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Work-Life Balance

In this episode of Summary Judgment, Josh and Aaron discuss their approaches to achieving work-life balance amidst legal careers that can often bring stress and anxiety.

Listen here or read the transcript below. FVF’s Summary Judgment podcast is available wherever you listen to podcasts including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart Radio, and more.


0:00:00.1 Josh Fogelman: Thank you for tuning in to Summary Judgment, where Austin Personal injury attorneys, Josh Fogelman and Aaron Von Flatern of FVF Law discuss the ins outs and in-betweens of personal injury cases. Hey, Josh.

0:00:17.0 Josh Fogelman: Oh, hey, Aaron. What are you doing here?

0:00:20.8 AF: I just got back from the bathroom. It went great. I can explain.

0:00:26.3 JF: Was it successful?

0:00:27.5 AF: I meant I can explain this watermark on my shirt. That was me…

0:00:32.7 JF: I wasn’t going to say anything, but I did.

0:00:35.0 AF: Okay. Well look, let’s just get it out for everybody, lawyers struggle with work life balance, right?

0:00:42.3 JF: I think that’s fair.

0:00:44.4 AF: Okay. So, oh, I’m not immune to this. So I was in the bathroom just now applying soap to my underarms because I forgot deodorant this morning.

0:00:56.5 JF: That’s an interesting way to handle this situation.

0:00:57.6 AF: But it’s not my fault, it’s my family’s fault.

0:01:00.8 JF: Yeah. Okay.

0:01:00.9 AF: ‘Cause they want balance.

0:01:02.4 JF: Yeah, sure.

0:01:04.3 AF: And they’re…

0:01:05.2 JF: They were demanding too much of your attention this morning.

0:01:07.7 AF: They’re engaging with me.

0:01:09.7 JF: They were interrupting your lawyering.

0:01:11.2 AF: Yeah. I tried to wake up and get in the zone and get here to podcast, but they wanted to hang out.

0:01:15.8 JF: Well, that’s, you know what, you’re a lucky man.

0:01:20.3 AF: Should we do some shout outs?

0:01:22.4 JF: Yeah. Let’s do some shout outs. Sure.

0:01:23.3 AF: Alright. I want to shout out to my son, Fielder, age 11, for getting on the Alexa this morning and announcing to the whole house that someone needs to come pull him out of bed.

0:01:37.2 JF: [laughter] Okay.

0:01:40.0 AF: I’m making light. But this, family life for everyone, lawyers, doctors, anyone, is an issue because you’re trying to get focused on your work, you love your family. How do you manage the balance?

0:01:57.0 JF: Yeah. I think something worth mentioning to understand how the work life balance in the life of a lawyer can be really challenging. And I think this is true for a lot of different professions. So this isn’t exclusive to lawyers. I don’t think we’re in some super, super, super special club. But there are some things about being a lawyer that I think distinguish it as a practice from some other professions. I think the biggest problem is our job requires us to take on people’s oftentimes, like most complicated, stressful problems. They are coming to us with, in the life of a personal injury attorney, oftentimes a catastrophic loss. Something that has resulted oftentimes in their ability to earn a living, their ability to pay their bills. They sometimes have a family member who’s been catastrophically harmed that now requires full-time care. They are having to pick the pieces of their life back up off the floor and try and glue ’em back together.

0:03:27.7 JF: And there’s oftentimes no real intermediate relief. They don’t know where they’re going. Money could be an issue, stress could be an issue. What am I going to do for the rest of my life can be an issue. We are called upon to fix it. And when you’re called upon to help something of that gravity, you can’t help but take it home with you. It’s pervasive in your life. You don’t leave the office behind and just, Hey, I’ll pick this back up tomorrow when I get there. You’re on, and not only are you on thinking about it all the time, you’re literally on call all the time because part of what our clients are trusting us with is to be there for them when a crisis erupts within the larger crisis. So how do I deal with that? I have personally, you know that I’ve been on a health and wellness journey for the last six, seven years. So to me, I have found it to be critically important to take care of myself.

0:05:00.7 AF: Am I allowed to tell stories about your health and wellness journey?

0:05:02.1 JF: Yeah. You can tell some stories about health and wellness, but let me say first.

0:05:07.5 AF: Yes.

0:05:08.1 JF: Let me answer your question.

0:05:10.4 AF: Yeah, please do. Please do.

0:05:11.3 JF: And then you can tell some stories. So, I have found that establishing a routine to the best of my ability for things like getting enough sleep, making sure that I have time in the morning to get my exercise in, making sure to try and set aside time during the day to do things like meditate and then really trying to set some boundaries on my phone and my emails to give some quality time back to my family where I’m not going to be interrupted. Those are some of the things that I try to do. We can explore all this ’cause I want to hear about you too, of course. But trying, the same tools that cause us to be available all the time can sometimes enable us to create boundaries like auto respond or do not disturb, things of that nature in order to try to cordon off the job for at least moments in time throughout the day to give back to yourself and give back to the family. But please proceed with some stories.

0:06:22.0 AF: Well, first, let me echo the issue with the phone, because there’s a difference between taking on your client’s burdens and making them your own and feeling that in your brain and in your heart all day long, having that be part of your sleep. I mean, we’ve all been there. If you’re committed to this practice as every lawyer should be. Practicing is a privilege. We have a license. It’s an honor to do this for families and you should commit all the way. There’s a difference between that though, in my opinion, and having your head in the phone all the time around your family.

0:06:58.0 JF: Yes. That’s fair.

0:07:03.1 AF: I think everyone has a problem with that. Every person on earth right now who’s got a phone has probably got a problem with looking at it too much. And lawyers, I think it’s easy for us to justify it with, well, I’ve got this very serious matter, so I’m going to be staring at my phone. And then of course, that leads to maybe checking the news and looking at emails that…

0:07:21.7 JF: Slippery slope.

0:07:23.3 AF: Don’t really matter. And next thing your kids are jealous of the phone as if it was another sibling.

0:07:31.2 JF: Oh, that’s fair.

0:07:32.6 AF: So I think maybe lawyers have an extra challenge in that looking at the phone is justified, right. It is justified to look at your phone, you have to check those emails. You got to see where the clients are at and what fires are out there for you to put out. Some things are very time sensitive. But I think your approach of, the best defense is a good offense. Let’s get the health right. Let’s sleep right. Let’s work out correctly. Let’s meditate, let’s have the diet be correct, set the stage for success. That said, the only story I have to tell is the time you came back from Germany and one of our lawyers in the office asked you if you had won a donut eating contest.

0:08:16.3 JF: Yes. I had overindulged on the pretzels and the hefeweizen on that particular trip and maybe a gummy bear or two.

0:08:24.3 AF: Yeah, yeah. I’m pretty sure you looked like a gummy bear when you came back. No, I don’t think you were ever seriously overweight, but you have gone through a physical transformation. And I think that’s been a really positive influence on people around you. I think a lot of people have taken some inspiration from that and say, okay, well this really stressed out guy has found a way to continue to excel in the professional world, but not at the expense of his health or his family. I think that’s a great example to set for our firm, but also in the legal community in general. I mean, you have seen it. Go to the capital area trial lawyers meetings and you see examples of people who are absolutely coming apart at the seams because they’ve let the practice consume them and they haven’t taken care of the foundation, so to speak, of the house.

0:09:18.4 JF: Yeah. And I think one of the things that’s been beaten into us since law school, I mean, when you go into law school, at least at Baylor where we both went, during the orientation, we get a lecture about ethics and work life balance and what the profession of the practice of law is going to be like. And they inform you that lawyers have the highest rates of alcohol abuse and the highest suicide rates of any profession. So, when you’re young and you haven’t gotten into it and you don’t really understand why, it’s hard to really, I mean, of course you take it seriously, but it’s hard to really understand exactly why those problems could manifest. Then you get into the practice and you realize it is something that calls upon you to carry burden after burden after burden, which compound, I mean, it’s not a linear issue, it’s an exponential compounding of stress that is extraordinarily difficult to shake.

0:10:34.2 AF: Stress and release.

0:10:36.6 JF: Yeah.

0:10:37.4 AF: You get the super, super, intense stress and anxiety of having to get ready for something really hard. Then you get through it. And that’s the moment where everyone wants to go out to the bar or something like that. And I think as a professional, you go through that maybe as a younger lawyer, and then you’re going to have a fork in the road where you decide I want to keep doing that or I want to double down on my profession and get good at this. I want to become a master at this, and that’s going to require that I set childish things aside.

0:11:11.7 JF: Yeah, that’s right. And not only is there this cycle of stress and release with the opportunity for substance abuse, our job is wins and losses. I mean, it’s high highs and low lows. And I think those two things together can really lead to pro… I mean, we’ve lost colleagues to suicide. We’ve certainly been made well aware of colleagues in our industry that struggle on an ongoing basis with substance abuse. So, I have found, I personally have experienced some mental health issues directly in my family and, my dad struggled with mental health issues, pretty significant and ultimately resulted in him committing suicide. So early, when that happened for me personally, it caused me to be more acutely aware of observing the path that he had gone down and the decisions that he had made early in his life.

0:12:30.8 JF: He was a medical doctor, he was a psychiatrist, so he was also taking home people’s problems. And it was very, very closely related to what we do in many, many ways. And that caused me to become acutely aware of what not to do and to really put myself in the best position possible of not finding myself desperate in any way and finding, feeling like there was no way out of a really stressful problem. So for me personally, what was born of that was taking my health and wellness very seriously. But it’s so hard. It’s so, so, so much work. To get that, I mean, first of all, finding the time. When you’re a professional, you’ve got a family, you get, you’ve got a team of people relying on you. You’ve got a partner relying on you. Just finding the time for yourself, step one is so incredibly hard. And then there’s diet and then there’s exercise, and then there’s figuring out how to shut the phone off and how to focus and…

0:14:00.7 AF: How to sleep.

0:14:00.8 JF: How to sleep. Right. Right. And no one’s, it’s impossible to be perfect and you can’t expect perfection. But what I have found is it’s discovering and managing work life balance is an ongoing commitment of learning, learning, learning, reading self-help books, learning about tools that are available to tackle some of the problems that we’re dealing with. Remember when we went to that conference in San Francisco?

0:14:36.7 AF: Oh yeah, yeah. That was basically like business consulting, but it ended up being almost like business therapy, right?

0:14:45.1 JF: Yeah.

0:14:45.5 AF: Yeah. It was very interesting.

0:14:46.9 JF: Yeah. And one of the big things that they pushed during that conference was, how do you not become someone who is caught in the trap of responding to the ding of your email all the time and looking at your phone all the time, setting aside a schedule for the day where, okay, I’m only going to check my emails at this time of the day and this time of the day and not at all in between. But we all know that any minute that you’re not checking your emails when you could be getting an important email is a trigger for anxiety that makes you want to check that email. And it’s, you become a creature of habit and it’s about breaking those habits.

0:15:38.1 AF: Yeah, absolutely. Well, and it’s also knowing a little bit more about them. One of the reasons that we are relentlessly checking our phones is because of the uneven rewards that we get. So neuroscientists have figured out that when you get an uneven reward for a behavior, you actually are more addicted to it. So if you open a closet every day and it’s the same thing, and then one day you open it up and it’s a balloon and some presence and a cake inside, all of a sudden checking the closet becomes really compelling. But if every single day you opened it and it was the same balloon and cake and present, you could find a way to walk away from that. ’cause you know what you’re walking away from. That’s the whole issue with checking your phone is you don’t know what you’re walking away from, that creates that anxiety loop.

0:16:29.5 AF: You’re missing the serotonin hitter or the dopamine hitter or whatever it was. And so, that’s a struggle. These are all struggles. For me, I think becoming a professional is a fun challenge. When we talk about, I think GMC has this thing about professional grade, and one of the biggest criticisms that I can give another lawyer is that’s not professional. So as a professional, the way I feel is that we can’t be satisfied with normal. There’s a guy named Keith Bell. He’s an Olympic swimming coach who wrote a book called “Winning Isn’t Normal.” I recommend anyone go buy his book. It’s very short and it’s about swimming, but it’s also about life. It’s about the idea that if you want good results, you can’t be looking at the trend line. You’ve got to look at the one person who’s way above the trend line and figure out what they’re doing and do that. And so that’s what I think you’ve tried to do. It’s been a great example. And it hasn’t come at the expense of your family. It’s come at the harmony. It’s brought harmony to your family in my outside observation. And I feel the same way about changes I’ve made in my own family. And I think that’s, I guess though, if you, long story short, big takeaway, put your oxygen mask on first.

0:17:49.2 JF: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. What are some of the tools that you have found to be the most or some of the changes of the tools that you have found to be most impactful in? ‘Cause establishing work life balance is a process. It’s not something, it’s not a switch you flip on and off. It’s making small decisions that then build upon longer, larger decisions, creating some momentum of improvement. It’s like, step one onward for the rest of your life. What are some of the, like I said, that’s been my experience. What are some of the tools and changes you’ve made that have been most impactful for you in starting on that journey?

0:18:27.8 AF: I think probably the biggest change is figuring out where the feedback is coming from. So, a great example this morning with my own son, I’m writing an email and he chooses that moment to have this weird 11-year-old fit. I can’t even describe this behavior. I mean, if you’ve had an 11 or a 13-year-old, you’ve seen behavior that’s just bizarre. Somehow they’re doing something wrong, but they’re mad at you about it and it’s really easy…

0:18:57.9 JF: It’s almost like they’re going through some weird change at that time.

0:19:01.6 AF: Potentially.

0:19:02.9 JF: Almost.

0:19:04.7 AF: I’m no doctor but I will tell you that the tendency is to look at that and start to think of the ways you can tell your child that they’re wrong. But if you’re really attuned to the transmitter, if you’re really looking at what is the feedback I’m getting and go to the root cause analysis, you start to see, okay, maybe there’s an issue with the amount of attention I’m paying to my child ’cause I’m in my phone. And so just being attuned to that thing, not getting sleep. Okay, well, when am I eating? When should I stop eating before I go to bed at night? How much caffeine am I getting? Just instead of trying to confirm how you’re right all the time, you go about the world asking how might that be true? Someone tells you, Hey, I’ve got a problem with what you’re doing. Instead of being, well, you’re wrong, the answer is, well, tell me more. If you have that demeanor, you’re going to start to learn things that you can change and you can harmonize better with your surroundings, your family, your pets, whatever it is.

0:20:06.2 JF: Yeah. I think being introspective and being honest with yourself to your point, receiving the feedback from other people, but also taking a step back and being honest with yourself about bad habits that you’re engaging in that are contributing to the problem and really doing the work to try to identify, because you can’t do it. Like I said, you can’t just change everything all at once. But it’s easier if you have 10 things that you need to change, focus on one. What’s going to be the easiest or what’s maybe the one that’s giving rise to some of the other ones that’s compounding upon them, compounding upon itself? But I think there’s so, right now it seems we’re going through this revolution in the health and fitness world and there’s so many good resources out there for people to learn how to change their behaviors and learn how to live a more fulfilled and better and happier life.

0:21:21.2 JF: And we’re all going through the same stuff. That’s the thing about it. As a society, we’re all here in the bad news, we’re all stuck to our phones. We’re all dealing with a lot of the same and similar issues. And there are really a lot of resources out there to help. And I have found, it seems silly to pick up a self-help book and read a self-help book and think it’s going to make a difference. But when you read book after book after book after book, you really start to develop patterns and hear about patterns of how to change your behavior. And I think anyone trying to improve their lives can benefit from doing that and talking to people.

0:22:13.5 AF: Absolutely. And wear deodorant.

0:22:14.7 JF: And what?

0:22:17.5 AF: Wear deodorant.

0:22:18.8 JF: Wear… Step one.

0:22:19.4 AF: I’m sorry. I thought we were giving life advice.

0:22:20.5 JF: Yeah, step one. Always wear deodorant.

0:22:25.1 AF: It’s always good talking to you, Josh.

0:22:27.0 JF: Yeah, you too, Aaron.


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