By Jennifer L. Ilkka
There are several expressions I remember my mom using over and over again while I was growing up.
"You can't get blood from a turnip."
"Don't cry over spilled milk."
But there is one particular saying that I find particularly applicable to the legal profession: "When it rains, it pours."
I am not certain I understood the meaning behind those words growing up. But I sure do now. Chances are, if you are a lawyer, particularly a young associate, you do too.
There is perhaps no more valuable skill for a young attorney to possess than the ability to manage and multitask. Successfully juggling multiple commitments and deadlines efficiently can be the difference between a good associate and a great associate.
Face it, most good associates are smart. Most can research and write and communicate. But to make the honor roll in this job, more is required.
Any decent associate can research and write a near perfect brief if given unlimited time and resources.
But in the real world, budgets, competing deadlines and other obligations are constraints that cannot be ignored.
There are many associates in my firm capable of analyzing and briefing a complex legal issue. But there are only a few I would entrust to handle the task regardless of a heavy caseload.
Stellar work product is a valuable thing. Stellar work product under pressure, or, more importantly, despite it, isinvaluable.
Fortunately, the ability to handle a multitude of different tasks at once was somewhat second nature to me when I began my practice. My husband and I started our family young. Consequently, many of the all-nighters I pulled in college and law school were not limited to term papers and final exams, but involved midnight feedings, diaper changes or some other form of a screaming child. Working at the same time to support our family made it critical for me to manage my time wisely. For this reason, I was probably not as shell-shocked as many new attorneys are when making the transition from student to lawyer.
How can those who have not had the benefit of juggling work-life balance prior to becoming a lawyer avoid becoming a casualty? There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Becoming an effective manager in work and life will depend on many factors including the nature of one's practice, the demands of a case or client and the personalities of the associate and the other attorneys with whom one works. Nevertheless, there are some strategies that can help a younger attorney survive the storm.
First, remain calm. If you find yourself in a moment of temporary hysteria, take a deep breath and relax. If it is necessary to leave the office for a 15-minute stroll to clear your head, do it. You will be no use to yourself, let alone to the people depending on you, if you are a nervous wreck.
Next, stay organized and prioritize tasks accordingly. Take inventory of all upcoming deadlines and realistically assess how much time can be devoted to each project.
Determine the difference between hard and soft deadlines and compose your to-do list accordingly. Do your best to adhere to the schedule, but make adjustments as circumstances require.
To successfully execute this strategy, communication is critical. Ask for and share information with partners and colleagues to understand the scope of work and your expected contribution. Remain cognizant, however, of the personality on the receiving end. The goal is to obtain the information you need to make competent decisions and prioritize accordingly, without casting doubt on your ability to execute the work effectively.
Communication outside of work is just as important. If it appears you might have to work late every night the next week or miss a scheduled event, don't postpone sharing that possibility in the hopes it will not materialize. Being open and honest with your partner, children or family members and friends about the current demands at work will minimize the occurrence of unnecessary disappointments. Talking through the issue with your loved ones can also be a healthy outlet for work-related anxiety, helping you to maintain both perspective and sanity during particularly demanding times.
In this same vein, the importance of a healthy work-life balance cannot be overstated. While seemingly counterintuitive, especially in times of extreme chaos at work, spending time with family, giving back to your community or nurturing a hobby keeps you grounded and reduces the risk of future burnout at work.
There, of course, will be times when work responsibilities interfere with your personal life. This is why it is crucial to take advantage of those less hectic times at work, where a 40-plus billable hour workweek, while possible, is not required.
The practice of law, especially for young attorneys, is never easy. But with time and experience, it gets easier. Honing communication and management skills early on is one way to help avoid getting caught in a torrential downpour without an umbrella.