The Law School Mama: Tips for Balancing a Law School and Family Life for the Non-Traditional Student

Dakota DuncanPlease welcome Dakota Duncan, attorney and author of Law School Insights: An Insider’s Guide for Non-Traditional Students — which is filled with advice and success tips for parents who are either considering or who are already in law school. (You can download a free copy on Amazon Kindle from August 30 – September 1.) Today, Dakota is answering some questions on what it’s like to balance law school with children.

Welcome, Dakota!

I’m a new 1L, and I am going to law school with two young kids. Do you have any tips for balancing school and life, and making friends when I’ve got far more demands on my time than the average law student?

This question certainly hits home with me, as that was the position I was in when I started law school, plus I was working full-time! First off, don’t expect that a balance between school, family, and any other obligations you have will ever be an even balance. School is going to take up the biggest portion of your time. That is the reality of going to law school, but the good part is, it does not have to take up every waking moment, which it could, if you let it. There will always be more reading or outlining that you could be doing, interesting presentations to attend, extra-curricular activities that sound interesting, and study groups happening, etc. So the first tip is not to let school take over your life any more than is necessary.

There are systems you can put in place to keep track of your time that will help you achieve the balance you are hoping to strike. First, figure out what your actual obligations are for each day of the week and write them down, along with approximately how much time each one takes. Write down such things as hours in class, commute time, time at work (if applicable) and anything else that is not flexible.

Once you have your list, you can see how much time is already firmly committed, where you have room to fit in the important items of homework and family, and when there is time left for social or optional activities. It is really important to write your obligations down and examine them so you know what your schedule is like and whether or not you have time to fit in non-essentials. Sometimes classmates will invite you to lunch or Happy Hour, and it might seem like you have time, but it will end up throwing off your whole week. Other times, it will work out fine and can be a great way to make friends who understand what you are going through in law school.

Now that you clearly understand your schedule, post a weekly calendar with all of your activities in a prominent place where your family can see it. You can add other family member’s activities, too. Now – the most important part – stick to your schedule. Your spouse and your kids need to know that when it says you are studying, that is what you are doing, and when it says Family Time, you will be with them.

In my first year, once I included my class time, job, and commute, I was booked solid until 10:00 pm four nights per week. During the remaining weekday there was a free-time gap that I scheduled for homework and an evening with my family. Most of Saturday was spent on homework and Sunday was Family Day.

The single most important rule that I lived by (as did some of my classmates) was to schedule one day as Family Day, and honor that day always. Do not do homework on Family Day. This is good for you and your family.

You probably noticed I didn’t mention friends or social life much. For me, there truly was no time for a social life on a regular basis. While in law school, those of us with kids socialized with classmates between classes, went for a drink together after class every now and then, and occasionally made time for friends over the weekend.

Depending on your schedule, you may have more time for friends, or school activities, and that is why it is so important to write it all out and stick to your schedule. Know your priorities so you don’t get lost in the moment, or distracted by the call of something more entertaining than the Property Law homework you would like to avoid.

I’m a rising 3L and I’m starting to think seriously about jobs. I know I don’t want a large firm job, but I’m not sure how to figure out something that’s going to work for my family (I’m married with kids). What are your three best tips for finding a career (and a first job) that will work for me?
  1. Start with the relationships you have been building in your community. As a 3L, or possibly even a 4L (part-time programs, which many parents end up participating in due to needing to work during the day, are 4 years) you hopefully have already been able to participate in some type of internship or clinical experience. If so, is there a way to leverage that to your advantage? Personal relationships are going to be key in finding a job after law school. If you have not done any kind of clinical experience yet, make it a priority to find a way to do so this year. You will learn a great deal, the experience will look good on your resume, and you will meet legal professionals in the community. The lawyers you meet and work with while you are in school generally want to help you succeed. They can help you brainstorm ideas, introduce you to people, and sometimes open doors you would not have expected.
  2. Do your research. If you already know you do not want to work for a large firm, consider what you think you might like. Are you thinking of a small or mid-sized firm, corporate work, or maybe public interest work? Set up informational interviews with lawyers at any type of places you think you might like to work. Generally your career services office can provide alumni contact information for most types of work. If they cannot help you, ask your professors for some ideas. During your interviews be sure to ask questions about what their typical day is like both in terms of the tasks that they do and how many hours they spend working. Ask about family-friendliness of the firm or company. During my informational interviews, I had attorneys tell me that I would probably not be happy at a firm and recommended I look at corporate work. Have honest conversations with these attorneys to get the information you need to guide your career. Be professional, but remember, this is not a job interview. You are not there to impress them with your best, politically-correct answers. You are there to get information. It is a very different dynamic. If you end up talking about an area that interests you, or an idea you had not considered, ask for contact names and numbers of people they recommend you speak with to gain more information.
  3. Be open to new ideas. I hinted at this in the previous section. There are so many different practice areas that most people outside of law school have never even heard of, and so many options for J.D.s that will not have occurred to you. Most of us have a vague idea of what it means to be a lawyer and what our career might eventually look like, but most of these ideas are based on fairly narrow and possibly inaccurate exposures, like an aunt’s career that she talked to you about once when you were ten, or a TV show. Listen for ideas in your classes, at presentations, and anywhere that you interact with lawyers. Usually law schools sponsor several events per year where you can meet and mingle with members of the legal community. Go to some of these events, talk with people (even if it is uncomfortable – just do it), and ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask people details about their careers. That is what they are there for – they were once in your position, and they know you are seeking information. When you hear about something new, ask for details. If you aren’t hearing anything interesting, ask questions. You could ask things like what is the most unusual legal career they have heard about, or what firm has a reputation of being especially family-friendly, or what area of practice they would choose today if they were just starting out. Listen to their answers, dig for more information, and consider how any topics that arise might apply to you.
Could you talk a bit about what you do all day at work and how it’s similar to, or different from, what you thought you’d be doing when you started law school?

I was not sure what I wanted to do when I entered law school. Professionally, I had been doing Contracts Management and working with lawyers, and basically thought, I could do that! There was a little more to my thought process than that, but I really should have asked a lot more questions and had many more answers for myself before starting law school!

I went in knowing I did not want to work for a large firm. I was already a mid-career professional with a young family at home, and was not interested in the kinds of hours or stress that working for a large firm would require. For about a year, or so, I thought I might enjoy family law, but I was discouraged by some of what I learned through talking with those already in practice. Later, due to a class requirement, I discovered I really liked administrative law. I asked my professor what types of lawyers worked the most with the types of things we were learning in class, which was a lot of interpretation of state regulations. This eventually led me to an interest in energy law, a couple of 10-hour-per-week internships, and the position I now hold, which is a non-attorney position doing code compliance work for a major utility. This means I am involved in internal audits, inspections held by our state regulators, and assuring the company is meeting various reporting requirements.

The part of this position that I was expecting and enjoy is code interpretation and applying it to the company’s activities. I do this informally in a consultant capacity to my supervisor, and formally in written responses to findings of inspections of our state regulators. Sometimes I get deeply involved in special projects and spend time drafting and refining the details of a remediation plan that will be sent to our regulators. That is also fun work.

An unexpected interesting part of my work is that I get to travel and go on field inspections, so I am not always inside an office. I find that I understand the operations portion of what the company does far more than those in the legal and other regulatory departments do, which was part of my original intent with this job.

The part I was not anticipating is how much administrative work I do. I spend about 70% of my time auditing records, processing paperwork, and monitoring the work of others to ensure they are doing the activities the company has committed to in our responses to the regulators. This often means setting up meetings, ensuring people are communicating appropriately with others, and that the impacted company policies and manuals are being updated. None of this work requires any legal background or training, but the skills often used by lawyers, such as clear communication, organization, and awareness of the significance of proper documentation are very useful for these tasks.


Thanks, Dakota!

Dakota Duncan, J.D lives in Washington state and is a member in good standing of the Oregon State Bar. She received her degree from Lewis & Clark Law School, where she earned a Certificate in Environmental Law which she now applies in her position at a local utility. Dakota attended law school in her late 30’s, while working full-time and attempting to be home as much as possible for her two young children. Both of them knew they should fully read a contract before signing it prior to actually being able to read.

Dakota Duncan has recently published, “Law School Insights: An Insider’s Guide for Non-Traditional Students,” which is filled with advice and success tips for parents who are either considering or who are already in law school. It is now available on Amazon in Kindle format with the print and audio versions to be released soon. And the Kindle version is free August 30-September 1!

You can visit her website, Law School Mama or her Facebook page. She always welcomes questions from parents thinking about law school or who are already in law school.

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