It’s 5:02 p.m. when my office phone rings. Surrounded by heaps of corporate minute books on my desk, I don’t need to see the phone display to identify the caller — I know this call well. My wife is on the line and, quickly dispensing with pleasantries, she poses the dreaded question: “What’s your status?” Dear reader, as benign as this seems, don’t be fooled. The question is code and the real issue is this: who will scramble home from work today in time to take charge of our young son?
For many, the first year of practice involves establishing roots in a community and settling into life as a true lawyer. With law school squarely in the rear-view mirror, gone are the days of mid-morning classes, early afternoon siestas, and late night Kraft Dinner. After successfully running the gauntlet of articles and surviving to see “Associate” printed on crisp new business cards, life is looking up. The concept of cash flow has new meaning and the finer things in life seem to be in greater focus. Pardon me, but do I even note a little swagger in your step, counsellor?
With all this momentum, the decision to start a family might be a sensible one. My wife and I certainly thought the timing was right. We recognized, of course, the short-term challenges then at hand. I was completing my articles and running hard to secure an associate position with the firm. My wife was in the midst of opening a new medical practice and facing her share of long hours and startup challenges. What I didn’t appreciate, however, was how hard it would be to maintain reasonable work-life balance with a new baby and new responsibilities as an associate. Talk about trial by fire.
For new lawyers who have recently started a family or are considering taking the baby plunge, this month’s column is all about trying to balance becoming a great lawyer and delivering as a great parent.
Key clients — they’re all the same
I’m lucky enough to work as a first-year associate in a bustling corporate law practice at a national firm. I’m also the incredibly proud father of a 20-month old son who has an unquenchable fascination with books, fire trucks, and rocks (in no particular order). Before my son arrived, I thought balancing work and play meant abandoning a cottage weekend or epic concert to take care of an urgent client matter. Now with a baby in the mix, the work-life dichotomy is more complicated than ever.
As a junior lawyer, I realize that now is the time to hone the skills of my craft, earn the respect of my colleagues and clients, and prove my commitment to the firm. I’m part of a talented group that succeeds by consistently delivering exceptional legal services and staying responsive. Our clients have remarkable expectations, and if the e-mails I receive in the wee hours of the morning are any indication, I’m learning that the business of law truly doesn’t sleep.
The problem is, neither do infants. And just like clients, they can wail until they get what they want. The demands of parenthood are just as onerous and, as in law, I pride myself in making sure my littlest client is equally well served.
While I certainly don’t claim to have all of the answers, here are a few insights to those heading down the path of sleepless nights and caffeinated days.
Sooner or later, associates need to find out what support, or lack thereof, they can expect from their firm with respect to parenting. I recall meeting with a senior partner during my articles just before my son arrived. I politely mumbled something about hoping to take some time off after the delivery. With a sideways glance, the partner explained that many moons ago, lawyers didn’t typically take time off for that “sort of thing.” Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he asked me “so how much time were you planning to take, Mr. Schwartz?” Luckily, the partner was poking a bit of fun and when the big day arrived the office was extremely supportive. But that conversation stayed with me. I think it’s important to understand the corporate culture of your firm and gauge the expectations of its leaders if you are contemplating starting a family early on in your career.
Even in the early days, the pressure on associates to achieve billable targets and develop a business case for partnership is tangible. Often, first-year lawyers are expected to “occupy” the office and grind away on files at all hours of the day.
The million-dollar question is, “how do I stay sufficiently active at work and not miss the important stuff at home?” Seriously, I’m asking. Part of the answer, at least to me, lies in technology. Smartphones and remote connectivity now give lawyers the flexibility to log in and access office resources from anywhere. Our cohort needs to leverage the benefit of remote access in a way that our seniors never could.
However, before you declare that you’re “working from home” for July and August, communicate your approach. As tough as it sounds, even a first year can carve out family time and explain to the powers that be that certain hours of the day have special significance. My recommendation is to try to get out in front of this. If you are responsible for daycare drop-off or pickup, you will by necessity be offline at some point during the working day. Be proactive and inform colleagues of your schedule and how you are available before or after the conflicting obligation in case something comes up.
Most partners appreciate that the dinner hour can be key family time, even if it conflicts with billable daylight. In my world, my son is tucked away by 8 p.m. each night. I have a small window of time before that to catch up with him and spend some quality time (BlackBerry down). However, the trade-off is that once he’s tucked away counting sheep, I work from home to ensure that all my deliverables are accounted for.
Ultimately, there is no perfect solution. Every firm has its own corporate culture, every family has its own dynamic, and every new lawyer faces tough choices. As an associate trying to make your mark on the world, remember that you need to keep all of your key clients happy, even the ones that think legal robes make a great fort.
Neil Schwartz is in his first year of practice in the corporate department of Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP’s Ottawa office. Our regular columnist Lindsay Scott returns next month.