Friday, August 12, 2011

Work-Life Balance for Paralegals

One of my readers recently asked whether there is good work-life balance for paralegals.  This is an excellent question. (Thank you, Indy!)

Work-life balance is a fancy way of asking how much life your employer sucks from your soul, and is there a proportional reward to refill the void your job can create. Let's face it, all jobs are rewarding IF you pick the right one. The key here is whether the rewards are worth being away from your personal life for the majority of your weekly waking hours.

I can tell you that I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing unless I liked it, but I sometimes wonder whether it is all worth it. With two young children, my life is hectic, at best.

As a litigation paralegal, there are some harsh realities you need to come to grips with BEFORE throwing yourself into the shark tank. Some weeks you might work 40 hours, and some weeks you might work 80 hours (during a trial). I'm usually tired during the week because I get up early enough to pick up the kids and cook dinner. I work weekends sometimes, and every weekend before a trial. Typically, however I am not ASKED to work weekends unless there is a trial coming up, even though I sometimes feel that I have to work the weekends to keep up.

The other side of that coin is the incredible flexibility that comes with such a hectic schedule.  I generally work whatever hours I want, taking vacation whenever I want (so long as I'm not involved in a trial at that time), and can take time off whenever I need to care for my sick kids and take them to appointments. To me, that is the biggest perk of all and makes the crappy hour requirements worth it. My company also has unlimited sick time, so I can take as much sick time as I want, so long as I meet my billable hour requirement for the year.

I have learned over time that work-life balance is a personal choice to prioritize your daily schedule and takes daily effort. You always feel behind and you will never catch up (even if you work 24 hours each day). Ask yourself what is most important to you in life and likely, you won't answer with "getting this report out the door," or "reading the rest of my email."  Be up-front with your employer about the expectations you have to limit your working hours to afford yourself the hours to spend with your family, at the gym, and doing the things that make you happiest in life. I did that at my current firm and they respectfully abide by the boundaries I set.

The amount of stress you have depends on a few factors:

1. What kind of law your firm practices. Litigation paralegal positions are the most stressful. Probate is probably the least stressful. You should try to discover what specialty fits you best. Keep in mind that some of the most stressful positions are also the most exciting.

2. How many hours you work. Some firms want a part time paralegal because they don't have enough work for a full-timer. If you are a part-time worker, the attorney you work for is probably fairly self-sufficient to be able to make that schedule work.

3. Billable hours are a good indicator of the stress level. Firms with a high billable requirement will stress you out. See my blog on billable hours for more explanation.

4. Whether you pick the right people to work with. You will spend a lot of time with these people. If you can't work well together, it will stress you out big time.

5. Working for more than one attorney can also add stress. Unless you work for a sole proprietor, you will probably work for between two and four attorneys. That is a balancing act that is far from easy, and the attorneys you work for will likely forget you have work for other attorneys.

In summary, being a paralegal comes with a lot of stress. The money is decent (depending on the field), but no amount of money is worth unhappiness. Period. It is possible to achieve a work-life balance if you work for it every day and learn to manage the daily stresses appropriately (like by blogging!)

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