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By: Jamie Collins

Reprinted with permission from KNOW, The Magazine for Paralegals: www.paralegalknowldege.com.

I like to think that I do a pretty good job in the work/life balance department. With that being said, there is not always balance and harmony. We all know the word “balance” surrounded by the accompanying words “family” and “career” is laughable.

As a working professional, one must continuously strive to avoid an epic failure in either walk of life. It is a constant struggle for every paralegal on the planet that attempts to simultaneously juggle a busy career, quality time with their family, infrequent catch ups with a few close friends, a professional meeting every now and again, and the occasional (oh so occasional) moments where you get to actually bask in the glory of “me” time and do the things you like to do: indulge in a hot bath, read a good book, participate in a little, retail-shopping therapy, paint your toe nails or otherwise immerse yourself into a fascinating hobby or a large, lime margarita. I am certainly no exception.

I’m here today, because I feel that I have a personal obligation to share a relatable story with my colleagues with the hope that I can save at least one of you from making the same, terrible mistake I once made. I’m here to tell you about the summer of 2011.

First, we’re going to play a little word association game.  I’m going to say a few words and I want you to think of how the word makes you feel.

Word number one is:

Summer

You are probably thinking of warm weather, sunshine, lots of fun, outdoor activities, an upbeat mood, time with family and friends, vacations, cooks outs, outdoor recreational activities and a state of general euphoria all round, right?  Summer = happiness. A paralegal utopia.

Next word?

Trial

I am guessing this word brings forth a whole different spectrum of feelings, especially for those of you working as litigation paralegals! Think stress, deadlines, an overabundance of projects, the compilation of trial binders, preparation of witness and outlines, deposition summaries and highlighting till you are seeing yellow streaks across your general line of vision all day long, the management of attorneys’ stress, your own stress, the client’s stress; this word clearly brings on a whole different feeling, doesn’t it? Yes, indeed. Trial = stressed out paralegal. This is where I enter the picture.

Now we’ll talk about the summer of 2011.  I had a summer and a trial; actually, to be more precise – we were slated with FOUR jury trials – yes, four! Even for a seasoned litigation paralegal, that’s enough stress to send one onto that seemingly cozy spot on the carpet in the corner of your office, rocking back and forth and drooling, with a face glazed over in a look of sheer confusion, bewilderment, worry, anticipation and overall paralegal craziness to passersby. So, there I sat…rocking and drooling.

Okay, not really, but I did really have four trials to prepare for, so you can imagine the stress. Now whether these jury trials were actually going to “go” or not is completely beside the point; they were slated on the docket and we had to prepare for each one as though it would be going to trial – that’s all there was to it. That is the precarious predicament in which I found myself. It was the summer (sigh) of 2011.

As far as balancing my life goes, I’ve always made a consorted effort to be 100% present wherever I found myself. In other words, if I was at the office, I did not take personal calls unless they were truly necessary, focused on my work and the needs or my attorneys, and made the most of my time while I was there. I learned to perform tasks as efficiently and expeditiously as possible. I never found myself competing with those around me, but rather, simply competing with myself (and against myself) to see what I could really do. I honed my organizational skills, developed processes and systems to navigate those routine tasks quickly and forged strong bonds with those around me.

On the flip side of that, when I was home, I was with my family. I was not checking my work e-mail, bringing home projects for completion nor fielding phone calls from my attorneys, at least for the most part. Thankfully, I’ve always worked for respectful attorneys who understood my personal time was not their beck and call time, so this worked out for me…on most days.

As far as the work dynamic goes, I take great pride in my work and the services I render as a litigation paralegal. If I need to put in extra hours on the evenings and a few weekends here and there in order to prepare for a trial – then sign me up! I’m all for it. I enjoy the thrill of swooping in to help elevate an esquire or a case anytime the need arises. I have no aversion to working hard or clocking long hours to assist my firm, its attorneys, and ultimately, our clients.

Then it came; the summer of 2011. My world was turned upside down, backwards and inside out. I could no longer reconcile the difference between what was work time and what was home time (and there certainly wasn’t time for any of those “other” times previously mentioned: the friend time, me time, free time, and lunch time. They did not exist). My life became one, big, huge, ugly blur. In fact, I was about one step away from offering my supervising attorney a glass of chocolate milk with an accompanying bedtime story and my son, Gavin, a pile of finalized pleadings for signature. A bit crazy? Oh yes; that is an absolutely accurate descriptor.

I was so consumed by the trials looming overhead and internally terrorized by the thought of being overrun with chaos and craziness that I tried to do all that needed to be done for each of the cases. I began to feverishly work weekends to prepare the cases for trial and wasn’t even being asked to do so. I was trying to preemptively prevent the absolutely craziness that would undoubtedly ensue in my corner of the legal universe. I chose to work. I chose to come in to get more organized and move those 4 cases along. I chose to come into the firm, to work (all by my lonesome) for many weekends in a row…and not at the behest of my attorney. In case you’re counting, I believe I made a firm appearance through 7 consecutive weekends throughout the months of June and July, in addition to an occasional late night.

The problem is: summer was quickly fleeting. It passed me by. It passed my family time by. It passed my personal time by. There was no coveted, weekend trip to Holiday World with my family to splash, laugh and build memories. There was no time for painting nails, taking trips, chatting with friends, a night out on the town or a moment spent at my leisure. There was just an overabundance of work, 4 trials looming overhead, and me, the assigned, paralegal puppet master, attempting to successfully orchestrate it all. Let’s face it, in all realms of reality, I was to be the stand-in litigation concierge and master of ceremonies; 4 complicated ceremonies, to be precise. It was all me.

Now, ultimately, two of our trials settled (one of them just a few days before trial) and one was continued. We were left with just one on the calendar, although I had prepared for each and every one of them to the fullest extent imaginable for months. We showed up for number four, and as it turns out, the court failed to “order” us a jury pool, so we had – just in case you’re keeping count…no trials in the Summer of 2011. Yet, I had worked away the entire summer. I had worked through family time, friend time, me time, leisure time, lunch time, and heaven help me if I don’t get out of this office time, just to scratch the surface of the things I missed. I had worked, and worked, and worked and ended up having nothing to show for it, except for countless hours of my sanity spent in the law firm, behind that barless office window on nice summer days…and this lesson.

As a paralegal, it is imperative that you step up when you need to assist your attorney, firm and ultimately, the client. It is necessary, not optional, and something you should be happy to do when the need arises. However, the next time you find yourself in a “summer of 2011” situation, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are these expectations my attorney/firm is placing on me or that I am placing upon myself? (If it’s the latter, you may need to take it down a notch.)
  • Have I developed a logical plan for conquering these tasks and fulfilling expectations?  (This will help you to determine how much time you really need to devote to the project and spend in the office outside of normal work hours.)
  • Can I break this project down into more management sub-sections? (When viewing the big picture, things can seem far more overwhelming, so create a realistic, step-by-step plan and timeline for each task or component.)
  • Will I be the only one at the office after hours? (If the attorney isn’t there and did not ask you to work, odds are, there may be no need for you to be there either.)
  • In the event you feel you must spend your time behind that barless window in your office on countless occasions over a period of time – ask yourself what you aren’t willing to miss out on or sacrifice in your personal life. (In other words, you may work 3 weekends in a row, but by golly, you will not miss that family trip to Holiday World!)

Perhaps, many of you are saying that you have no choice; you must work to get the job done. The truth is, maybe you really do need to work outside of normal business hours and maybe you don’t. Keep in mind that working longer hours does not always equate to getting more accomplished. We all love to spend quiet time spent at the office without interruptions, but if you spend too much time at the office, far too frequently, you will enter the inevitable “burn out” zone and rendering yourself less effective overall, both personally and professionally. Paralegals need to sleep, eat (during those “pretend” lunch breaks allotted each day) and enjoy personal time, family time, friend time, me time and down time in order to remain moderately human.

Don’t let other people fool you into thinking that work/life balance means the worlds are balanced and equal. They seldom are. In actuality, being “balanced” simply means that the plates of both realms are spinning atop your fingertips just fast enough that nothing falls, both remain in perpetual motion and at the end of the day, you don’t find yourself seated in a corner of your office (or home) rocking and drooling or inadvertently dropping your esquire off at the baseball diamond and your son off at the local courthouse. Some days, that’s as balanced as it gets.

Let us never forget that on all of our days: the great ones, the ones we’d rather forget and all of the countless ones in between, we are living our lives, balanced or otherwise. So the next time you find yourself in a “summer of 2011” moment, I hope you’ll fondly reflect upon this article, ask yourself the questions set forth above and remember…to live your life.

_____

How about you – do you have an interesting barless office window story to share? Do tell! 

As much as the fearless Founder would love to stay and chat, guess what? She has yet another trial to prepare for! This one’s coming straight out of the barless office window, spring 2013 edition. Yep, that’s right — Trial Paralegal walking.

We’ll see you later this week!