Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on motherhood in the legal profession, in partnership with our friends at MothersEsquire. Welcome Elise Buie back to our pages. Click here if you’d like to donate to MothersEsquire.
Work-life balance is a dream for most of the lawyer moms I know. And a dream it remains — the holy grail, if you will — because most of the lawyer moms in the circles I run in have yet to find it in their waking lives. But maybe that’s because these lawyer moms — lawyer moms who were once just like me, hoping for some relief, more sleep, and, dare I say, a chance to go to the bathroom in private — are looking for something that cannot and does not exist.
Hear me out. What if I were to tell you that we, including me, have been looking at the construct of work-life balance all wrong? Believe me, I know. Once upon a time, I was in the throes of it, a single mom raising and supporting four kids almost entirely alone. It was 2010, and in anticipation of divorcing my then-husband, I had just taken the bar in Minnesota, where my husband and I lived at the time. Doing so would be my ticket to freedom. And that it became. But the years that followed were hard, mostly because they lacked any sort of work-life balance for me. In fact, I would say there was none at all.
Not long after, I moved to Washington, married my soulmate, blended our families (my four, his two), and proceeded to work around the clock as a family law attorney and guardian ad litem for the next however many years, which are a blur to me now because I was always working. Though I know I don’t need to spell it out for anyone raising kids, juggling life at home, and working these kinds of hours as a lawyer, I’ll say it anyway: It sucked.
But college tuition loomed large. Even so, I knew my current lifestyle (or lack of it) wasn’t sustainable. I worried I wouldn’t see my kids attend college if I kept up this pace. So I founded my family law practice and set out to change how I — and the people who worked in my firm (mostly lawyer moms like me) — practiced law.
I didn’t know what to call that “how” when I first started; I just had an idea of what it was, which was to be able to spend quality time with my family while building a career I loved, one that could sustain me psychically and financially. I wanted to enjoy my children and watch their personalities develop. I wanted to witness them grow into self-sufficient adults. I wanted to travel with my new husband, go on nature walks, and make beignets on Sunday mornings with him (or eat the ones he made for me over coffee and conversation). I called my goal what I thought it was: work-life balance. Except, work-life balance placed too much emphasis on the work part, and the label never sat right with me.
So as time went on, I again tweaked my vision, this time calling it life-work balance. But was that right? Something in my heart told me, “Not yet.” Here’s why.
What Is Life-Work Balance?
Life-work balance (work-life balance with a heavier emphasis on the life part) refers to the idea of setting aside almost equal time for your professional and personal life. You spend nearly the same amount of time and energy on both, with neither sphere falling behind or being neglected. Remote work has helped to tip the scale in favor of life, especially in recent years, obliterating countless commuting hours and, accordingly, drain on the mind and body, not to mention the wallet, that traveling to and from work imposes. Hence, the emergence of the concept of life-work balance.
By separating life and work, so the idea goes, you can keep each healthy and fulfilling, getting the most out of both areas without one detracting from the other. Ideally, this would mean that, while at work, you only have to focus on work; likewise, while at home, your professional duties and obligations never become the subject of discussion and never linger in the back of your mind. The office, even your home office, is for work, and your home, or the rest of your physical dwelling, is for personal and family life. There’s no intersection.
For highly pressurized careers like law, this generally means working a set number of hours in the office (can you say billables?) before going home to focus on your home, your family, and, hopefully, yourself. In theory, this balance should allow you to fully focus on and foster a healthy home life, even though your career might be stressful, demanding, and time-consuming. Life-work balance seeks to address burnout, stress, and other social and health detriments that can occur when work cuts into home life or vice versa. Life-work balance is supposed to prevent the spheres from encroaching upon each other.
As alluded to above, however, this is an ideal, not a practical solution. Legal practice is demanding, with situations often arising at the last minute and at odd hours of the day or night. Issues routinely need to be addressed in a timely manner, sometimes outside of traditional business hours. No matter how hard you try, you cannot always prepare for these circumstances or when they will crop up, which leads to the “always-on” culture that prevails among legal professionals.
When you factor in marriage and parenting (or single parenting), life-work balance, however desirous, becomes altogether unattainable for far too many legal professionals, particularly lawyer moms. Responding to clients and colleagues or dealing with emergencies often usurps time that’s supposed to be spent away from the office. This can lead to burnout, guilt, and dissatisfaction with life and work. The result is that it can begin to feel like there’s no solution. Fortunately — and it took me over a decade to figure this out — this is where the paradigm of life-work integration can help.
What Is Life-Work Integration?
Life-work integration solves the conundrum that life-work balance cannot: that your personal and professional spheres are each distinct parts of you, and alienating one from the other generally leads to less satisfaction all around. A life-work integration mindset acknowledges and celebrates this amalgamation, permitting you to blend both spheres for a more flexible and comprehensive approach to your life, from career to family, without feeling guilty.
In a demanding profession such as law, life-work integration acknowledges that your work life can sometimes bleed into the home life and vice versa and that it’s OK when it does. To visualize what this occurrence can look like in real life, you might find yourself drafting a legal brief after your child’s soccer practice, but you also might decide to take a walk around the neighborhood during the workday.
It could translate to you taking a painting class and leaving work early once a week to take advantage of what Eve Rodsky has coined “unicorn space” — time dedicated to creativity and your unique skills, hobbies, or interests. Though you might take breaks during the workday, there should be no guilt about doing so because you will do the same during your family time in favor of work when necessary. This integrative approach allows you to do what’s best for your work and personal life at any given moment.
Instead of trying to plan for life with rigidity, where certain periods are designated for work and others for personal time, life-work integration gives you the freedom to work according to the flow of your and your family’s lives. You might occasionally work off-hours, but it’s because you know you can take time during the workday to prioritize your mental or physical well-being or schedule an afternoon off to spend time with your family.
Life-Work Integration In A Nutshell
With life-work integration, your view of your life becomes less disparate, where one part sits diametrically opposed to another, and becomes more holistic, allowing your work and personal lives to meld together to create a singular life you love. This not only betters your mental health and relationship with work but actually increases the quality and productivity of your work, leading to a more satisfying and creative, less stressful career. The same can hold for family.
Stay tuned for part two of this series exploring how to reimagine firm and family cultures to support life-work integration.
Elise Buie is a Seattle divorce and family lawyer and founder of Elise Buie Family Law Group, a law firm devoted to divorce and family law and estate planning. A champion for maintaining civility throughout the divorce process, Elise advocates for her clients and the best interests of their children, helping them move forward with dignity and from a position of strength.