1661 Worcester Road, Suite 204, Framingham, MA 01701 • Phone: 508-232-6267
1661 Worcester Road, Suite 204, Framingham, MA 01701
By Diana O'Hara, Esq.
I am proud to say my partner and I run a non-traditional law firm. We do not have a downtown office steps away from the courthouse. We don't have a giant support staff of paralegals and legal assistants. We don't have a fancy lobby with marble floors and leather chairs. We don't even have a dress code or a list of office rules. Instead, we have a space in the suburbs of Boston with ample parking. We have three experienced associates and a fantastic paralegal. They are all capable of answering their own phone calls. We have an open office space ideal for shouting questions and sarcastic responses at one another. Best of all, we have trust in our employees to dress how they need to and to get the job done. This is not an accident.
When I was in law school in the late 1990s, students vied for positions after graduation in one of Boston's larger law firms. The term "white shoe" law firm was used to describe those firms that employed 100's of lawyers, paid six-figure salaries, had name recognition, and focused on various practice areas. I was never interested in practicing in that type of law firm. Litigation was my passion throughout law school and I wanted to hit the ground running. I did not want to spend the first handful of years looking through documents hoping someone would trust me enough to let me draft a complaint or a motion to compel. Mostly, I lacked the desire to work 80 hours a week in a business suit. I didn't lack the work ethic or the passion for the law. I just couldn't see my life playing out in that way. As many graduates do, I spent the first years after graduation finding my place in the legal world. I found my home in civil tort litigation and I have been loving it for the past 19 years.
So, in 2014 when I was approached by one of the partners I worked for about opening a law firm I was hesitant. Being a partner sounded great: more money; more control of the work; my name on the door, etc., but there was an underlying fear of becoming the type of law firm I had avoided for almost 20 years. Luckily I had a partner who was open to the idea of doing things differently. As he had been flexible with me as I navigated life as a working parent, we set out on a journey to run a business with flexibility and minimal stress in mind.
First, we removed the idea of a dress code at work. My mind works the same in jeans and sneakers that it does in a suit and heels. As long as clients weren't in the office, we instituted a simple rule; use your own judgment and wear what makes you comfortable . Our staff has warmed to the idea and enjoys not having to spend money and time on their work wardrobe. The result has been a casual environment with no stress over what to put on every morning. So far, our employees are always presentable and have never shown up to work in their pajamas - or worse.
Second, work around your family life. I've never liked the term "work-life balance" as it implies an equilibrium is possible. It's not. Sometimes your time tilts towards work and sometimes it tilts towards your family. Rather than try to balance the two, I give my attention where it is needed at the time and trust my employees will do the same. The work needs to be done and it needs to be done on time. This doesn't mean you need to work 60 hours a week, miss your child's doctor appointments or be at your desk by 9 o'clock every morning. An employee who does good work shouldn't be penalized for also being a good parent. If they can get their work done and the clients are happy then I am happy too. One way we accommodate this is by having our office in a suburb where employees can leave the office and be home in twenty or thirty minutes. It's amazing how much of a difference this makes - not to mention the reduction in firm overhead. We have found this flexibility reduces stress while not feeling guilty for hours they have to be out of the office.
Third, you don't have to be at the office to be working. Similar to the above rule, work doesn't need to be done between 9 o'clock and 5 o'clock inside the four walls of the office. We allow our attorneys to make their schedules to work for their lives. We have attorneys that work from 7:00 - 3:00 in order to be home earlier and alleviate childcare costs. We have attorneys who work from home once or twice a week. Today, with secure technology readily available on private internet connections, work is accessible from the kitchen table or the home office. For some tasks our employees find the solitude of working from home more efficient than they would be in the office.
All of this helps with my goal as a partner and employer - running a law firm focused on a happy staff under minimal stress. As a litigation attorney, I know stress is unavoidable and even helpful at times. Nevertheless, extreme stress leads attorneys to make decisions that can derail careers. Stress is also a major health risk for everyone, but can be especially dangerous for attorneys. The American Bar Association reported attorneys are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-attorneys. We advocate that our staff utilize the gym in the office building during work hours, take time off when they need it, and prioritize their happiness and health. I make a point of trying to meditate for 5 minutes at lunch every day myself. I recognize that there is a correlation between good mental and physical health, limited stress, a happy and flexible personal life, and a productive employee. There are a wealth of studies that support this contention. Moreover, I have seen personally, in myself and my employees, how these factors converge to make a business successful.
I am proud of the firm my partner and I run. I know many law firms thrive on long hours, rigid office rules, and stressed out young associates. I get why and I know I get a few funny looks from other attorneys when I discuss this topic. They are shocked to hear I spend 90% of my time in jeans and sneakers. They balk at the freedom we give our employees in terms of scheduling and hours. What gives me hope is the younger attorneys who work at those "white shoe" law firms asking me whether it is really possible to have a work-life balance. The answer is NO. You will never find "work-life balance" as a lawyer. I tell them they have to know when to work and when to have a life and to find a law firm that focuses on them over their billable hours. A law firm that trusts its staff to do the work and still have a life is golden. Finally, I tell them if they're not sure they are in that place, ask yourself if they let you wear sneakers to the office every day.
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