Can a Disabled Lawyer Achieve Work-Life Balance?

As I write this, an IV is pumping Remicade into a vein in my right elbow, on the fleshy, inner side. Remicade, a chemotherapeutic agent, treats my Rheumatoid Arthritis as well as the chronic inflammation in my eyes. I’m told that the 22 gauge needle used for the infusion might be more comfortable in another vein, like the big one on the back of my hand. But if the needle’s on the back of my hand, it will be harder to type on my phone. And I have work to do.

I’ll be in the infusion center for about 3 hours. Add on travel time, and the infusion becomes a four-hour interruption in the middle of a busy day. I try to schedule my infusions late in the afternoon, on a Friday. I need one every four weeks. After the infusion, when I get home, I will feel nauseous, and the nausea won’t subside until late the next morning. It makes for a rough start to the weekend, but it’s better than enduring the same thing at work.

This post is about work-life balance, and how elusive that kind of balance can be for disabled people in the law. Legal work is frenetic. Disability generally brings with it time-consuming health care needs. How do you reconcile the two?

I have no idea.

Let me tell you a little bit more about my day. I arrived at school around 8:00 a.m., taught for an hour, and then spent about three hours planning my 12:00 p.m. class. I skipped lunch. I couldn’t teach, plan, eat and also make it to my 2:00 p.m. infusion on time. I got some work done during the infusion, but I’ll still need to work at home until 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. to complete today’s tasks.

At home, I will drink tea to ease my nausea. I will yawn and worry that I should be resting. I will sleep in a little bit later tomorrow morning so that I sleep through most of the infusion’s side effects. I’ll work at least 8 hours on Saturday or Sunday to catch up. At some point, I will puke.

I don’t mind working odd hours. I’m grateful that I have a job that gives me the flexibility to go to doctors’ appointments during business hours. But doctors’ appointments are not time off—they represent the time I have to make up.

Managing a high-intensity career with a high-maintenance disability is not easy. How do I cope?  Well, I work while I’m getting chemo. I answer emails, and if it's not too disruptive, I make work-related calls. I have to bend my right arm to type or hold the phone to my ear, and it’s painful to do this with a needle in my vein. I’d be better off napping. 

This is not work-life balance.

But hey, I'm trying. Now that I’m in my mid-30s, I’ve gathered up the courage to set some boundaries. I try to avoid infusion dates that would force me to teach, travel, or give a presentation the morning after the procedure. If I’ve scheduled an important medical appointment and a work conflict comes up, I do my best to keep the medical appointment in place.

It’s still very tempting to prioritize work over health. For the first few years of my legal career, I did just that.

As a young law firm associate, I took a pro bono case from discovery to trial. During my cross-examination of the defendant, I stood for hours on a stress fracture. I thought that sitting down or using a cane would diminish me in the eyes of the jury. But for my martyrdom, the injury would have healed much faster. The same year I completed that pro bono trial, I also met the firm's 2100 billable hour target.

As a third-year associate, I’d sneak away from my Midtown office and trek over to Union Square for my Remicade infusions. And then I’d go back to work. If my infusion were done at 4, I’d work until 10 or 11 at night to catch up. I felt like I had no choice. I was on a case that expected 24/7 commitment.

At 32, I spent three days in the ICU while doctors struggled to figure out why the left side of my face had gone numb. They released me after eliminating MS, a stroke, and a heart attack. The stress brought on by work was the only explanation. The saddest part of that experience? When I realized I couldn't move the left side of my face, I still wavered over whether I should ask someone to cover my motion to dismiss argument. I debated whether I should go to the hospital because I thought one motion in one case was more important than the fact that I couldn't move half of my face.

I left Big Law. Eventually, I found my way to a teaching fellowship in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I felt alive and happy in the classroom. My colleagues were brilliant and hardworking, and they valued their personal lives. For the first time, I knew the names of my co-workers’ kids and was often invited into their homes. Hard work was encouraged but also celebrated. The lifestyle change was so dramatic that it was difficult to acclimate. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something wrong when I wasn’t at my computer.

Of course, I didn’t just waltz into an academic career. I paid a price for my CV. I sometimes worry that the way I worked in my 20s and early 30s made me sicker. I was always so afraid. So afraid that I’d be fired because of my disability that I acted as though I wasn’t disabled.

Our profession incentivizes performance that’s at odds with good health. 

I've written this post with the ADA in mind and the notion that it should protect disabled employees from workplace discrimination. But the ADA doesn't provide perfect answers for the situations disabled lawyers face. And the reasonable accommodation process the ADA endorses is taxing. 

So what can we do? Work-life balance becomes a possibility for everyone when we stop treating a discovery motion like a life-threatening emergency. Collectively, we should reject 1:00 a.m. emails and 7-day workweeks. 

Even though work-life balance may be harder for disabled lawyers to achieve, that doesn't mean disabled lawyers aren't killing it. But the lifestyle we lawyers all bemoan is even more daunting for those of us who are balancing a disability on top of work and life. 

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