Where Am I and Where Am I Going?


The NCBA Professional Vitality Committee creates sourced articles centered on reducing inherent stress and enhancing vitality in the lives of legal professionals and offers those resources as a benefit for members of the North Carolina Bar Association.

By Celia Pistolis

I was shocked to learn that I am a “senior lawyer.” Although I am not quite certain who has the audacity to make this determination, I think it means that I can now give advice to my younger colleagues.

But before you finish your predictable eye roll, let me say that this article is not about giving you advice. I am sure you hear enough advice from all sorts of people: your spouse, your significant other, your best friends, your colleagues, your mentor, your siblings, your parents, your hairstylist/barber, your mechanic, and even strangers.

Rather, this article is about the questions I have asked myself along the way of becoming a lawyer who loves being a legal aid lawyer. I share these questions and my answers to provoke and inspire introspection about achieving a personal level of professional vitality as a lawyer.

Q. What kind of lawyer do I want to be?

This question is a variation of “Who am I?” – a question posed by my high school English teacher during my senior year. How to answer my teacher’s question and the question I pose depends on many factors. Life experiences, culture, education, timing, and values can shape our answers.

This question has some subparts. What are my professional goals? How will I achieve those goals?  When do I want or expect to achieve those goals? Who can help me? Do I even want to be a lawyer?

A. The answer to what kind of lawyer I wanted to be varied somewhat throughout my career. At times, I wanted to be an excellent litigator, a consumer law expert, an inspiring mentor, or a diligent managing attorney. Regardless of the variations that arose over the years, my consistent response has always been to be a lawyer who is trusted. Clients could trust me to provide excellent legal services and to do my best. Colleagues and opposing counsel could trust me to do what I promised. Judges could trust what I had to say about my case and the law. I knew attaining that trust required hard work, commitment, and determination.

Q. Am I in the right place to become the lawyer I want to be?

This question is not the same as “am I happy working at ___.” Liking a job and a workplace is not responsive to this second question. The answer to this question may lead to a change or to a risk – neither of which may be easy. However, l would submit that living with regrets is tougher.

There are harder follow-up questions. Will my employer help me become the lawyer I want to be? Do   my expectations and professional goals mirror those of my employer? If not, will I want to make the effort to address those different expectations? Will my employer support my professional goals? Do I want or need to find a different working environment?

A. This question required me to look at whether working for legal aid was the right place for me. At times, I explored other offers presented to me or looked at other opportunities. When I did, I decided that I was in the right place to attain my professional goals and be the lawyer I wanted to be. As I look back over the years, I was right.

Q. How will my law practice fit with my personal life?

This is a very hard question. It directly addresses work-life balance or “the amount of time you spend doing your job compared with the amount of time you spend with your family and doing things you enjoy.”[1] The importance of work-life balance is not a new concept and reflects in part the old proverb about all work and no play.[2] Achieving work-life balance is challenging in light of the competing demands facing each of us daily. Employer policies may encourage work-life balance. Still, the realities of the office culture and client expectations, coupled with a lawyer’s ambitions and an actual caseload, may belie the effectiveness of those policies.

Is my work-life balance an equilibrium between the forces of my work and personal life? Does my employer provide me with the flexibility to achieve that equilibrium? Do I want to invest the time and effort to become a trusted lawyer? Am I seesawing between my professional goals and personal life so that my well-being is impacted? Have I accepted that at times, my work-life balance means I will spend more time on work matters to meet my professional goals than personal ones? Am I the one making these decisions?

A. As a woman who wanted children, I prioritized my personal decision to have a family over my professional goals. Thirty years ago, my employer’s family-friendly policies provided me with the flexibility to work and have a family by providing, for example, paid maternity leave. However, these family-friendly policies seemed non-existent at times. While I was having children and raising them, I put some of my professional goals on hold. Being a mother, a wife, and a lawyer was extremely difficult. The stress felt overwhelming. I could not and did not have it all. As I learned how to be a better lawyer through the inevitable practice of being one, my children became men. In the long run, my choices have been and continue to be worth the difficulties and the joys I experienced.

As promised, this article has been about questions I asked to reach a personal level of professional vitality that makes me proud and happy to be a lawyer. Are the three questions listed here ones that you are asking or should ask? What are your answers?

The preceding article was researched, written and reviewed as part of the work of the NCBA Professional Vitality Committee (“PVC”). The lead author was Celia Pistolis of Legal Aid of North Carolina, Inc. Raleigh, NC. Please direct comments and suggestions to Erna Womble, Committee Chair, and Holly Morris, Communities Manager. See more of the PVC’s Compendium of articles and blog posts at https://ncbar.org/members/committees/professional-vitality/.

[1] Definition of “work-life balance,” Cambridge Business English Dictionary, 2021, https://dictionary.cambridge.org.

[2] “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” James Howell, Paroimiographia. Proverbs, or, old Sayed Sawes & Adages in English (or the Saxon Toung) Italian, French and Spanish whereunto the British, for their great antiquity and weight are added (London: Samuel Thomson, 1659).