Mental Health and Work/Life Balance

Game Over

I met Maria when she landed her first job as an associate at a medium sized law firm in the Toronto area.  She was capable, intelligent, and eager to learn.  However, just how hard lawyers work in law firms seemed to catch her by surprise. I guess that they don’t tell you about that in law school.

There is a steep learning curve in the area of law in which Maria commenced her practice.  A great deal of training takes place in the first year or two, after which a good associate will hit their stride and become downright useful.  Maria was a good associate.  She persevered and right on schedule as she approached her second anniversary at the firm, Maria was becoming downright productive.

As often seems to happen, just as she was becoming valuable to her firm, Maria chose to leave. She departed for greener pastures just shy of her third anniversary at the firm.

There is nothing new in our story up to this point. It happens all of the time.

What I did find interesting about Maria’s story are the reasons that she gave for leaving her job. 

Maria was a runner, and she said that the demands of the job were interfering with her running, which she liked to start by about 6 pm most evenings. She also said that when she was growing up, her parents had busy careers and were not available to spend much time with her, and she was adamant that she was going to be more available for her children.

At the time, I laughed at her. 

The first reason that I laughed was that Maria did not understand the demands of the profession. When things are busy at the office (which is most of the time), law firms expect you to forget about maintaining your health, and get the damn work done. She should have known that.

The second reason that I laughed at Maria was that while her goal of being available to spend time with her children was laudable, Maria did not have any children.  As best as I can recollect, Maria was not even in a serious relationship at the time.  It seemed to me that Maria should have known that the first few years of a legal career are the time to work both day and night and learn as much as you can.  To really develop your skills and get good at your craft.  Work/life balance is (theoretically) for later when you have the additional responsibilities of relationships and family.

Maria went on to work in-house where presumably her hours are more reasonable than they would have been in private practice.  She also went on to have a husband and children and I imagine that she has structured her life to have lots of time with her children.

I have been thinking about Maria lately and wondering whether I judged her too harshly at the time.  There is a saying which I like to quote attributed to one Charles H. Spurgeon.  The quote is, “Begin as you mean to go on, and go on as you began, and let the Lord be all in all to you.”

I am not sure that I understand the part about the Lord, but I really like the first part.  It would have made little sense for Maria to get deeply invested in a legal career which had demands that she would not have been willing to fulfill once she had children.  With the exception of her first three years of practice during which she figured out which side was up in the legal profession, Maria chose to begin as she meant to go on.

I no longer laugh at Maria for leaving private practice for the sake of the children which she did not yet have.   While I still think that working really hard to learn your craft at the beginning of your career is often a good thing to do, I also see the point of determining what your values are and being true to them from the very beginning.

At least Maria was a realist, which is more that I can say for some.  She figured out early on that the private practice of law is not family friendly, and she got the hell out and established herself in a more welcoming environment.  

As much as I wish that law firms would change to be healthier places for lawyers with families, I have to respect Maria for recognizing reality and adjusting her career expectations accordingly.

As for the rest of us who began in a manner which we did not fully understand and then just molded our lives to fit, I imagine that Maria laughs at us. I would also laugh, if only it was funny.

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