – after all, most professionals end their day at 5:30pm or earlier, yet their dedication or skill is not called into question unless their performance drops during these hours. As well as creating a healthier work-life balance, limiting your office hours will promote productivity in your working day.

2.     Manage client (and colleague) expectations

This isn’t an invitation to put your clients’ requests on the back-burner while you kick back and take it easy for a few weeks. Instead, it’s about developing a strong concept of both your work and your personal life and making it known through candid and honest communications to both clients and colleagues.

Most will respect your ability to distinguish the two, particularly if you make it clear that you intend to achieve the firm’s goals and exceed client expectations efficiently in your working hours.

3.     Block out time for yourself

At first, the notion of blocking out a whole billable hour for yourself might seem ludicrous: you take a break when you can, right? In fact, it’s this behavioural pattern that can easily prevent a healthy work-life balance. Even if you can’t commit an hour, devote at least 30 minutes to each time block, and include it on your calendar just like any other appointment or commitment.

How you spend that half hour is up to you: you might go for a walk, get a massage, read the newspaper, workout at the gym, see a friend or even just do absolutely nothing. The aim of the game is to relax and do anything but work.

4.     Make the most of your down time

After a hard day’s work, it’s only natural to get home and flop onto the sofa. 14 hours and 10 episodes of Suits later, you’re back at in the office and it feels like you never left. (Tip: don’t watch a drama about lawyers in your time away from a law firm.) Take advantage of your evenings and weekends to do something meaningful and productive: take up a hobby, plan a holiday or start a blog. Anything that gives you another focus but work. Similarly, take advantage of your weekends to do something that makes you happy rather than simply preparing for the week ahead.

5.     Choose the right working environment

Many firms today appreciate the importance of a healthy work-life balance and some will actively advocate for the clear distinction between the two. However, there still exists a number of law firms who foster a “work harder, not smarter” culture in which associates are looked upon as slackers when they don’t come to work with a sleeping bag in preparation. Okay, that may be an exaggeration.

Nevertheless, an environment that promotes a poor work-life balance by putting down those who leave at a reasonable time is not a healthy environment. Your next step should be to find a firm that understands the need for boundaries between your personal and professional life; one that values quality of work over quantity of hours.