Ed. Note. This is a guest post from Sarah Coleman. She is a lawyer based out of Crested Butte, Colorado. Coleman Law provides litigation support and legal research and writing services to Colorado lawyers on a contract or freelance basis. You can connect with Sarah on Twitter: @COfreelancelaw.
I have worked as a part-time lawyer or on a flexible schedule for years. Although a part-time or flexible schedule can be a wonderful way to achieve a balance between professional and personal obligations, it is not without challenges. Being responsive to the demands of lawyering while still enjoying parenting or family time can leave you feeling pulled in two directions and once, and it is all too easy to end up frustrated or feel like you’re not able to fully enjoy either work or personal time.
Over the years, I have developed a few strategies that have helped me balance work and parenting. I currently work from home a few days a week and care for my two young children a few days a week. Doing just a few simple things with your mindset and resources can really help with making a part-time or flexible schedule a success.
Know the difference between being physically present and being fully present
I want to be fully emotionally and mentally present with my kids. Storytime, trips to the park, building Legos—I want to give my children my undivided attention or at least limit the distractions during these times. On the other hand, there are times when I am with my children and all they really need is a warm body. Somedays, I spend an hour or two shuttling my kids to different activities like dance class or a drop-off birthday party. There’s a lot of downtimes when that happens.
Recognizing the distinction between being physically there for my kids’ needs and being emotionally present helps me plan my day and set appropriate limits on my time and activities. When I am with my kids and I want to limit distractions from work, I’ll leave my phone at home or turn it on airplane mode. This allows me to really disconnect and forces me to relax enough to enjoy precious family time. Conversely, if I know that I’ll have some downtime during dance class, I can put in a billable hour or two if I plan head (more on that below).
Carve out designated work times
As nice as it is to disengage from work mode, our ever-growing inbox or to-do list is often nagging at the back of our brains. On the days when my children are not in school, I try to carve out some time throughout the day and reserve it for work. Knowing that I will be able to respond to emails and phone calls helps me stay present with my kids.
Carving out time for work on a flexible schedule sometimes requires planning ahead with your partner to cover childcare obligations. I’ll sometimes put it on our family calendar that I need to work in the evenings. Last week, I had a time-consuming project, but my kids were at home with me three days during the work week. I hung out with my kids all day, then handed off the parenting reigns to my husband and got several hours of billable work in during the evening. This approach cuts down on my wine-on-the-deck time on summer evenings, but it is a decent trade-off!
My youngest child still naps in the afternoon and I have my older child take a quiet rest time. I get a lot of emails answered then. I call it “naptime advocacy” and many moms have shared stories of writing briefs during these stolen hours! Whether it is first thing in the morning, an hour in the afternoon, or burning the midnight oil, try to block off some time that your partner and children know is reserved for professional obligations.
Communicate your availability
We live in a 24/7 information on-demand world. It is very easy to apply that expectation to our responsiveness to work demands. If you don’t limit your time, however, that work-life balance can be undermined by being ‘on call’ during your personal time.
It’s helpful to set limits on when you are available to take phone calls, answer emails, or do work and communicate your availability to co-workers, clients, and third parties. There are many different ways you can do this, but it is as simple as giving others an expectation of when they’ll hear from you—within 24 hours or on Wednesdays and Fridays, for example.
I’ve always said that I can’t expect anyone else to protect my time, I have to do that for myself. Although I’ve generally found that people are pretty respectful of these limitations if they are communicated clearly and upfront, I have occasionally had to push back against intrusions into my personal time. I am not unreasonable, but unless the matter is truly urgent, most communication can wait until your designated working time.
Explain or not—it’s up to you
There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to communicating your limited availability. Some people say that you don’t owe anyone an explanation of why you have limited availability. You could be in a trial or at the pool with your kids—either way, you’re not available and you don’t have to offer up a justification. On the other hand, some believe that it is important to acknowledge that you have interests and obligations outside of lawyer and to say “I am not working today because I am at my child’s dance recital.”
I think there is something to be said for both approaches, and in the end, you should do what you feel is appropriate based on the situation and who you’re speaking with.
A big part of making a part-time or flexible schedule work is planning ahead and having the right resources for the job at hand. Putting some thought into structuring your day will help you use your time effectively, especially when you aren’t sitting down at your desk.
For example, I am going camping with my family this weekend. We will be driving for several hours. The drive is a great opportunity to get some work in. But, I know I won’t have internet access for most of the drive (welcome to rural Colorado!) and I get carsick if I stare at a computer or phone screen for too long in the car. Sitting in the car isn’t the best time to do complex legal research or dive into a discovery review project. It is, however, a great time for me to edit a brief. I’ll print out a hard copy and hand edit it. Having just a little foresight to print out a hard copy means that I get to use downtime productively.
Reassess (re: lower) your expectations
You don’t always have to be super mom. You don’t always have to feed your kids organic, free-range, locally-sourced foods and provide a full day of enrichment activities. Somedays, chicken nuggets and PBS kids is just fine.
Give yourself the permission to relax your standards about food, tv time, and activities when you just need a few minutes of peace and quiet (for work or not)! As much as I try to stick to designated work times, plan ahead, and limit intrusions into my personal time, there will always be something that comes up at the last minute or a call that has to be rescheduled to an inopportune time.
Roll with it and do what you need to do to survive. You wouldn’t bad mouth your best friend for juggling work and parenting, so try to give yourself the same grace and acceptance.