The illusion of the always-available lawyer

Sybil Dunlop, The Daily Record Newswire

As a relatively new lawyer, I've gone to some (perhaps silly) lengths to hide any evidence of my personal life from colleagues and clients.

My office phone rolls over to my cell phone, creating the illusion that I am always at my desk.

When an office call does roll to my cell phone, on the evenings or weekends, I barricade myself in the bedroom before taking the call so that the caller won't hear my dog barking madly in the background.

I usually delete the "sent from my iPhone" message, so that it never appears I am responding to an email from my phone (instead of my desk).

Last week, my efforts reached new heights. My husband dropped our 1-year-old off at my office during an emergency dental appointment. During my daughter's visit, I needed to participate in a short conference call. I kept the call on mute (as my daughter cooed and waved on my lap), taking the call off mute only long enough to answer questions directed at me. I am sure that my repeated muting and un-muting left me sounding clipped and slightly rushed. But no one knew that my daughter was in my office. Success.

After the muting and un-muting adventure, I did stop to ask myself why. Why do I want colleagues and clients to think that I have no life outside the office? Am I being silly? Shouldn't my work speak for itself? Perhaps. But I can also articulate a method to my madness.

All the world's a stage, and the legal arena is no exception. When clients give me a call, I certainly don't want them to think I am juggling anything - I want them to know I am focused on their problems. Same thing if a partner gives me a call with an assignment or a question. Most of the time, of course, reality aligns with my message, and I give a caller my complete attention. Occasionally, however, I have a barking dog in the background, or I'm driving, or I have a small child tugging on my pant leg.

Whatever the reality, I always want the picture in someone's mind to be that of a calm, cool, collected attorney (a movie version of myself - perhaps played by a young Meryl Streep). When someone hears the dog or the baby in the background, I worry that it's like seeing the boom microphone in the set. The illusion is destroyed. This illusion is important in any line of work - I would want my tax preparer, hair stylist, and waiter all to avoid distractions (or at least appear to) as they interact with me. But clients in our profession are often coming to us because they are making important decisions in difficult circumstances. Providing someone our undivided attention and access (and letting them know that we are there for them whenever they may need us) is part of the service we provide.

I've chatted with some colleagues and friends. It turns out I am not alone in my obsession to compartmentalize my personal and work lives. One friend shared that whenever she leaves the office (even for personal events) she simply explains that she has a "meeting." Another friend goes even further, blocking off personal time on her calendar as "meeting" or "appointment" time (just in case her assistant is asked where she is). Why do we do this? I asked a colleague, after she acknowledged hiding her own personal life: "Because women are punished for having personal lives and men are rewarded for it," she deadpanned. And, of course, this may be a part of it too.

But what to do? Lean in (hide the personal) and risk conveying to more junior colleagues that you expect them to do the same? And what's the alternative? Over-share and provide detailed information regarding my personal life that people may not even want?

At this point in my career, I choose the illusion. As a more junior attorney, I want potential clients and colleagues to know that I'm available, regardless of my personal circumstances. They may never know that I was walking the dog or bouncing a baby on my hip when we last spoke, and that's fine with me. Perhaps someday this calculus will change and I'll feel more comfortable mixing the professional and personal. As Shakespeare himself acknowledged, "one man in his time plays many parts."

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Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in Minneapolis in 2010. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation. She can be reached at sdunlop@greeneespel.com

Published: Tue, Sep 30, 2014

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