Life is not a pie chart: Why flexibility might be the key to finding balance.


Byline: Bill Cresenzo

Coleman Cowan had just wrapped up a deposition at a doctor's office in Durham when a bullet from a robber's gun shattered his arm--and shifted his paradigm.

He and another attorney had been chatting in the doctor's parking lot at dusk. A young teen rode up on his bike and told them to give them all they had. Before they could respond, he fired bullets through Cowan's left arm, his shoe and his car. His fellow attorney was hit in the stomach.

The teen took off on his BMX with nothing, and was never apprehended for his crime on the night of Dec. 4, 1999. Cowan and the other attorney survived.

Cowan stopped practicing law and became an Emmy-award winning producer for 60 Minutes before he returned to Durham to resume practice as a personal injury attorney. Now with the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin in Durham, he said that December night helps guide his thoughts and behavior toward how he regards his work, and how it relates to his life.

"No matter how hard you work, how much you work, and how much you accomplish on any given day, week, or month, there will always be more work," he said. "What there will never be is more family time. Your son will be ten years old for only one year."

The shooting gave Cowan a horrific instant lesson on the importance of appreciating pursuits other than work, but for many attorneys and law firms, finding an appropriate work/life balance remains a struggle.

Some attorneys say that it might instead be more helpful to embrace a different metaphor, focused on flexibility rather than balance.

"Seeking balance is almost mythical," said Brad Evans, managing director at Ward and Smith in Raleigh. "Work, home, spirit, community, and health are not perfectly divided pie slices that even out."

Evans credits another attorney, David Redding of Redding Jones Law in Charlotte, for crafting an analogy of "spinning plates."

"We get the work plate spinning, keep the family spinning," Evans said. "Add in community involvement, personal fitness, and a spiritual life, and then you have a lot of plates to keep spinning."

Evans said that his firm is in the midst of implementing policies to make it easier for attorneys to have a life outside of the office. A key move was in 2018, when it launched its "flexible workplace" policy. Attorneys and staff can work from home, while traveling, or from an alternate location. At the same time, the firm underwent a technology upgrade and a security upgrade, making it...

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