Lawyer and parenting: the children are fine, as are the clients


March 29, 2022 – Everyone knows parenthood is one of the toughest jobs on Earth. And as any lawyer will tell you (often many times), practicing law is also quite difficult. But there are those who do both: lawyer/parents. How do they do?

If the last two years are any indication, no one knows. Juggling parenthood and legal practice is hard enough; adding a pandemic feels like juggling torches. Often it feels like very few of us are doing it right.

However, the children are doing well. And most people do it well, or at least well enough. If lawyers/parents have learned anything during the pandemic, it’s how to multi-task while working remotely. By now, most of us have a process in place: we dedicate our time to preparing, practicing, and getting the job done. But just as important is the ability to adapt and call an audible – game-changing line of action. You don’t have to be Tom Brady to learn this crucial skill. Are there any other tricks of the trade? We suggest the following.

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Advise your children as you advise your clients

We know clients don’t want abstract legal advice. Clients want helpful, practical, actionable advice that’s on the job, on time, and leads to the right outcome. Clients operate in rapidly changing environments that demand business/street savvy recommendations, alternatives and risk assessments with real-time updates. Guess what? The children too! Your kids rely on you to help them solve their problems together, as a team, with clarity and the honed ability to spin and call out audible cues when the wheels begin to come off the bus.

Lawyers/parents are ready to find creative and effective solutions to all sorts of incredible dilemmas. Theoretical pontification does not help anyone. Legal advice does not roll out, nor does effective parenting advice roll out like a proclamation. Parent lawyers must argue without arguing and convince with expertise and common sense. Think of trying to persuade your colleagues (or client, adversary, judge or jury) as if you were making your children eat your vegetables. Communicate clearly, present yourself well and be persistent: they are good for you, you know you need them, I hand it to you on a platter. Resist the urge to use corruption.

Be the rock in relationships

It’s a truism that children need routine. Customers too. They simply call it reliability, transparency and predictability. No surprises (especially with bills). Develop customer loyalty by being responsible, fair and delivering promised results. Like a good parent, protect your client from unnecessary burdens and see around corners to avoid surprises. Provide sufficient notice of disruptions or schedule changes. Learn to respond rather than react, recognize fake fires, and be the calming presence in the room.

The same with your children: listen to them. Focus on their well-being and present yourself as a pillar of strength and a reliable resource. Like customers, know that your children will go elsewhere if they don’t feel the love from you. As the French philosopher Simone Weil wrote: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”. (“First and Last Notebooks”, Oxford University Press; First UK Edition (January 1, 1970). Distribute it generously in relationships that matter to you.

Separate your parenting time from your lawyer time

Easy to say, harder to do. We lawyers are acutely aware of how much time we spend on a task, usually billed in six-minute increments. Time management is even more painful when your child’s chess tournament lasts 3.7 hours. Who organized this event? Why did it start 20 minutes late? Don’t these people know that your brief is due tomorrow?

Stop. Breathe. As the Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius writes in “Meditations” and as stated in the modern book “The Daily Stoic”, you have power over your mind, if not external events. You can always regain your composure. That’s where he’s waiting for you. “The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living,” Holiday, Ryan, Hanselman, Stephen (Portfolio 2016).

As difficult as it may seem, try to be present and focused in the moment. Otherwise, you risk becoming a futon lawyer/parent: someone who tries to do two things at once but is not good at either. So stop the clock (for a moment). Respond to the email after the game so you don’t: (A) miss out on your child’s checkmate victory; (B) respond to all company-wide; or (C) both.

Find a non-professional, non-parental hobby

Do you remember “time for me”? Yeah, neither do we. Although this is rebranded as “personal care”, many lawyers/parents often feel like they don’t have time for it. At the end of most work-from-home days, you probably feel like the beloved children’s book “The Giving Tree.” The tree ends up giving so much of itself to its favorite boy over the years – in apples, branches and lumber – that it becomes a stump on which the adult sits to relax, oblivious and seemingly exhausted from a lifetime of grinding his favorite tree to dust. The tree rejoices. You probably aren’t.

One defense is setting aside time for something you care about — that has nothing to do with the law or parenthood. Paint a portrait, train for a marathon, write a poem. Maybe you won’t be the best at it, but that’s the point: you don’t need to earn a hobby. You might find it liberating to just be okay with something that is just for you. You will be humbled – not in LinkedIn’s sense of where “humbled” means “proudly and publicly accepting the accolades of my peers.” It will be the opposite, and you (and your children, colleagues and clients) will be better off. Doing something for ourselves, to reduce our responsibility-laden anxiety, is the best way to help those we care about and to be more successful in life in general.

Go easy on yourself

Sometimes you’ll have to respond to that email at your kid’s baseball game and miss their home run. Although the pandemic has given us the opportunity to be more physically present, it has also created emotional distance. How do we stop 24/7 work email from creeping into our home lives? And also: how to prevent texting from home – “Hey mum/dad, can you give me a deposit?

Who knows? We don’t. There are probably best practices out there, but the authors don’t know about them, and we couldn’t search for them because our inboxes are overflowing with work. One day at your retirement party when your kids have left home, you can ceremoniously throw your phone off a cliff. But until then, accept it graciously as part of the lawyer/parent job – both jobs – and move on.

And don’t worry. We are too hard on ourselves. In the song “Cat’s in the Cradle”, a father – clearly a lawyer – is absent when his son learns to walk because he had “planes to catch and bills to pay”. Later, the father is “long retired” and wants to see his son, but now the son is busy: “my new job is a chore, and the children have the flu”. As the father hangs up the phone, he realizes that the son has grown up like him. The strings swell, and we’re supposed to think it’s a great tragedy, a cautionary tale.

But it’s not. Give these guys a break; they both do their best. New jobs are a problem, and kids are getting sick (and needing weekly PCR tests, thanks to COVID-19) and it’s awful. The key is to take it slow, but take it.

Take it easy with others too

Last February, a lawyer appeared during a court hearing on Zoom with a blind chat filter. Apparently a child had turned the filter on earlier and left it on, and no one knew how to turn it off. The lawyer assured the court that “I’m not a cat” and a video clip of the hearing has gone viral.

Any lawyer/parent is one click away from becoming a meme. We all scratch ourselves on the ground, every day. These are the lives we chose, and a toddler hitting a gibberish response to the chambers will mortify you for years, but it won’t be the end of your case.

Behind it all, the only real trick to the lawyer/parent is this: courtesy and grace. We all need both, and the best of us give more than we receive. So when you hear your opponent’s baby screaming in the background of a meet and confer, ignore it. Better yet, stipulate that 10-day extension they requested. Why? Because a long time ago, in the background of a meeting and conference held on a rotary phone in a kitchen, that screaming baby was you.

Katherine A. Helm is a regular columnist on professional development and practice for Reuters Legal News and Westlaw Today.

Katherine A. Helm is a partner at Dechert LLP and Joseph J. Gribbin is a lawyer at Armstrong Teasdale LLP. They each focus their practice on intellectual property litigation and are both parents. Between them, they have nine children, aged 1 to 11.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which is committed to integrity, independence and freedom from bias by principles of trust. Westlaw Today is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently from Reuters News.


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