Finding Fulfillment in the Practice of Law

The Bencher—November/December 2016 

By Judge David W. Lannetti and Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire

With the stress inherent in the life of an attorney, the issue of work–life balance comes up frequently. “Balance” is what we strive for to avoid burnout and find fulfillment in both our professional and personal lives. Although it may sound counterintuitive, you may find that the “life” portion of your work/life equation can be enhanced by interacting with fellow legal professionals and using your legal skills in non-legal arenas. By participating in pro bono activities, professional organizations, and community service, you can enrich your life while improving your profession and your community. These professional and community outlets can make your day-to-day life less stressful, more enjoyable, and ultimately more rewarding.

Tweaking the Traditional Notion of Balance

Many in the working world equate “balance” with abandoning vocation in favor of vacation. Although that is extremely important—and necessary—few of us can manage more than two weeks out of the office per year, if that, and are fortunate to squeeze in a couple of hours of family time during evenings and weekends. With personal time limited, it’s essential to manage work time in a way that reduces stress and increases professional satisfaction.

It should come as no surprise that almost all attorneys experience stress. Advocacy plays out in a competitive environment that often involves confrontation. Practicing law forces us to confront the dark world of which most of society is blissfully ignorant: deranged criminals, victims of violence, abused and neglected children, and people permanently injured through the negligence of others. We understand that we are dealing with lives—and sometimes personal fortunes—that hang in the balance; hence, we must empathize with our clients while staying sufficiently detached in order to preserve our own sanity.

Balance—and the concomitant stress reduction—depends on regaining at least some control over your life. We are uniquely positioned to expand our sphere of influence and positively impact both the legal profession and our communities, but many attorneys undervalue professional and community outlets as tools to achieve balance. Redefining the traditional notion of balance is one way to increase professional satisfaction and reduce stress.

Finding Enjoyable and Rewarding Work in Pro Bono Cases

Many attorneys go to law school because they want to work with and help people. Most of us, however, do not end up doing the fulfilling legal work we imagined in our starry-eyed dreams. You may find pro bono work particularly rewarding if it aligns with your original vision of your career. The need for pro bono attorneys is quite high, making pro bono service a noble and rewarding proposition as well.

Across the country, there is a gap between the legal assistance available and that needed by low-income Americans. This “justice gap” creates an opportunity for you to use your skills to give back to those who need legal services the most. You may want to help, but do not know how to assist, or assume that taking on a pro bono case will be time-consuming. Most legal aid societies have programs to train you and connect you with various types of cases. These programs offer opportunities to learn about a different practice area while assisting with the overwhelming legal aid caseload and helping low-income individuals obtain access to justice.

Taking pro bono cases through a local legal aid office will save you time: The cases typically are pre-screened, and you will have control over the types of cases you select. The American Bar Association provides numerous resources related to pro bono opportunities by state on its website. Providing free legal assistance is not only a worthy cause; it also brings a sense of pride to our profession and a new outlook on other legal work, which can decrease the stress associated with being an attorney.

Building a Support Network Using Professional Legal Organizations

As members of voluntary professional organizations, such as local bar associations or American Inns of Court, we have the opportunity to work with a diverse group of legal professionals. Local bar associations are a great way to meet other attorneys through regular meetings and social gatherings. There are typically various planning committees as well, offering leadership opportunities and occasions to interact with attorneys in different practice areas.

Other attorneys in these organizations can and will become members of your professional community; nurturing those relationships will benefit you in your own practice and this network can provide support, mentorship, and encouragement. Getting to know other attorneys—and their stressors—and understanding their practice will give you a better appreciation of the importance of your own practice area, helping to alleviate stress. When interacting with these fellow attorneys in practice, you will find heightened respect and cooperation, both of which make practicing law easier and less stressful.

The privilege of working in a self-regulating profession includes an obligation to ensure that we uphold principles of ethics and preserve the trust of the public. By committing to ethical and professional behavior, and challenging those who do not, we can create a less stressful legal environment; some would say this is the essence of the mission of the American Inns of Court. Regulating ourselves improves the image of the profession in our own eyes and those of the public.

Developing Perspective through Community Service

Community outlets can provide the opportunity to use your unique attorney skills to help others. Find the right community involvement by ensuring that it’s aligned with your interests. Understanding your community can help you better empathize with clients and appreciate certain legal problems. Perhaps most important, community involvement provides a different vantage point. As attorneys, it is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day chaos and lose touch with the outside world. Community service can bring everything back into proper perspective, thereby reducing stress.

Measuring Balance to Ensure Success

Although these opportunities are available to all attorneys, balance does not transpire without action. Action is most effective with a deliberate plan and metrics to measure accomplishment. Take the time to set goals, including intermediate steps. Setting milestones helps track progress over time and provides a sense of accomplishment when you attain them. Goals should be clearly defined, realistic, easy to measure, and deadline-oriented. Establish checkpoints to monitor progress, reassess, and make necessary adjustments.

Work–life balance is often couched in terms of what attorneys do with their time outside of work. Perhaps the reason we receive so many lectures on work–life balance is because the work part of our lives—as opposed to the life part—is out of balance. Professional and community outlets can reduce the risk of burnout and enhance job satisfaction. Ultimately, finding fulfillment in the practice of law is an individualized trek, but embracing different aspects of the profession can aid in reaching the desired destination.

Judge David W. Lannetti serves on the Norfolk Circuit Court, Fourth Judicial Circuit of Virginia. Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire is an attorney at Vandeventer Black LLP in Norfolk, Virginia. Both are executive committee members, and Judge Lannetti is President, of the James Kent AIC. The views advanced in this article are those of the authors alone and should not be mistaken for the official views of the Norfolk Circuit Court or Vandeventer Black LLP.

© 2016 Hon. David W. Lannetti and Jennifer L. Eaton, Esq. This article was originally published in the November/December 2016 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the express written consent of the American Inns of Court.