Can Lawyers Really Have It All?

The Lawyer's Guide to Having It All

I remember standing outside an Ann Taylor display window as a tween and telling my mom, “I’m going to dress like that when I grow up. I’ll be a lawyer and make enough money to buy whatever clothes I want. And whatever clothes my kids want.” (That last comment was a dig at my mom’s refusal to drop a sizeable chunk of change at the Gap.)

Despite my thinly veiled attempt to manipulate my mother, she smiled as she turned to me and said, “I have no doubt you’ll have a successful career, stylish kids and anything else you want in life.”

Not only did her response take the wind out of my guilt-tripping sails, it also reinforced an empowering message I would hear throughout my life.

I could have it all.

A prestigious, high-paying career. Fulfilling marriage. Happy kidlets. The physique of a 20-something despite the effects of pregnancy, a sedentary job and aging. I believed these were totally doable.

As for getting enough sleep, downtime to recharge, outings with gal pals, time and money for vacations, sick days, household upkeep, pet care and enjoying some GD peace and quiet once in a while?

Naive younger-me took all of these for granted. Present day-me could’ve killed for them.

I did not feel like I had it all. I felt like a failure.

After all, “they” had assured me all could be mine.

“They” being  every well-intentioned adult I encountered growing up on through my college years.But as soon as I entered law school, “they” got quieter.

At orientation, we learned that most law students who began law school in a committed relationship did not graduate with said relationship intact. Most people in our lives would henceforth find us painfully annoying. And the overwhelming majority of us would be dissatisfied with our grades. Comforting.

While I wasn’t pleased about the fear mongering, I heard their underlying message:

You can’t have it all.

Let me clarify. You can’t have it all when “it” refers to a perfect balance of absolutely everything society tells us you want in life.

You can’t have the demanding legal career, a fulfilling marriage, a meaningful relationship with your kids, a rock-hard physique, your sanity, a fully stamped passport, supportive friendships, passion projects and still have enough time left in the day to eat well, sleep enough or even breathe deeply.

HOWEVER.

You can have it all when “it” refers to the most important things in your life.

What’s the difference between everything and the most important things?

Priorities.

One of my favorite quotes about priorities is from entrepreneur and author Chris Guillebeau:

You can have unlimited dreams and goals, but not unlimited priorities.

We make the mistake of believing that if we don’t have everything we want right now, we’re failures. But in trying to have everything all at once, we fail to fully achieve any one dream or goal.

The secret to having it all is prioritization.

And the key to determining your priorities is in your values.

Your personal values tell you what is most important to you at any given time. But the circumstances of your life will require you to prioritize certain values over others. And as life changes, so will your priorities.

Not clear on what your personal values are? Start here.

Let’s do a little exercise. Yes, right now!

1.  Jot down everything you spent time on yesterday and approximately how long you spent doing each thing.

We’re talking stuff like eating, sleeping, working, pretending to work, hiding in the bathroom, surfing the Internet, socializing, gossiping, drinking, commuting, reading, listening to podcasts, talking on the phone, working out, meditating, procrastinating, planning, playing, laughing, doing housework, complaining, creating…you know, ALL THE THINGS. (If you’re having a hard time with this, try tracking your activities on the go one day.)

2.  Now compare your list of daily goings-on to your values and assign each activity to one (or more) of your particular values.

3.  Where are you spending the majority of your time and/or energy?

If you’re focusing on activities that align with your core values, bully for you! That’s a crucial element in the pursuit of having it all. Keep on keep truckin’.

If, on the other hand, you find that you’re spending most of your time doing things that don’t line up with your values, you probably feel like having it all is a load of crap. I know the feeling.

Values in Action

At my first job, I was miserable and frustrated. Management was a disaster (which law firm’s isn’t?) and my salary had been frozen despite my increasing responsibilities. I wanted out, but the market had crashed and my expertise wasn’t exactly in high demand. So when a headhunter contacted me about a commercial real estate position in early 2010, I couldn’t pass it up.

When I learned more about the new job — particularly the salary — I had to have it. While I hadn’t yet gotten clear on my values, I was aware that financial security was my top priority at the time.

I wanted to make a bigger dent in my student loans, grow my 401(k), refinance our house, invest, build an emergency fund. This new job would allow me to do all of that.

Financial security also contributed to my value of freedom. Until I hit my 30s, freedom for me meant self-sufficiency and an ability to travel.

I knew once my finances were in order, I’d feel free from the stress of not being financially stable. Plus, with more money we’d be able to tackle our international travel itinerary.

As for the commute, it was pretty much the same as my existing commute. I had justified it at a lower salary, so making the same commute for a lot more money seemed reasonable.

So what went wrong with this new job?

Shifting Priorities

A couple years into my new gig I asked myself, “How does spending an hour (each way) commuting to a job I loathe contribute to my core values?”

I had finally identified my core values: freedom, family, connection, adventure, joy, mindfulness, kindness and financial responsibility.

Obviously, driving to a job so far away made me a slave to my commute. Plus, I felt trapped in my legal career. Freedom.

Even though we didn’t have a kid yet (F* you, infertility), I knew a two hour daily commute would not allow for the quality family time I wanted. Family.

I enjoyed the personal interactions with the staff, attorneys and clients at my office, but the commute stole what precious little time my BigLaw husband and I had together each day. Connection.

Although I was making enough money to take amazing vacations (and we did go on several once-in-a-lifetime trips), I was never able to be gone as long or as often as I had wanted. And my boss always wanted me to check in. Adventure.

I dreaded going to work every day, counted the minutes until I could leave for lunch and then dragged myself back an hour (okay, hour and a half) later. I didn’t enjoy my work and felt guilty for resenting a job most attorneys would be thrilled to have. Joy.

Mindfulness? Riiiiiight. I was a zombie on the roads. I practiced presenteeism in the office. And if I didn’t think too hard about how I was spending my days (or drink too much wine), I could still manage to get out of bed in the morning. Mindfulness.

After exhausting my kindness resources in the office all day, I was all too happy to bitch about every minute detail of my day to my unsuspecting husband, sister, friends, acupuncturist, psychiatrist…pretty much anyone. Kindness.

The job paid really well, especially for how little was required of me. But my husband works in BigLaw, and we were in pretty great shape financially at that point. So did I need to spend two hours a day (and money for gas and car maintenance) driving to and from a job that paid six figures just for the sake of having disposable income? Financial responsibility.

Priorities aside, not one of my core values lined up with this working arrangement. Not. One.

While your values largely remain the same over time, your priorities do not.

The day I discovered we had surpassed our biggest financial goal, my priorities changed. And my misery returned.

It literally happened in an instant.

Financial responsibility was no longer at the top of the list. I felt I was aligned with this value by virtue of all the saving, investing and planning we had done. Our finances were in maintenance mode.

Freedom, family and joy were my new priorities. And I knew leaving the practice of law had to be my number one goal.

I knew that was my path to having it all.

Sometimes a shift in priorities occurs after you achieve a goal — like reaching a financial milestone. Other times changing circumstances force your priorities to change (i.e., losing your job, the death of a loved one).

Regardless of why your priorities shift, knowing that they can shift without notice underscores the importance of knowing your core values. 

Even when rearranging your priorities brings about a major change — like changing careers — the process will feel much smoother than it would if you were unclear on your values.

If you happen to be in the midst of a major upheaval and have no clue what your values, priorities or goals are, don’t be discouraged . By all means dig in and figure out who you are at your core — what drives you, what brings you joy, how you want to be remembered.

It may seem like a frivolous or indulgent exercise during difficult (or even not-so-difficult) times, but think of it as an investment in yourself. At the very least, you’ll no longer have to feel like crap whenever someone mentions having it all.

Because you’ll understand what “it” means to you and know how you’re going to pursue it.

Whenever you feel overwhelmed by cultural mandates to “lean in” or by the ubiquitous assurances that you can have it all, check in with your values. Remember what is most meaningful to you now and what you want your life to look like down the road — five, ten, twenty years. Don’t compare this vision to others’ ideals. And don’t spend too much time looking back or regretting past decisions.

I rarely look back. Everything I’ve done and endured in the past was simply prologue to the life I’m choosing to live now. I’m at peace with my decisions.

But when I do look back on that unsophisticated tween standing in front of a mall display, I don’t see someone after wealth and status. Beneath the superficial desires for a prestigious career, trendy clothes and a cushy budget, I see an innocent girl who’s just starting to explore what “having it all” would mean for her.

What does “having it all” mean to you? Do YOU think lawyers can have it all?

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Comments

  1. First of all, your blog brought back great memories — oh the days when Anne Taylor sold beautiful well made clothes. That aside, a great post on the importance of making the shift to having a job that fits your values.

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