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Life is not a pie chart: Why flexibility might be the key to finding balance

By: Bill Cresenzo//January 15, 2020

Life is not a pie chart: Why flexibility might be the key to finding balance

By: Bill Cresenzo//January 15, 2020

While some might see technology as a prison that chains people to their work 24/7, Jim Lehman, managing partner of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough in Columbia, sees it more of a liberator rather than handcuffs, allowing attorneys to have a good life outside of the office. 
“Clients are requiring us to be present more than ever before, beyond business hours. It allows us to go on vacation and take care of our clients’ needs and go to ball games and step way talk to clients if necessary,” Lehman said. “We equip our attorneys with technology, not only to be able to be responsive to clients, but also so they can have more freedom.”

For many attorneys, finding an appropriate work/life balance remains a struggle, but some attorneys say that it might instead be more helpful to embrace a different metaphor, focused on flexibility rather than balance.

“Seeking balance is almost mythical,” said Brad Evans, managing director at Ward and Smith in Raleigh. “Work, home, spirit, community, and health are not perfectly divided pie slices that even out.”

Evans credits another attorney, David Redding of Redding Jones Law in Charlotte for crafting an analogy of “spinning plates.”

“We get the work plate spinning, keep the family spinning,” Evans said. “Add in community involvement, personal fitness, and a spiritual life, and then you have a lot of plates to keep spinning.”

Evans said that his firm is in the midst of implementing policies to make it easier for attorneys to have a life outside of the office. A key move was in 2018, when it launched its “flexible workplace” policy. Lawyers and staff can work from home, while traveling, or from an alternate location. At the same time, the firm underwent a technology upgrade and a security upgrade, making it ‘location agnostic.’

“We all know that face time in the office is critical for developing relationships and mentoring,” Evans said. “This policy allows our attorneys to work from home when they have sick family members, to stay in touch with clients while they accompany their children to sporting events, or even to extend their trips with family while remaining connected. We had one litigator take a long trip to France recently, and some folks were surprised to find out he wasn’t in his office.”

The firm has also introduced a policy that allows more flexibility for time off for attorneys, allowing them more flexibility in regards to where they work and on what schedule. They don’t have to track specific days allocated to paid time off. 

“This is particularly nice for parents working around day care and school schedules,” he said. “We are a mobile and connected society. Our attorneys need and are encouraged to work remotely in order to care for family or take the opportunity to work in a less formal environment … This allows the greatest flexibility.”

Security is paramount for law firms, but technology advice has allowed attorneys to roam without fear of a breach, Lehman said. 

“There is tension between the convenience of mobility and the security demands these days,” he said. “It is a tough tightrope to walk with regards to maximize the flexibility while still ensuring the security of the information.”

To that end, the firm equips attorneys with devices that can be wiped clean remotely if they are lost or stolen, and attorneys can log into the company’s Virtual Private Network. The culture of law firms requiring their attorneys to arrive and leave the office at a set time has all but vanished, Lehman said.“We discourage people from putting in office face time for the sake of office face time,” he said.

Jennifer Cluverious, a managing partner at Nexsen Pruet in Greenville, said that her firm has adopted a similar perspective, and now encourages its lawyers to keep their perspectives in proper order, with work falling behind family. Good personal relationships are often formed among attorneys who readily cover for one another so that activities such as baseball games and dance recitals aren’t missed.

“Attorney work-life balance in law firms is a perpetual battle that all firms – regardless of size, age, geography, and the like – constantly fight,” Cluverious said. “Nexsen Pruet has progressed away from being a ‘facetime’ firm, to being a firm where attorneys can work wherever they may be, provided they are good communicators and produce timely, quality work for our clients.”

With the clarity of a bullet

Coleman Cowan had just wrapped up a deposition at a doctor’s office in Durham, North Carolina, when a bullet from a robber’s gun shattered his arm–and shifted his paradigm.

He and another lawyer had been chatting in the doctor’s parking lot at dusk. A teenager rode up on his bike and ordered them to give him everything they had. Before the attorneys could respond, the boy fired bullets through Cowan’s left arm, his shoe, and his car. His fellow attorney was hit in the stomach.

The assailant took off on his bike with nothing, and was never apprehended for his crime on the night of Feb. 28, 1999. Cowan and the other attorney survived.

Cowan stopped practicing law and became an Emmy-award winning producer for 60 Minutes before he returned to Durham to resume practice as a personal injury attorney. Now with the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin in Durham, he said that winter night helps guide his thoughts and behavior toward how he regards his work, and how it relates to his life.

“No matter how hard you work, how much you work, and how much you accomplish on any given day, week, or month, there will always be more work,” he said. “What there will never be is more family time. Your son will be ten years old for only one year.”

Redding, he of the spinning plates metaphor, advises attorneys to be a little less flexible in one important way, however: he lets clients know that he is open for business and communication from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week.

“I essentially draw a line, and my line is that I communicate all day, but I stop at five o’clock,” Redding said. “In my office, you work efficiently during the day, and when it’s five o’clock, you get out of here and get home to your family.”

At Cowan’s firm, lawyers can similarly work at any of the firms’ satellite office or from home, said David Chamberlain, James Scott Farrin’s vice president of marketing. 

“We provide the equipment necessary–laptops, phones, whatever they need,” he said. “They work like they are at the office, and there is no difference, except when they need to see someone face-to-face.”

Cowan now often works from home–with titanium in his arm. He said he is productive there, and as soon as his work is done, he’ll spend time with his family. When he turns in, he tunes out by leaving his phone downstairs. 

“You have to take time for yourself and your family while keeping up with your work,” he said. “Taking that time is actually going to keep you healthier and saner, and make you a better attorney.”

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw

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