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Swapping out billables and late nights for a work-life blend

New lawyers should no longer be measuring their success based on the number of billables they achieve or how late into the night they stay at the office. According to one partner, it should now be about achieving the perfect work-life blend where clients are happy, and there is plenty of time left over for a life outside work.

Boutique partner Gabriella Arvanitis’ first legal gig at the Family Court of Australia was largely supportive of a healthy work/life balance and encouraging of court staff leaving around 5pm, but on the other side of that was watching and realising the panic that set in for female barristers when a matter was extended beyond 4pm.

At the same time, Ms Arvanitis told Protégé that she would have conversations with her university friends and “quickly learnt that there was a stigma surrounding new lawyers” that they needed to work late, put in whatever hours were demanded and to “out stay” the other lawyers in the office no matter how late it got.

“This would mean young lawyers would remain at their office until late in the night and often early in the morning to show commitment in the hopes of a promotion,” The Norton Law Group’s partner said. “Undoubtedly, this scared me.”

The stigma that followed young lawyers into the workplace and throughout the rest of their careers saw Ms Arvanitis put off becoming a mother for years and years out of fear that it meant taking a “step back”. Being a family lawyer, she said there are often clients that are around for years, and she feared their disappointment at her leaving.

Fortunately, with the COVID-19 pandemic came the shift away from the 9am to 5pm normal. By the time Ms Arvanitis welcomed baby boy Teddy, Sydney had just come out of its first lockdown, during which she was able to master the electronic conferences. Between those digital commitments, Ms Arvanitis added that she had found a “beautiful blend between being a new mum and keeping clients happy”.

“This often meant replying to emails or drafting affidavits while feeding a newborn through the night, or dictating correspondence while pumping away, but by multitasking, I felt like I was keeping both my baby and my career happy, and I lost any sense of ‘guilt’ that some mothers have from being away,” she shared.

Unfortunately, and perhaps because of that same stigma, some of this multitasking came with criticisms that Ms Arvanitis did not take “proper maternity leave” or didn’t “focus on being a new mum enough”, but for Ms Arvanitis, keeping the foot in the work allowed her to adapt to being a new mum while also “bouncing back”.

Many of Ms Arvanitis’ clients are subject to ongoing family violence and often come to the firm with “such significant fear levels that they cannot move forward and see past the violence to a happier or brighter future”. Achievement in family law, she said, should be measured on the success of working hard for these clients to keep a family amicable and cooperative through the “most difficult times in their lives”.

“Success in law school should not be about hitting targets or billables, but about dedication to clients. My biggest achievements have been assisting victims of family and domestic violence to find comfort and security and take the plunge into moving forward to separation and protecting their interests moving forward,” she added.

At three months old, Teddy began spending some of his days at the office too – which Ms Arvanitis joked meant he “read more divorce books than I have throughout my career” – and while he napped to the loud white noise, Ms Arvanitis booked client calls and Zooms. It was here, Ms Arvanitis said, that she “found my balance”.

These days, the office visits have been switched back to Zoom calls from the living room, where Teddy is more free to roam around. Working late nights at home gives Ms Arvanitis the ability to work when she needs to while also setting aside time to take Teddy for a walk during the day. If she has to push back a client call and switch it out for an email or text, there’s no guilt “because I know I will return to it”.

“I also find that honesty is the best policy – be upfront to your clients, other lawyers, and even the bench. If you are caring for your child, let your clients know and give them a realistic timeframe for a call back or a reply to their email,” she said.

Asked about the culture she employs at her own workplace, Ms Arvanitis explained that she started out working alongside her father, who grew up in an environment where “billables were everything, working late showed you were strong and committed, and everything was black and white with little grey in-between”.

The office layout back then was old-school, Ms Arvanitis added, which meant that the style of letter writing and document drafting was incredibly formal, and any Friday long-lunches were frowned upon. Now, the office looks a lot different.

“Fast forward to 2021 and we have several new office spaces, a refurbished main office which encourages collaborative practice amongst our lawyers and a friendly team environment, amicable letters to other practitioners, social long-lunches with barristers and other practitioners, and long gone is the 9 to 5,” Ms Arvanitis said.

The changes to the way the firm does things have encouraged a “different style of client, a strong referral network and a happier workplace”. The lawyers come and go as they please, and there is no pressure to step out for the day if there is a medical appointment or a family get-together that needs to be prioritised.

Ms Arvanitis advises new lawyers to show their employers from the outset that it is possible to keep hours outside of the traditional 9am to 5pm while keeping clients happy. She said it should be up to the lawyer to decide to start later in the day or start extra early so that they are home and ready to pick up their kids by 3pm.

“We can’t do it all! Don’t be put off television shows such as Suits, where the lawyer who stays all night at the office is glamorised. Life needs to be a beautiful blend of exercise, family, good food, health, relationships, and work satisfaction.”

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