Balancing act

 Authors believe in virtues of values-driven lifestyle

By Debra Talcott
Legal News

It’s February, which means many a New Year’s resolution has already been abandoned. However, those who are still dedicated to self-improvement in the coming year may want to check out a new and easy-to-use resource for attorneys who want to increase their productivity while living a values-driven, balanced life. 

 The American Bar Association has published “Coaching for Attorneys: Improving Productivity and Achieving Balance” by authors Cami McLaren and Stephanie Finelli. Finelli is an attorney in Sacramento , Calif., who practices mainly in the areas of contract and business disputes and family law. McLaren is an attorney-turned-life coach who owns and operates McLaren Coaching, which is dedicated to supporting individual attorneys and entire law firms.

McLaren teaches communication skills and trust-building skills for law firms and bar associations in her home state of California. Recently, she spoke at her alma mater, McGeorge School of Law, explaining that these essential skills were not part of the curriculum when she graduated in 1991.

“The truth is that when you leave law school, you are only prepared to research, write, and argue. You are only prepared to practice law. You aren’t prepared to open your own office. You aren’t prepared for the conflict that comes with litigation. You aren’t prepared for the long hours expected of you as an associate. Tools not taught in law school include communication skills, interpersonal skills, trust-building with clients and other counsel, time management skills, stress management, and life-balance skills. Yet, to be successful in this high-stress line of work, all of these skills are necessary,” says McLaren.

After 16 years of practicing law, McLaren became trained as a business coach and decided to share her skills by teaching other attorneys to practice in a more fulfilling way.

“The main reason I made this choice was from my experience practicing with colleagues who were unhappy, burned out, and overworked. I had created a way to practice law that worked for me and allowed time for myself and my family. I came to develop my theory of accountability in the practice of law-we each get to decide how hard we want to work and how many hours we want to put in. And so my goal in coaching attorneys, and in writing this book, has been to bring tools, ideas, and skills to attorneys to assist them in practicing in their own way. For in the end, when we feel good about what we are doing, our work is better, our health is better, and our family life is better. A happy, satisfied, fulfilled attorney is, simply, a better attorney.”

Co-author Finelli says that she has witnessed how a career in the law can leave a person feeling harried, stressed-out, and overwhelmed.

“There is always too much to do and not enough time to do it. Many of us feel like hamsters in a wheel, running as fast as we can and never getting anywhere. For litigators, like me, the entire job is marked by conflict: conflict with the courts, opposing counsel, and often even our own clients. Lawyering is one of the few professions in which conflict is not only the norm, but often the goal. I see people whose desire to ‘win’ exacts a great toll on their personal lives and their health.”

Finelli says that, through coaching, she has achieved balance in her life, and she has added efficiency and effectiveness to her practice.

“The vast majority of attorneys I know and meet are good, hard-working people who strive to make a difference and who went into the profession with the desire to help people. I saw this book as a way to help them. And it helped me in the process.”

“Coaching for Attorneys” is based on the principle that commitment shows up in action. The book’s 11 chapters are designed to stand alone and may be read in any order. Each chapter includes brief case studies, separated from the text by boxes. These real-world examples demonstrate how to apply the concepts and use the tools taught in the chapters. Brief “homework” exercises are designed to help the reader practice the concepts.

“If you want to create change for yourself, take the action steps,” advises McLaren. “The reason most self-help books do not sustain lasting change is because they are considered a ‘good idea’ but there is no call to action. Very little will change if you read this book and love everything in it and think about it and recommend it to all your friends, but you take no action. Change will occur for you only if you act on what you have learned.”

The chapter titled “Taking a Stand” discusses the idea that individual and collective “drifts” are like currents that pull us in a particular direction and become our patterns of behavior. These drifts can become an impediment, albeit an unconscious one, to progress.

The authors suggest that because it is easier to see a group drift than our own, we should first identify the drifts in the groups of which we are members. Drifts might include behaviors such as complaining or lack of punctuality to staff meetings. As members of groups who exhibit these behaviors, we fall into the trap of the behavior because it is the group norm.

The authors say that “in order to make change, you must stand for what you want. If you say you want something to be different, but you do not take a stand for the change, the drift will carry you along, and nothing will change.”

In the chapter on Values-based Living, McClaren and Finelli cite two startling statistics that show how serious the consequences can be for those who practice law, a notoriously time-consuming profession. First, attorneys have twice the incidence of alcoholism than the general public (Debra Cassens Weiss, Lawyer Depression Comes out of the Closet, ABA Journal, 2007) and second, 78 percent of new associates leave their firms by the end of the fifth year (National Association of Law Placement, 2006).

The authors also make a case for renaming the popular phrase “work-life balance” to the simpler “life balance.”

“We believe there is only life, and that the fragmentation and compartmentalization of “work” and “personal life” do not serve you. It is far more useful to have your life function well as a whole. We believe every area of your life affects the whole of your being.”

The exercises in this chapter show how the attorney-or anyone-can identify personal values then begin to live in a way that honors those values. One exercise has the reader record time spent on every activity, such as work, sleep, exercise, socializing, etc. for one week. The authors show how those daily activities translate into values such as productivity and justice, self-care, health, and connection with others, to name just a few.

“Once you complete these exercises and have written and defined your top ten values, the next step is to see where you are out of balance. Begin by honestly observing your behavior as it really is, rather than as you wish it were.”

The exercises then move away from the individual attorney toward determining the values of the entire firm, something the authors say will provide consistency within the organization.

“All of these ideas and procedures can be applied to other groups and organizations, including the family unit,” say McLaren and Finelli. “Much good will come from sitting down with your family and talking about values, particularly with children.”

Another key chapter is “The Case for Self-Maintenance.” The authors use the metaphor of putting on your own oxygen mask first before assisting your children to remind us of the importance of finding healthy ways for dealing with stress and responding to our needs rather than merely reacting to them.

“The challenge is to see the connection between your wellbeing-physical and otherwise-and your ability to do your job well and help other people. It may feel like everything is urgent and life-threatening, but that is a reaction and not a response.”

McLaren and Finelli offer 21 essential guidelines for self-maintenance, everything from the expected-leaving your work at work-to the unexpected-stretching your comfort zone.

“A comfort zone is not necessarily where you feel happy and relaxed; rather, it is where you stay when you are not challenging your beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions. For example, many attorneys believe they must work long hours to succeed and that they must work long hours just to get everything done. For these people, working long hours without taking a break is their comfort zone. It may not be literally comfortable, but it is what is known and familiar. Your comfort zone will expand when you stretch yourself. When your comfort zone expands, there is more of life for you to experience and more choices available to you.”

“Coaching for Attorneys” offers 306 pages of practical advice for those just beginning a law career as well as veteran attorneys. To learn more about the authors and to read testimonials about their book, go to Click on the BUY NOW button to purchase Coaching for Attorneys at the ABA member price of $44.95.




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