Priorities, Practice and the Evolving Legal Model

Chief Judge Joel F. Dubina of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit spoke at the 2013 commencement at the Cumberland School of Law. There, he urged the graduates to “avoid scheduling your life away.” He admonished them that “You make this journey through life only once, and some things can be done only during a certain part of your life. You can’t tell an 18-year-old that at long last you have time and are ready to play with him or her. The time to help a friend in trouble is now, not when it is more convenient.”

In an era when commencement speeches are all too often long on words but short on inspiration, I found Judge Dubina’s thoughts right on the money. It’s a message that attorneys and most professionals need to hear. However, I feel a bit different about this topic than I did a few years ago. I believe that the onerous burden of law firm life that befalls new graduates (those who land jobs – possibly a topic for another day) is not as certain a fate as it once was.

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The Illusion of Balance

“Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.”

- George Santayana


Counsel On Call has built its reputation partly on the notion of providing a different measure of work-life balance into the lives of experienced attorneys. It’s still an important part of what we offer in certain practice areas, and we have conversations every day with attorneys who are looking for a new way to practice law. If attorneys working in big firms are sitting down speaking with us about our model, they have honestly given a lot of thought to how their professional and personal lives are going, and that’s an important step. This has given us a lot of perspective and experience to draw from as we educate attorneys on what to expect working in the modern legal model.

But rather than thinking of work-life balance as a goal to be achieved, I prefer to see it as a resulting condition that emerges when an individual accepts his or her own history, circumstances, priorities and values.   We commonly hear the term “work-life balance” used when someone is putting in extended hours at the office, or when someone is worn down because of a work environment that is highly stressful. These are legitimate problems. I once encountered a high-level, legal project manager who was known to work in excess of 20 hours every day in advance of a tight deadline.  It was clear the entire culture around this individual (including his team) was tired, disorganized and chaotic.  

There’s also another extreme.   Too often, members of the workforce (especially lawyers) find themselves under-motivated or resistant to fully engage in their professional lives.   This side of the problem, for obvious reasons, isn’t as widely talked about.  Nobody wants to admit they are apathetic toward their job – or, worse; they’re filled with resentment toward their employer or their clients.  These attitudes are difficult to mask.

And of course we all know the person whose professional reputation remains sound, despite his or her private life being in shambles.   We often read about these folks in the newspaper or in the rulings of the Supreme Court’s Board of Professional Responsibility.  

Either way, the question is:  how does one find work-life balance?   Here are 5 steps that can help chart a course to balancing your personal and professional life:


  1. Take a minute to reflect on your life. Before self-evaluating, make a conscious decision to accept whatever you find.   Sometimes the truth isn’t pretty, yet it does no good to wallow in self-pity about past decisions or current circumstances.  Make a commitment to live in the world of “what is” as opposed to the world of “what was” or “what should be.”   
  2. Get honest about your baggage.  Let’s face it, nothing ever changes in our lives unless we’re willing to get real about what’s happened and what’s happening.   We can switch jobs or move to a different city and still fail to identify the source of our unhappiness.   Seek help for larger issues like addiction or mental health, if needed.  A useful exercise is to make a timeline of your professional / personal history to see if insight may be gained.
  3. Identify priorities.  I’m not talking about an ideal list of priorities, but rather what really are your current priorities?  Where do you spend your time outside of work?   How do you spend your time at work?  Where do you spend your financial resources?  An honest reflection of where you spend your time both outside of work (exercise, television, internet, community service, hanging with family or friends, yard work) and in work (emails, internet, phone, snack breaks, spinning wheels, redundant work) should reveal what we need to know about our current priorities and where we may be out of balance. 
  4. Identify values / drives.  This is an intensely personal topic, yet I believe it’s impossible to find a balanced lifestyle without determining individual values and examining how our lives as currently structured are aligned with those values.   We all need to come to terms with the forces that drive us and motivate our actions.   Identifying what actually drives us is the key to initiating dynamic change.
  5. Take action. Once we know where our lives are out of balance, we can begin to take action toward greater alignment.   Set small, achievable, one–day at-a-time goals to create momentum and payoff.  Worry less about the big picture and focus on your day-to-day actions.   Sometimes circumstances legitimately limit immediate drastic changes, but there are undoubtedly some small things we can do today to enhance our integrity.   


A healthy balance of our lives occurs when we make an effort to evaluate our past and use that knowledge to mold our future. It’s a process and takes time, but the outcome is a more fulfilled and stable way of living (and working).


Who Are the E-Discovery Attorneys?

In previous entries, I wrote about enjoying the discovery work that I do. Recently I have given more thought to the question of why it is that I enjoy it; after all, so many attorneys view the work as transitional or laborious. For me, the autonomy is great. The subject matter changes from project to project. I have opportunities to meet and work with different attorneys, clients, litigation support staff, and vendors, all of which I consider an added bonus. These things would also be true if I were practicing in a more “traditional” manner as well, however. So my assessment is that it must be something deeper that compels me to choose this career path over any other.

It was only recently that, when introduced by Andy Branham of the Memphis office as somewhat of a “computer nerd who happens to be an attorney,” that I had an epiphany. He was right.

There is a subset within the legal profession comprised of attorneys who consider themselves specialist discovery attorneys. The attorneys I’m referring to consciously chose to work in this rapidly expanding area of the law. But where did they come from? Perhaps some attorneys have inadvertently found this career as a result of being the go-to person for technology-related questions in a firm. Discovery attorneys possess a genuine interest in the work and a desire to use their experiences to contribute in the discovery process. These attorneys appreciate the complexity of e-discovery, the intricacy of the collection, culling and review processes, and ultimately the end product, the production. Here at Counsel On Call, our attorneys also often have the opportunity to handle additional discovery-related work, such as privilege log, research and writing and witness prep, among other responsibilities.

Perhaps these attorneys can visualize the process more easily than their colleagues. Perhaps they consider how technology can provide them alternatives and understand and embrace it, not just the end product that the technology may provide. Discovery attorneys are problem-solvers with a twist, using the technology to their advantage. They may work for large corporations, law firm technology departments, or independent e-discovery organizations that fill the niche role of discovery counsel. They work in conjunction and partner with in-house and outside counsel completing what could be referred to as the three-legged stool model of client representation.

E-discovery is still in its infancy and for me, as well as others drawn to this work, it is a grand opportunity, one that allows us to continually improve upon our skill set and enhances our knowledge base. I am thankful to have experienced mentors at Counsel On Call who appreciate this desire and continually assist in the furtherance of my growth as a discovery attorney by providing advice, insight and other resources. They recognize the value in providing growth opportunities that will not only benefit the individual and the team but also provide added value to our clients.

There’s also no question technology helps my colleagues and me do our jobs better and faster, thereby amplifying that value we offer our clients. That’s a win-win scenario as I see it, and I think attorneys who are into learning about new tools are perfect for e-discovery work. I look forward to diving into the practical uses of this technology in subsequent posts.

Shawn DeHaven is a Counsel On Call attorney and team leader and has offered to post his thoughts on the discovery process and working with Counsel On Call on Lawdable. To learn more about Shawn, please see his bio or the profile piece in Counsel On Call’s newsletter from last summer.

PAR Conference Demonstrates Progress

Last week, I had the privilege of attending and speaking at The Project for Attorney Retention’s (PAR) annual conference in Washington, D.C. There were attorneys from various practice areas from across the country in attendance and the event was a great success.

As I listened to managing partners and general counsel discuss the importance of having attorneys working on a flexible basis, including reduced hours, I had to take a moment to reflect over the last 11 years (April marks Counsel On Call’s 11-year anniversary). In our formative years during hundreds, if not thousands, of conversations, the questions I would invariably get, with all sincerity, were "Who would do this? Who does not want to be a partner?" I will always remember receiving one e-mail stating that I was ”crazy” and that I would fail as there is “only one way to practice law.”

I also remember meeting amazing attorneys who were made to feel they had no value because they opted out of the traditional path. Those attorneys kept me going.

At the PAR conference, it was clear that very talented attorneys now choose to practice in a “non-traditional” way, and the focus was on how the profession should embrace and encourage this choice. That’s certainly an initiative I’ve been and will continue to get behind. PAR has done an excellent job of bringing these issues to make real change happen and keep the conversations alive. Realizing that our “little” company isn’t so little anymore – and that our attorneys worked in 33 states for dozens of law firms and Fortune 100 and publicly traded companies in 2010 – serves as proof that more and more people are realizing that there is indeed more than one way to practice law. Today, so many talented attorneys choose to practice in what used to be thought of as a non-traditional manner.

What a difference a decade makes… and that difference is changing the profession for the better.

Holiday Fun

Here's a reason why a lot of us love working at Counsel On Call: Chris Cotton and Tiffany Fox, both members of our discovery team, organized a tacky holiday sweater and holiday treats competition. Amidst a very busy time of year with several large projects, it's great to hear so much laughter, smell the aromas of homemade dishes and see the comradie within the teams.

The competition is tough, too -- there are some very, umm, qualified candidates to win the top 'tacky sweater' prize. If you'd like to see more photos, we're updating our Facebook page regularly throughout the day.

Happy holidays!   

How E-Discovery Has Helped Legitimize Contract Work

Nine years ago when we started Counsel On Call – we celebrated our anniversary on April 3 -- we had to work our tails off just to get a courtesy meeting with a client. We spent a lot of time in those meetings addressing uninformed stereotypes about contract lawyers who ‘couldn’t get a job in a real firm’ or were ‘too lazy to do the work.’ After talking in detail about the quality of our attorneys and how they simply didn’t want the big firm life, or had another interest they wanted to pursue in addition to practicing law, or wanted to spend more time with family, we started to get beyond those initial hurdles. Realistically, most everyone we met with knew an attorney that fit our model.

I’m glad to say that many of these prejudices have dissipated over the last decade, and I’m especially pleased to see that so many talented attorneys now choose to practice law in a non-traditional way. It’s more rewarding that clients recognize this as well. Most of our clients refer to our attorneys as Counsel On Call attorneys, or employment attorney, bankruptcy attorney, corporate attorney or discovery attorney … there is certainly more awareness that not every great lawyer works in a “permanent position” within a firm or in-house. It’s helped us get to the pressing matters at hand – ways we can provide our clients with effective business solutions that incorporate low-priced, experienced and highly qualified attorneys.

So what was the tipping point? This is difficult to say. First, the attorneys who have worked with Counsel On Call the last nine years have helped change the perception of our clients. Second, once clients started working with our attorneys, they realized how easy it really was, and how much value each attorney offered. Third, our clients were willing to share their experiences with others – most of our business has grown through referrals.

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Busting Myths With Our Shoes

A recent National Law Journal article on the current market for contract attorneys perpetuates some unfortunate misconceptions and generalizations about the practice, the attorneys who choose to work this way, and companies that assist them in identifying opportunities with law firms and corporate legal departments. The article really got my blood boiling.

There’s little doubt that the increasing volume of electronic document review work, coupled with off-shoring and a challenging economy, has led to downward pressure on rates and less than optimal working conditions in certain markets. But to write, as Ms. Kay did, that all contract work consists of "low-level document review" at hourly rates of $30-35 an hour under deplorable working conditions? That is just simply wrong, as is the suggestion that contract lawyers are, as a group, both discontented and without other career options.

We work every day with in-house departments and law firm managers who seek creative solutions to managing a host of complex issues while controlling costs. Our clients are seeking assistance in all practice areas, from managing EEOC investigations to negotiating complex contracts to drafting appellate briefs (and everything in-between). E-discovery has also provided many flexible work options for our attorneys, and our clients receive great value when these attorneys continue to work on the case as it proceeds. It is important to note, however, that rather than “settling” for temporary assignments, our attorneys have made an active decision to practice in a non-traditional way, one that provides more control over their lives and schedules. We have countless attorneys who have chosen to make working with Counsel On Call their career. In turn, we treat them as the highly competent professionals they are.

We have a saying around here: “Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.” We invoke it when dealing with the attorneys who work with us, with our clients and with our co-workers, and believe it helps everyone involved in an assignment feel comfortable and work effectively. We’re fortunate that our clients are also very concerned about work environments and benefits offered to our attorneys, and we never put our people in a situation in which we ourselves wouldn’t work. For these and other reasons, our attorneys are not "discontented” and instead give us rave reviews, continuing to refer other attorneys as both candidates and clients.

While it is unfortunate that certain agencies have treated attorneys shabbily as market pressures increase, it is unfair to suggest, as the article did, that all do.

NOTE: The National Law Journal ran our letter-to-the-editor response to the article on Jan. 26.

A Moment for Some Inward Focus

It’s hard not to notice all the negative news hitting from all angles lately. Roiling markets, bailouts, rising unemployment and declining 401(k) balances. It’s easy to get caught up in it, and to find yourself in an all-out panic. Or at least a funk. A New York Times article a few weeks ago that touted the benefits of making a big, life-affirming purchase -- despite the troubled economy -- has really stuck with me.

The article really made me think smaller, actually – easy, inexpensive, or life-organizing things that we can do for ourselves that can make a big difference in our moods, getting us through the day, the week, or maybe even this whole lousy market cycle. I realize there are a lot of people working especially insane hours this time of year, but that’s all the more reason to carve out a little time to focus on some more personal issues:

Check in with yourself. Even though we often lose sight of it, each of us knows what works best to relieve stress – whether it’s meditation, yoga, playing or listening to music, handy work, cooking, reading, or exercising, make sure to budget some time for the healthy activities you love best. Or give up an unhealthy habit: A friend recently quit drinking Diet Coke after decades of being addicted, and is feeling great; another quit monitoring market gyrations during the day, and finds he’s way calmer and more upbeat.

Stay close to home. Consider scaling back on outside activities and catch up on rest, home projects and time with your family. Explore a neighborhood park or gallery. Organize a touch football or softball game. Invite friends over for a game-watching party, or holiday-movie-watching party. Clean out a closet, or reorganize your kitchen or garage. After years of thinking we didn’t have the time or energy for a dog, we recently adopted a shelter puppy. It’s brought us together as a family (and certainly provided lots of opportunities for exercise). 

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"A Crew of Motivated Lawyers Like You've Never Seen"

Firms and corporate legal departments are finding ways to reward their attorneys and build loyalty and motivation at the same time, according to the The Am Law Daily (from the November 2008 American Lawyer). Even the GC of Wal-Mart has gotten religion, according to the article.

Each additional adoption of this trend provides a bit more evidence that allowing lawyers some latitude doesn’t lead to chaos, neglecting clients, or declining profits-per-partner. We often recommend that our clients consider remote and flexible schedules for our attorneys working on their assignments, finding that this allows our clients to not only save money, but work with some exceptional attorneys who are looking only for these types of arrangements. As someone who has worked in flextime arrangements with two different companies, I can attest to the loyalty it has inspired in me. To be able to attend those school plays, go to the dentist or work from home while waiting for the cable guy has made all the difference in my family’s balancing act.

We'd love to hear about your flexible work experiences, bad or good.

What The Heck Is A Returnship?

Just when we think the only news about corporate America is either depressing or horrifying, someone goes and does something refreshingly wonderful.

Sara Lee has announced that it’s launching what it is calling "returnships" -- four- to six-month internships at the Downers Grove, IL-based foodmaker for mid-career professionals who have been out of the workforce for a few years.

Spearheaded by CEO Brenda Barnes, a mom who stopped and later returned to her career after some time off to spend with her kids, it seems like a win-win. What a great way to tap into a market of trained professionals, address some projects flexibly, and build good will with the shoppers that form their company’s target market, all at the same time! Absolutely brilliant! I would imagine that after what amounts to a four-to-six-month on-the-job interview, they will make a number of permanent hires out of the group.

I think there are plenty of ways the legal profession could piggyback on this -- we've certainly seen similar situations work out very well for both our clients and some of our attorneys who return to the practice of law. 


Schedule Control Isn't Just For Female Attorneys

We’ve received some very positive feedback from an article in The Tennessean last month about our company and our induction into the Nashville Chamber of Commerce’s Future 50 Hall of Fame (unfortunately there's no link to the special section in which the article ran). There’s just one point I’d like to clarify.

The article makes it seem as if a majority of our attorneys are moms and other female attorneys who left the profession due to life circumstances (and wanted to get back into the profession). While we are fortunate that many women choose to practice with us, in reality, the attorney breakdown at Counsel On Call is basically a 50/50, male/female split. So yes, we do have many working moms – I am one and it was a big reason why I started this company – but many of our attorneys practice law with us while pursuing other interests (whether it’s as a sports writer, a teacher, or a musician) while others have chosen more of a work-life balance for their careers (like wanting to spend more time with family or to work only 40 hours a week).

Those pursuits, and the many others we’re fortunate to help facilitate, certainly aren’t gender specific.