Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Lawyers and Family Day, 2024

Lawyers and Family Day, 2024

Lawyers and Family Day—what a great combination! We have a profession that never has enough time, and we have a statutory holiday.

We know that many lawyers struggle with work-life balance (believing it is impossible) or work-life integration (but most of us are unsure even what this even means). But the prospect of a “free” day to spend with one’s family is likely welcome to most of us.

Did you know that Premier Don Getty, the Alberta leader who created Family Day in 1990, was a lawyer? And that, like most families, his family faced challenges—although the former Premier denied that there was a connection between his family situation and the creation of our new stat holiday. But having the opportunity to spend time with one’s family, whether by biology, choice or having fur, is appreciated by most of us during the long days between New Year’s and Spring Break.

I like connecting Family Day, our February statutory holiday, with enhancing our work-life balance which always seems to be out of balance. The term “work-life balance” gets a bit of a bad rap due, in part, to illustrations of a scale with WORK on one arm and LIFE on the other, in perfect equilibrium. As an early proponent of work-life balance in the early 1990s, it never occurred to me that WORK and LIFE would be perfectly in balance. I just wanted to alter the ratio between the two since the arm carrying WORK was always hanging much lower than the one bearing LIFE, and I felt unsatisfied and exhausted.

Many people now use the more-neutral term, “work life integration,” for the achievement of a ratio between WORK and LIFE” which is somewhat satisfactory to them, in the moment, but what most lawyers experience most of the time is more accurately “work life challenge.”

Work-life integration also reflects the demolition of artificial divides between our work selves and our home selves which arose in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic—all of a sudden, lawyers were working from their homes while caring for children, pets and households. The work-from-home era brought its own stresses, but it allowed us to see that work and homelife could overlap more than we thought was possible.

I use the following definition for Work-Life Integration during presentations to lawyers: your personal (subjective) split between the hours you devote to your profession and the hours you devote to your family, hobbies and interests, and yourself. I like this definition because it recognizes that our lives are not binary, consisting only of Work and Family Life. We all have components of our lives which lead to our well-being, like exercising, walking in nature, hanging out with friends, which enhance our well-being.

The American Bar Association Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being posited that we have at least six dimensions in our lives:

As lawyers, we are generally good at fulfilling our Occupational and Intellectual dimensions. We invest in our careers first by attending law school and then by concentrating on our work, which is intellectual in nature. Depending on where we work, we may be encouraged to pay attention to our Physical dimension because our firms don’t want us keeling over at our desks. But we don’t think or talk very much about our Emotional, Social and Spiritual dimensions (at least at work, where we spend so much of out time!)

Other models propose other dimensions such as Financial, Environmental and Cultural. My guess is that we, as lawyers, focus on our Financial dimension because it is an offshoot of our professional lives: we work and we get paid, and we tend to move within a relatively sophisticated milieu where investments and financial matters are discussed openly.

But we don’t have to put all of our energy into our Occupational and Intellectual baskets, and we don’t have to keep our baskets exclusively devoted to a single dimension. It can be difficult to effectively include your family in your Occupational dimension (and there are privacy issues depending on how you structure this!) but we can incorporate our families—or friends—into the other dimensions, and this can help us achieve the degree of work-life integration we are seeking.

For example, we know that we, as lawyers, sometimes neglect our Emotional dimension because we block out the emotional sides of our work. We strive to make decisions objectively and based on facts, and if we have to factor all potential emotional impacts of our decisions and strategies, it would be paralyzing. Let’s face it: in law, there is usually a party on the other side who is generally unhappy with actions that make our client happy. We can’t assume responsibility for the emotions of the other party, and we often have enough trouble dealing with our own client’s emotional reactions!

So, if you recognize that you tend to ignore or diminish the Emotional dimension in your life, can you invest more of your time and energy into your family and friends time? If you have children, it can be healthy for them to learn to name the emotions they are experiencing, and as they mature, they sometimes need help managing their emotions. You can help them understand what they are feeling (angry because their sibling took their toy) but that hitting said sibling with another toy is not an effective way of managing their anger. When my oldest was a pre-schooler, he often got frustrated and angry with his younger brother (even before he had two of them to contend with.) Like most small children, he wanted to respond physically, so I taught him to count to ten when he recognized that he felt angry with his brother. I would watch him count, reach ten, and realize that he still felt angry and would start at one over again! Talking about emotions with kids continues to be important as they grow, and their interpersonal relationships and emotions become more complex.

This weekend, can you discuss emotions and feelings with your family or friends?

You can include family members in your Physical dimension activities which can be as simple as going for a walk together, your Spiritual dimension by discussing how you find meaning in life, and Socially by connecting with others through these activities. You don’t have to create new time to work on these dimensions—just be cognizant of what you are actually doing in your non-work interactions. Sometimes we are putting time and energy into these dimensions without realizing it.

It is important to note that not all lawyers feel the tug of work-life integration issues the same way. According to the National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants for Canadian Legal Professionals, it is the perception of conflict between work and personal life sphere which causes stress, distress and depressive symptoms (page 152). Having support outside of work can have a positive impact, lessening perceived stress, psychological distress and depressive symptoms.

The National Study also considered the issue of whether being a legal professional (the Study included Ontario paralegals and Quebec notaries as well as Canadian lawyers and articling students) is incompatible with family life. The Study found that a significant proportion—49%-- of legal professionals experience work-life conflict.

Work-life conflict is not restricted to legal professionals with children—we can experience work-life conflict with respect to our other aspects of our lives. I can certainly relate to this point. In 2022, when I was struggling to cope with two elderly parents being diagnosed with degenerative conditions, I felt more helpless and less useful than I did as the parent of three young children. It is important to remember that people who are caregivers to elderly adults or dependent family members are often carrying heavy loads, exposing them to work-life conflict.

Many people believe that work-life conflict is more common for women, and the National Study confirms this with almost 53% of female participants experiencing it. But 45% of men experience it as well!

This is important when we look at what our profession is experiencing as a whole. The National Study tells us that work-life conflict is linked with lawyers’ decreased commitment to practicing law and increased intention to leave the profession. Work-life conflict is also linked with significantly higher scores for all health problems included in the study. Study authors state:

At the same time, even though we know from the literature that professional burnout is principally a phenomenon resulting from work, we understand that work and family are interconnected. Therefore, the constraints experienced in the professional sphere can put considerable pressure on the professional’s ability to cope with the conditions in their personal life, gradually wearing down their resources to the point of imbalance. (page 158)

But this not uniformly bleak: individuals with support apart from at the workplace are more committed to their profession and have a lower intention to leave. And on the human level, individuals with support system experience lower rates of psychological distress, depressive symptoms, and burnout.

Part of the answer to helping lawyers find work-life integration that works for them may involve having adequate support systems. When I had young children and experienced work-life challenges, I didn’t have much non-work support. Most of my support systems involved my law school and work friends and I didn’t have any extended family in town. There were certainly times when I felt overwhelmed. But when my youngest child was two years old, two new families moved into our cul-de-sac with children his age. We quickly formed a support pod since each family had one parent who worked crazy hours and one who worked fewer hours. All three children went to pre-school and activities together which was great, but what was more important was that the three of us who were home more hung out together, and we had each other’s backs when a child was sick or if childcare fell through.

So, we know that lawyers struggle with work-life issues and that we often feel like one-trick ponies who pour most of our effort and time into work-related dimensions. We know that work-life imbalance causes lawyers to leave our profession, and that lawyers benefit from support systems outside of the workplace. It sounds like we need Family Day (or potentially other extra day off work) more often than once each year. But let’s make the most of February 19th and spend time with our families and friends, doing activities that engage our social, physical, emotional and spiritual sides.  

Does the thought of consciously planning well-being activities and building support systems on Family Day feel overwhelming when you already feel overwhelmed and stretched to your limits? Assist can help. Remember that all Alberta lawyers, articling students, law students and dependent family members qualify for four hours of professional counselling per person per issue per year. This includes marriage or relationship counselling if you feel like the partner who bears the brunt of home responsibilities, as well as individual counselling for you and your partner. 

Sometimes we want to make a change in our careers in order to live the life we want, and sometimes we don’t know how to get from where we are—exhausted and overwhelmed—to where we want to be—happy and thriving. The National Study suggests that many lawyers think that they will have to leave law when they are dissatisfied with their lack of work-life balance. But: You don’t have to leave law to find a better balance. There are many rewarding legal careers that allow you to tilt the scale more in the direction of Life than Work. Come talk to us and we will connect you with lawyers who have made similar decisions.

Practicing law can be hard, and caring for family members can be hard, too. But you don’t have to do it alone.  Just as lawyers use precedents when drafting documents, you can rely on professional counsellors and lawyers who have walked your path before. Call Assist—we can help.