Succeeding in Both Family and Law School
Vol. 40 No. 7
G.M. Filisko is a lawyer and freelance writer in Chicago.
Rebecca A. Clark admits she was stunned into tears by a three-student panel discussion on handling family life during her law school orientation.
“It was not a positive presentation,” says the 2008 graduate now employed at the Law Office of James B. Palmquist III in Medina, Ohio. “It was very dark, with panelists saying things like, ‘I have not gone to a movie in three years’ and ‘My family went to Disney World, but all I did was study.’ I left crying, got into my car, and called my husband. I said, ‘I am never going to make it!’ He told me not to listen to those people and to go back into the orientation. I did, and I said to myself, ‘I am not going to be like those students.’ And I was not.”
How did Clark avoid the stereotypical fate of law students who rarely see their family between the first day of school and graduation? She started by setting priorities. “It was all about putting into perspective that the practice of law was something I wanted to do but that my family was on board, too,” she explains. “I did not go in believing I was going to be a perfect mom and student. If concessions had to be made, I decided they would be made on the law school side.”
This decision required Clark to adjust her expectations of herself. “I could not do mock trial because it required too much studying,” she explains. “Law review was another commitment I could not make. I had to accept that. I wanted my kids to know who I was, and I wanted my husband to remember why he married me.”
If you feel like you are veering more toward the lives of the panel members with wretched family lives than the peace Clark found, there is always time to reverse course before your family relationships are forever fractured. Here we discuss the special challenges of juggling family obligations while in law school and offer insight on how to devote quality time to both family and school.
It Is Not Just About You
Why is it so hard to balance law school with family? Law school is so different than most other educational experiences. It is pressure-packed. It is competitive. It is all encompassing. While people not in law school may have heard those facts because they have not lived them, they often do not fully grasp them.
“Nobody really understands while you are in law school,” says Michael T. Douglass, founder of the Douglass Law Firm LLC in Fort Wayne, Indiana, whose wife had their first child during Douglass’s first year of law school in 2004. “Even if you tell them stories, they never really understand.”
This can cause some students to become isolated and, frankly, selfish. “When I think about the work I have done with law schools and lawyers, it is clear that the times things start to unravel are the times when law students stop considering other people,” says Steve Langerud, director of professional opportunities at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, who has also served as a prelaw student adviser and assistant dean of career planning at a law school. “Law school is a very intense experience that requires huge time and money, and you do not do it by yourself. A number of people come into law school with partners, spouses, and children, and it becomes so all-encompassing that it is easy to forget them.
“Then,” explains Langerud, “there is a flashpoint, and everybody asks why this crisis happened. Usually, it is because the law student was not doing a good job of keeping everybody’s needs in mind. Instead, everybody’s energy had been going into this one person. When students do keep other people in mind, things start to go better all around, and, boy, that makes law school a whole lot easier.”
Consider It Your First Legal Job
To protect your family relationships, create a plan that treats law school as a demanding job that requires a commensurate level of professionalism.
“Make law school your job, and stay on task,” advises Langerud. “That means taking it seriously and setting up a schedule that works for you and the other people in your life. Stick to it, which is part of the professionalism required. When I have heard students and attorneys say things went really well, they say, ‘Everyone knew what my schedule was, and I was on task all the time. When I could not stick to my schedule, I made sure everybody knew.’”
This is how George Deutsch operates. “I have rules,” explains the public relations professional in his second year at South Texas College of Law in Houston. Deutsch is close to his mother and siblings, who live about 90 miles away. “Basically, I work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and have class in the evenings. Friday nights are definitely mine. Then there is a dedicated six to eight hours on Saturday and Sunday going toward reading and other school work. At the earliest, I can hang out at 6 p.m. on a weekend.”
Mitchell Baroody is equally scheduled. “I wake up at 7 a.m. and study until 10 a.m.,” explains the first-year at Elon University School of Law in Greensboro, North Carolina, who treks 2.5 hours to Florence, South Carolina, to visit his family about once every three weeks. “I go to school and then come back to study, but I will not study past 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. unless there is an exam the next day. I might work on a research paper for a few hours on Saturday and then on Sunday night, but I keep my Saturdays mostly free. You need to get away and recharge your mind, and your family is your best way to do that.”
Whatever your schedule, it is critical that family members are on board with it. This requires an honest airing of each family member’s needs, something
Natashee J. Spaulding and her husband, Eric, have worked hard to achieve. Spaulding married Eric after her first year in the evening program at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, lost her father to cancer in her second year, and had a baby in her third year. “I am now in my fourth and last year of school, and I am hoping for no surprises,” she jokes.
Levity aside, Spaulding and her husband twice had “the discussion” about how to divide the workload. “We sat down and talked about how this would work twice—once when I started and then when the baby came,” she explains. “I just said, ‘I do not know what I am about to get into, but I hear it is tough. I cannot do all the things I usually do around the house. I need you to be supportive.’ When I had the baby, it was a different conversation. I said, ‘I know this is going to be insane. Here is what I need you to do to help me, and here is what I am capable of doing to work on our marriage and have family time.’ It is difficult for both of us.”
More Ways to Be Family Friendly
Once you have and stick to a family-approved plan, you are well on your way to a happier family and law school experience. Make it even better with these techniques:
1. Do not underestimate how much you can handle. “Once you become accustomed to a certainly level of activity, that becomes normal to you,” says Clark. “You also have to learn to multitask. I would study during my daughter’s naptime or when she could be playing individually. That is good preparation for practicing law. You may be working on a brief and get a phone call.”
That said, delegate where possible. “I outsource,” explains Spaulding. “I do not have time to clean the house, so I found a very inexpensive person to do it. I do not have time to go to the grocery store, so I hired a grocery-delivery service.”
2. Ask faculty and administrators for help. Seek advice when a family issue throws a wrench in your schedule. “I was sitting in class looking at the schedule for the next semester shortly after I found out I was pregnant,” explains Spaulding. “I realized it was not possible for me to do a regular class schedule. But I was not willing to take the entire semester off. I contacted three deans and told them my situation. We came up with a plan.
The school allowed me to take less than the minimum number of credits that semester—seven instead of eight. Very
often, administrators will work with you if they understand there is a reason for a request.”
3. Make tough decisions without regret. Law school can impose impossible choices. Be comfortable with yours. “If it is something I am going to regret and think about constantly, even if it means I have to stay up late or use money I was saving for something else, I will do it,” explains Spaulding. “My best friend had a baby the week after my father died and the day before his funeral. It was her first child, her husband was traveling, and she was in St. Louis. I got a flight and was there for a day. I took my books with me and studied on the plane and in the hospital during her 12-hour labor. I could not miss it. But I will miss something like a birthday party because I know there will be another next year.”
Carollann Braum, who works at the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking in Denver, faced a similarly difficult decision. “I got a public interest law fellowship in Peru one summer, and my grandfather died a few days before that began,” she explains. “I was there when he passed, but I missed his funeral. I really struggled with that, and it still bothers me. But my grandfather helped me make the decision to go to law school, and he would have wanted me to go.”
4. Be in the moment. Whatever you are doing, do not diminish it by being distracted by something else. “I schedule everything, and I mean everything,” says Spaulding. “Then I try to compartmentalize. If I am at home with my son, I am not answering e-mails. I try to focus on what I am doing.”
5. If you have children, consider how they will view your accomplishments. “If you have kids, remember that they are watching you and will be so proud of you,” says Braum, who had a three-month–old when she began law school and a second child before finishing her LL.M. “With kids, I knew what I was working for—to support them but also to be a really good example. I thought if I could do this while I had them, they would never have an excuse not to do things. I tried to keep that in mind even when I was ready to pull my hair out.”
6. Schedule events that make you happy. “You have to be willing to make time for people who are important to you, just as you make time for school,” says Deutsch. “It has been said that sacrifice is the only true measure of commitment. If that is true, you should be prepared to sacrifice something—be it sleep, TV, extra reading hours, whatever—to spend time with family. When my sisters have swim meets, I put down the books because that is really rewarding for me.”
7. Remember that this, too, shall pass. “Above all, remember that law school is temporary,” says Braum. “It will not last that long, and the rewards are tremendous for you and your family. Realize that the sacrifices you make are for a really good cause that will play itself out over a lifetime.”