For Women in Law By Women in Law

There is No Such Thing as Balance!

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In reading the recent blog of my partner and friend, The Balancing Act: Why Striving for Work-Life Balance Misses the Point, and indeed in discussing the article with her before it was published, I started thinking again about how I rejected the idea of Work-Life Balance years ago, for similar but different reasons as Cynthia. Since many of us may struggle with this concept and the expectations it sets, the connotations it implies, I thought I would share my thoughts in a rebuttal, of sorts. (Not technically a rebuttal, since I agree with her conclusion for slightly different reasons.)

First, I not only enjoyed my work, I was ambitious. At the time, I felt that “ambition” was a dirty word for young lawyers, especially young female lawyers but I would not settle for work-life balance. I wanted to work hard and excel. Be recognized, receive opportunities and push myself to develop my skills and lay the foundational blocks for my own practice. I strived for leadership positions, in and outside of law, and knew that I would have put in the hours achieve my goals.

Second, and more importantly, there is no such thing as balance! Your life is not perfectly scheduled and your focus and priorities change over what will be the decades that span your career. In the beginning, I was fortunate that I did not have much in the way of competing demands. However, I did have a supportive partner with a vastly different schedule then mine, which meant I was free to simply put in the billable hours and worked on honing my craft. Later, my partner and I needed help trying to conceive so my focus shifted a bit. I spent less time at the office and more time at a doctor’s office. That shift was not just physical, it also consumed my emotional resources. And we need to allow for this as, just like hours in a day, our emotional reserves and resilience are not limitless. This was highlighted even further when my mom got sick and I spent hours on a plane every month flying home to Winnipeg, martialing myself to be her support person.

Then I had kids followed by the pandemic and I realized I had the gift of time to be there with them for dinner every night for two years. I started to focus on fitness and my own health. By necessity, all of these other priorities pulled me away from hours at the (virtual) office.

But then there was that trial that consumed three to four months of my life. When I barely saw my kids or partner, did not speak to any other friends or family and just worked. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but it was also incredibly rewarding and the highlight of my career. It is what I spent the previous 15 years working towards professionally. After that, I needed an extended break. Not an extended vacation (though I also took time off), but a break from that laser focus on substantive legal work. I pulled back and gave myself space for the rest of the year.

And now I’m somewhere else. I have shifted again and my focus is back on work but in a different way. I’m spending more non-billable time in management, trying to inspire and build a productive and profitable team, and on my own personal business development, which I find incredibly rewarding.  This year I set an intention early on that I would invest my non-billable time, which means I’ll make less in the short run but the plan is that it will pay off in the future with more of the type of work I want and the clients I love working with.

The point is, our lives will not happen on a schedule. The unexpected will happen and it will require us to step away or step back from other demands and we need to give ourselves the grace to do so, not just a little so as not to upset the balance but with our whole hearts so that the thing that needs us has our near full attention. Other times, when we can, we set goals and intentions and purposefully shift our time and energy, not so that it is balanced against everything else in our lives but so that it becomes a priority and we say THIS, this is the thing where I will put in the work because there is a specific, or not so specific, goal that I want to achieve. That priority might be literal work, but it may also be a child, parent or friend who need us or who we want to strengthen our connection with, our own health and wellbeing, our romantic relationships, our communities. If we constantly try to ‘balance’ our time and attention between all of these things, we will diminish what we can do and never achieve the things that are most important to us.

In recent months I have found two beautiful quotes that I have repeated to myself over and over. The first is admittedly somewhat heartbreaking. Courtney Martin has a longer quote that you should definitely go find but the end is, “We are the daughters of the feminists who said, “You can be anything,” and we heard, “You have to be everything.” This blog, hopefully, is about how we cannot be everything all at once and we, as women, as a generation, as professionals, need to adjust our expectations for ourselves and each other. If you are literally trying to do everything, then nothing is a priority, and nothing truly matters.

The second is not a quote per se, but something casually said during a podcast that has resonated with me and become something of a mantra: “Life is what you pay attention to.” I repeat this to myself and it guides this idea of shifting focus, as opposed to balance. I could not possibly pay attention to everything all at once. Instead, I think about what do I want my life to be right now, and that is what I pay attention to.

About the Author

Jennifer Hunter is a partner and Practice Group Leader in the Lerners Toronto office.  She is an experienced advocate who has appeared as trial and appellate counsel before all levels of court in Ontario, and many tribunals. She has a broad practice arising from the defence of civil claims, with particular expertise in privacy and cyber litigation, professional liability, and municipal and public entity liability.

Jennifer is recognized by Lexpert as a leading lawyer in the area of Medical Negligence, “One to Watch” in Litigation – Commercial Insurance by Canadian Legal Lexpert Directory, Best Lawyers in Canada for Health Care Law, Insurance Law, Medical Negligence, and Professional Malpractice Law, and a recipient of the Lexpert Rising Stars: Leading Lawyers Under 40 Award (2020).

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