Balancing Act

How to juggle family and professional responsibilities.

By Shana Stein


Family first. It’s an adage as old as time immemorial. But how do we reconcile that fact with the duty of zealous advocacy owed to our clients? According to criminal defense attorney James N. Vasilas, the answer is simple: “The kid just has to come first.”

Vasilas makes this assertion unapologetically and without hesitation. And as the owner of a successful six-attorney firm in Oak Cliff, he knows just the sort of work and dedication it takes to keep a firm afloat. Which is a lot.

He says the duty owed to his child is prioritized in much the same way as his practice. First priority is the child, then federal court, then district, then county, and then municipal. Of course everything is important, but when conflicts inevitably arise, he says this is how he resolves them.

Has he ever had a judge not understand when the occasional hearing needs to be rescheduled because of a sick child? No, he says, “I can’t imagine a judge demanding I commit a felony by leaving my kid alone.”

The key to making it work, according to Vasilas, is communication with the court and client. His husband works full-time as well, and they believe that rather than being an impediment to their ability to parent, their careers “teach the kid we all have places to be in the morning.” Finally, he concluded, that “it’s not me managing the time, it’s the time managing me.” Very true indeed. Time management is essential, but that it’s in our control is an illusion. Relinquishing our preconceived plans to be able to adapt as needed is absolutely essential.

Tennessee Nielsen, in-house counsel for SiriusXM Radio and former career counselor for Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, says she’s always lived by the mantra, “You can have it all, just not all at once.” Having raised children while working in-house in corporate law, with a husband who’s a trial attorney, she’s had her share of experiences finding life in the balance as well.

Of all the J.D. candidates she counseled through the years, she never questioned anyone’s ability intellectually to get the job done. Their stamina, however, is what she said would sometimes be called into question, as the reality of law is that it’s a very service-driven field, with very real deadlines and commitments.

One of the keys, she said, is to make your decision and then stick with it. She recalled a time when she was working around the clock on her company’s initial public offering, when she received a call from her child’s school saying that her child needed to be picked up because of head lice. Unable to do so, she contacted her husband. But alas, he was in the middle of a jury trial. So she called the school nurse back and made arrangements for the child to remain in quarantine until the end of the day, when they would be able to arrive. Nielsen said this sort of thing used to leave her feeling guilty, until the nurse explained that even the parents who don’t work aren’t available on a moment’s notice. They go to yoga. They go to the doctor. Everyone has obligations. And nobody is always available. So you build a great support system, and then let the guilt go, and do the best you can.

Still others are opting to take a less conventional route as full-time parents and part-time attorneys. Solo practicing entertainment and contract attorney Ronda M. Litwin says she discloses her limited availability to clients up front, the hours of which coincide with when her son is in school. One way she’s able to make this work is by only accepting clients with non-urgent matters and smaller assignments.

At the end of the day, corporate or criminal, solo or in-house, kids or clients, we all have to simply do the best we can and then let it go. In a profession of driven perfectionists, sometimes this can be easier said than done.

At which point the following breathing exercise might serve readers well: Find a comfortable seated position. Allow your eyes to close. Soften your belly. Breathe in through your nose. And out through your nose. Begin thinking as you breathe—inhale, let. Exhale, go. Repeat several times until you feel tension’s grip lessen.TBJ

For more practical tips and tricks on how to balance life with work, visit Stein’s wellness website,

Shana Stein

SHANA STEIN is a criminal defense attorney, yoga teacher, and public speaker practicing in Dallas. To learn more, go to and

Heavy workloads and client stories can affect attorneys physically and psychologically. It is important to actively work to stay healthy.
For more information, go to and click on “wellness."

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