Work-Life Balance: Recommendations for Attorneys

Dec 6, 2022 | Business Planning, General Estate Planning, Pandemic Related Issues, Podcasts

“Work-Life Balance: Recommendations for Attorneys,” that’s the subject of today’s ACTEC Trust and Estate Talk.

Transcript/Show Notes

This is Doug Stanley, ACTEC Fellow from St. Louis, Missouri. Is work-life balance possible for attorneys? How can you balance the needs of your clients, the courts, your firm, and your family? ACTEC Fellow Lou Harrison from Chicago will share his recommendations for attorneys trying to accomplish work-life balance in firms working to keep young attorneys. Welcome, Lou.

Thank you, Doug. So, we start with the concept that many of us are finding that we are actually living our lives for the sole and primary purpose of working. Or, we find ourselves being under the control of technology versus, of course, working in a way that allows us to live and controlling technology. So, Doug’s point on what is it we should do to have a better work-life balance? Well, first, it’s to recognize that our work-life balance is a little bit out of sorts.

Balance Starts with Boundaries

So, let’s start with the one step that all of us need to consider, and that is setting boundaries. YOU have to set the boundaries. Nobody is going to set those for you in considering work-life balance. So, the boundaries that we’re going to talk about in this segment are the time in which you are devoting to work and, also, a little bit about how you do work.

Let’s start with a major tip for how much time we’re all spending working and how we set that boundary. So, if you think about it, the culture has shifted in the last ten-years and even in the last two-years. Work from home and technology are now concepts that basically allow all of us to work 24-7. And that wasn’t true forty-years ago. It wasn’t true thirty-years ago. It wasn’t even true twenty-years ago. But the reality today is that professionals are finding that we’re always working.

And the concept that we’re always working is because nobody’s setting boundaries for us. So, the initial item in trying to achieve a work-life balance is basically deciding you’re going to walk around the block tonight and define when it is you want to work. If you don’t define when you want to work, you will find yourself working all the time. And, so, let’s assume that you say “All right. I’m going to work of course during the day, but at night, Monday through Friday, I’m only going to work one night,” or maybe you’re not going to work at all. “After 7:00 p.m. I’m not working at all.” Or you may say “Look, Saturday and Sunday, I’m going to work in the morning on Saturday but that’s it. I’m not going to work Sunday or Saturday afternoon.” You have to define those boundaries. Again, if you don’t define them, we find ourselves working during that time. So, that’s the first step and an important one. Now, you go “Okay, I’m not,” for example, “going to work at night after 7:00 p.m., after 6:00 p.m. That is my boundary I’m setting.”

Balance Work While at Home: Protect Boundaries

Here’s the next important requirement. You have to establish a fence to protect those boundaries. It’s not just a matter of saying “I’m not going to work after 6:00 p.m.” You have to make sure that you have the steps in place to achieve that.

So, to do that we take a step sideways and we go back to our behavioral scientist, Pavlov, who did the experiment that taught us that you can teach dogs essentially to learn how to ring a bell and get a treat. So, of course, we know that, from the Pavlovian experiment, basically he taught dogs to do that, and so every time they rang a bell, they got a treat. Well, we sort of have that same concept with both work, but work and technology because what the studies are showing now on technology is that for people who send and receive texts and send and receive emails, that step releases dopamine in your brain, which is an endorphin. And so, it makes you happy to be able to do technology. Not to say all the messages that we get on technology are good- we’ll come back to that. But just the concept and the step of engaging in technology and even social media releases endorphins. And so, we become technology Pavlovian dogs, essentially.

So, when we say our boundary is we’re not working at night, we then have to be careful with how we implement that. Because if our cell phone, if our computer is sitting there at our desk at home or on the dining room table or somewhere in our vicinity, we will, because of our Pavlovian nature towards technology,  have the incentive to look at that.

And even though our boundary is not to work at night, having that kind of technology there prevalent may cause us to violate that technology. So, the next step in the process of the work-life balance is, in fact, making sure that you protect against that. And so, for a lot of us who are working both on the cellphone and laptop, it’s a matter of putting that technology away from our vision of sight. I’ve said it’s the “backpack rule” for me. I just leave that technology in the backpack when I get home. The backpack goes in the closet or under a table or somewhere else. Now, it’s not on my vision of sight.

And so, when I say I’m not working at night and there’s no technology in front of me, I’m not working at night. Well, that usually causes someone to argue with me and say “No, I need my cellphone because I have to be available for emergencies.” And to that I would rebut the following: you have a likely less than 1% chance of any emergency arising during a short period of time in which your technology or your cellphone is out of your vision. To establish boundaries and to protect your work-life balance, taking the risk that an emergency occurs is well worth that kind of balance. And so, it is possible but, again, it’s more important to keep that technology out of your vision of sight.

So, that’s one boundary and you can have that fence up at night if that’s your boundary, and during the weekends, and also in the morning. In the mornings you may want to say “Look, I’m going to get up, eat breakfast, work out, walk to work, and think great thoughts. Do planning, call clients.” And again, the same boundary of not having that technology in front of you will protect against and encourage that kind of behavior, but you have to set that. So, that’s on setting a boundary for when you work.

Balance Life While at Work: Reduce Stress

But let’s talk about how you work in this second segment. How do you both manage stress and reduce stress? Because how you work is going to also help achieve a better work-life balance.

So, in terms of stress itself, I think we all have to recognize that stress is going to be there and we have to have outlets to deal with that stress. So, we enumerate those outlets so that you can deal with this stress in a healthy way. One is physical movement during the day. The more active you are, the more you’re getting up from your desk and moving around, taking breaks, taking walks, and having the ability to do physical exercise, if that’s possible, that’s all going to make you feel better and reduce stress. Nutrition and hydration will also make you feel better and reduce stress. Some other items: posture at your desk; the non-slumping way of doing work.

Definitely catching your breath, focusing on breathing. Slowing down. Talking slower than I am currently will help. Meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, focus on purpose, religion- these are all stress-reducing mechanisms. Please ponder these. Pick one, pick two. They will all help you have a better work-life balance during the day.

The second part of that is “I know I’m going to have stress, but could I have less stress?” We’re going to talk about three areas here: One, I will repeat what we all know. We should all repeat it. We should go to sleep and repeat it: try not to take bad clients. That is something that we can’t help ourselves with, but incredibly important to reducing stress.

Second, matters that are really complicated beyond your expertise. They may seem interesting, they may seem challenging, but there’s nothing wrong with saying “No, I’m not going to do that.” Matters that you’re stretching for on the intellectual side can be exceptionally stressful. And third, you know during the day when bad things happen? Somebody screams at you, somebody treats you unfairly, other items that are mental detritus that come your way during the day that is very aggravating. When you get angered by someone or something during the day, I would take a step back, something really is unfair or unpleasant, and you’re mad. That thing you want to say at that moment when you’re on the phone, and somebody says something bad to you. That thing you want to say, don’t say it. That email you want to send, don’t send it. That text you’re writing, delete it. Don’t forget that silence is a powerful statement anytime you’re being treated poorly. And in fact, silence is going to reduce your stress. So, just a couple of ideas on stress management and stress management is incredibly important for that work-life balance.


In conclusion, I want to emphasize that, as planners, as practitioners, you all are amazing. Your help, in what you do for your clients, your professionalism every day, you’re causing your clients’ lives to be better. Knowing that, I hope you find time to smile during the day and realize how much you are appreciated by your clients and that you are entitled to set boundaries on how much you work during the day, and also, how you’re working. But it’s incumbent on all of us individually to spend the time to set those boundaries to manage our work-life balance. And I would hope that these techniques will help everyone as they go forward and it’s been my pleasure to talk to everyone via this podcast.

That was great, Lou. Thank you for sharing with us your wisdom and experience.

Thank you, Doug.

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