Trial Briefs

PTO or Partner?  

September 01, 2023   |   Leila Hicks

Reflections on Work-Life Balance and Professional Development 

Over the last 11 years, I have had the pleasure of welcoming new lawyers to the practice of law while also speaking with aspiring future lawyers about what it means to be a part of the profession. During these interactions, the topics of professional development and work-life balance often arise. It seems that the secret is out: Lawyers struggle with trying to have it all. Our ambitious personalities often clash with our personal goals outside of our careers. Some lawyers may even say that their personal lives have suffered by taking a backseat to their practice. Of course, that’s not healthy, sustainable or desirable. But is it inevitable? 

The COVID-19 pandemic taught us many lessons. One significant lesson was that the show must go on. While the world fluctuated between disbelief, confusion, shock, trauma and acceptance, the billable hour kept ticking. Our commutes changed from highways to hallways and our “9-to-5” evolved into “always at work.” It seemed like work became a distraction from everything that was happening, and there was a wave of unhealthy work-life balance. Modern American society already placed a high value on hard work, but I have read that the pandemic led to us working longer hours than we ever have before, simply because we were always home, and work was always right there.  

Now that most of us have returned to the office or returned to life outside of quarantine, we’re circling back to finding our balance. It’s important to go back to basics to make sure that we do it right this time. And I think we’ll get a little help in this regard. 

Lessons from Gen Z

We’re seeing the next generation of lawyers enter practice. Gen Z has arrived. Gen Z had the advantage of watching Millennials, like myself, and Gen X work ourselves into burnout to achieve our professional goals. While Gen Z lawyers are still ambitious, hard-working and goal-oriented, they are making it clear that they expect a healthy balance between personal and professional. And they demand that employers meet them where they are.

They understand the importance of both work and leisure. Work can give us purpose but leisure rejuvenates us. They were able to learn through observation that unless you have a healthy mix of the two, focusing on work without downtime leads to burnout and failure. They have heard that a burned-out lawyer doesn’t produce quality work, doesn’t meet their professional goals, and likely won’t make partner. 

As I have interviewed Gen Z summer associates and new lawyers, I’ve been surprised to find that it is becoming common for them to ask about Paid Time Off, Paid Volunteer Hours and Firmwide Holidays during the interview process. Once the shock wore off (I’ll admit, it took a while), I realized that they’re doing some important work. They’re setting boundaries. From the jump. And they’re communicating their expectations. AND they’re signaling to us what rejuvenates them. Whether that is being able to volunteer with their favorite charity or long weekends to hike the Appalachian Trail, they are letting us know what they will need when they are not at work to be able to be their best person when they are at work. But of course, old perceptions and expectations die hard. Some may fear communicating their needs or even taking the time to reset because they think it may slow their path to partner. So how can Gen Z (and the rest of us), marry the desire to be our best selves while also reaching professional self-fulfillment?  

Find a mentor. Or a two. Whether your mentor is someone at your firm or just another attorney you connect with, establish a genuine relationship with someone -who is where you want to be professionally but also appears to have a healthy work-life balance. In my experience, most attorneys are willing to share information about their career trajectory and offer tips on how you can avoid any mistakes that they made.  

Take their advice. And when you both have built a strong relationship, ask them candid questions about how to develop your strategy for a partner position, focusing specifically on how to grow professionally without sacrificing your sanity. You’re likely to get the best direction from someone at your firm, especially if they are a partner, but don’t be discouraged if you’re not able to find a mentor at your firm. It’s best to have guidance from someone who understands your motivations rather than trying to figure it out on your own.  

Finding the right fit

From there, start setting goals (while setting expectations), build more relationships within your firm (while signaling what drives you) and look for opportunities to excel in your practice so that you can deliver quality work consistently that will set you apart from your peers (while making sure to keep burnout at bay).  

Once you have demonstrated that you are a talented lawyer, take initiative and seek leadership opportunities. Offer to take on complex projects, develop a new practice area for the firm, mentor and train new lawyers and show your commitment to the growth and success of the firm, not just yourself. All of these things can be done while taking PTO, spending time with your family or building in mental health breaks. You just need guidance on how to do it right based on where you are and where you want to be.  

With all this being said, I want to tell you that I am no expert on work-life balance. I’m finishing the edits on this article at 4 a.m. because my baby hasn’t decided if he likes sleeping through the night yet. I’m also no expert on making partner. I’m lucky to be with a firm that recognizes my value, gives me the opportunity to surround myself with people I admire and that has supported me and my development. 

Many of the challenges around achieving your professional goals while remaining present in your personal life can be resolved by finding the right fit. At the right firm (or company or agency), you will find a support system that fosters your growth, gives you room to be yourself and understands that having you succeed long term means helping you find balance. Wherever you are in your career, I wish you the best – of both worlds.