Sharon Blanchet is an "A" lister family lawyer who maintains her "Zen-like" composure. Find out how she does it. Listen to the podcast or read the transcript of this insightful interview.
Interview by Dan Couvrette
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When you say “work/life balance,” what does that actually mean for you?
Well, it has a very distinct meaning for me actually. First of all, none of us want to be a workaholic and if we’re a workaholic I think we are really out of balance in our life in general. So my goal if I’m looking at having and achieving a work/life balance is to be a very good attorney, be a kind of attorney that pays attention to detail and thinks about all the I's being dotted and the T's being crossed, but at the same time looking at my life as a whole and making sure that I have plenty of time for myself, and then also for my family and friends and the pursuits that I think nourish me in general. So I think balance between being a good attorney and being really able to enjoy life with your family and friends is a good work/life balance.
Do you feel that you’ve achieved this balance that you’re shooting for?
I think most of the times I have. I came to law at the age of 40 so I’m a little bit different than most attorneys around me in that I had a pretty full life before I became a lawyer and that might have helped me to not get sucked into law being all consuming. And as I have gotten older, achieving work/life balance has become even more and more important, especially after we’ve experienced the loss of family members or friends and we realize how short life is and how precious the memories are that we do create with family and friends.
Most of the time I think I’m in that work/life balance, and then when I’m out of it, I try to get back into it as soon as possible.
Does it look to you like other family lawyers have also achieved that or does it seem like they’re way out of whack and working too hard in general?
Well, most of the family law attorneys that I know well enough to comment on about that issue have been family law attorneys for quite a long time and so I believe they have learned over the years how better to achieve that work/life balance. The younger ones, and by younger ones I mean those new to the profession, you know, have to prove themselves in a way that we’ve already done perhaps when we get to be in the practice of law for 25 years. So I see them maybe being a little bit out of whack but they’re smart people and I’m hopeful that once they feel secure enough in the profession they will take a good hard look and begin to try to achieve that work/life balance.
You became a lawyer at 40. Did you start practising family law at that time? What were you doing?
Yes, I did. When I was growing up it was in the early 60s. It was about who you were going to marry. As a woman, you could be a teacher or a nurse, perhaps a secretary. It wasn’t about a woman being a lawyer. I actually married a lawyer and I had a great love for the profession. I then worked in the court system and was a court clerk. So when I came to law when I was 40 I had a pretty varied background about the practice of law already. I knew I wanted to be a family law attorney and that’s what I did immediately.
Was there anything along the way that changed in terms of the way you practised? Did you start off more aggressively trying to attain a financial goal or a particular target that you had set for your practice?
Actually, I think I’ve just been very fortunate. I didn’t have a specific target. I opened up as a sole practitioner and I was fortunate because I had been in the community for so long and had friends who were family law attorneys already that I was able to be referred small cases in the beginning and then eventually I worked into a partnership and then now I have two women partners and we have 17 or 18 women working for us in the firm — over time it just kept growing. I don’t know that I ever had any specific intention of how my practice was going to work. I just knew that I really loved what I was doing and I wanted to do my best.
We’ve talked to each other off and on for over ten years at family law conferences. It always seems to me like you’re in a good mood and it always seems to me that if a matter was coming at you, you seem to have a positive spin on it. So the question is how is that? How is that possible? Where does that come from? Do you do deep breathing all day? Is it the air in California? Is it your upbringing? How do you come to the day in that mood and have that outlook?
You’re not the first person who has said that to me. In fact that’s been asked of me, I think, for many years by many people so I've thought about it. You said the word upbringing. I don’t know that that was the way. That attitude, I should say, about life was not specifically stated to me or even shown to me but I think I developed it. You know, we all have our ways of survival in the world and I think I learned early on that life really is how you view it and what you make of it. And I look at life as a wonderful experience. And so I have a very positive attitude about almost everything that comes my way and in the end, when life gives you lemons, that whole thing about how you make lemonade out of it, I think it’s true. And the more you practise it and the more you see that it can be that way, I think it’s just reinforced and reinforced more. And I don’t like to have negative people around me very much.
So you stay away from them?
Well, I mean some of them are your family members so you can’t stay away from them. But I think that you start to look at it from a point of view of maybe you’re there to teach them how to develop a more positive attitude about life and how that can help them and certainly with our clients.
That was my next question. Talking about negative, you have a lot of negativity around you.
Yes, but I find that it can be an opportunity for you to acknowledge and identify that this is a very sad part in this person’s life. The end of a marriage, that’s very sad and the breaking up of a family is very sad and has a lot of consequences to it but it can also be viewed (And this is a good conversation to have with the client at the right time) as an opportunity to get out of a situation that was not nourishing for that person and not leading to a very positive environment for their children. The situation is not a good example for the children and we need to talk about how to minimize the negative effect of the divorce on themselves and the children and how to go forward into you know, hopefully a better life in the future.
So that’s an underlying theme. And it’s interesting because many times I develop a really good rapport with my clients. Like yesterday, I was with a client and I gave her my prediction that in one year from now — as sad as this was for her — she was going to be really, really happy. And you know, we were able to talk about that and laugh and so she’s written it down in her calendar and she’s going to call me one year from now. And those kinds of things happen with clients all the time and I think it’s a hopeful way for them to be and it’s actually the truth. So it works.
So you see yourself as helping your clients create a new possibility for their future and helping them create that vision, which makes the process of divorce hopefully, a little lighter on them.
What if somebody walks into your office and you don’t have a good rapport with them, that they just don’t seem like the type of person who you would do a good job of representing. Do you take that or do you let it go?
Well, that’s a good question. There have only been a few times; I could probably count them on ten fingers and still have some left over in the 25 or 26 years I’ve been practising. I didn’t take the cases and I’ve been happy for it. And I think that comes with experience and age and it’s just not a good fit. There are lots of good lawyers in San Diego so there are other people that can help that person that might be a better fit than me.
I think that maybe one of the qualities you bring is that you do allow a lot of space for people to be who they are and I think you also have a clear understanding that you’re seeing people at their worst time and so you can give them enough space to be upset and mad. Would that be accurate?
That’s absolutely true. I think I do allow clients the ability to be how they really are and not take it personal and also to let it roll off my back the same as I do if there is a really aggressive and unnecessarily snippy attorney on the other side. I don’t rise to that bait. But I think it’s important in the attorney/client relationship to give that client the freedom to express their upsetness with me. That’s what I’m there for and I can handle it. And then when I do it’s never personal towards me and that works and we have a conversation about that. I let them know if you’re upset about something talk to me about it, let me know about it, that’s what I’m here for. Yeah. So that works.
I was going to ask you about achieving your full potential or your own potential. I have a sense that you are achieving your own potential because when we talked about starting up in the practice you were clear that you wanted to be in family law. Do you feel like you’re achieving your full potential or is there more?
Well, I feel as an attorney there’s always room to grow. I feel like I have achieved a good level of my potential as an attorney and I can always be better. On the other side with my family, I lost someone I thought was like my sister. We’d been friends since 8th grade. And that really taught me to make sure that I paid attention to creating memories with my friends and my family. In fact, as my friend Melody was dying what she told us all was just simply to pay attention, pay attention in life. And I really try to do that and I’ve shared that message with anyone who would listen about paying attention as we go through life.
So each decade in my life I have thought about “what am I going to have this decade be about?” In my 50s it was about designing and building my home and I wanted my 60s – I’m in my 60s now – to be about being a service. So I don’t feel like I’ve realized my full potential in this area of being a service. I feel that there are causes if you want to call them that, like I’m a very big animal rights person. The environment is really important to me and I’m really getting very concerned about what’s happening where women’s rights are concerned around our country. So I feel I need to be more active. I mean I participate by supporting a lot of organizations that way and signing petitions but I feel there’s something else I need to do and I’m not quite sure how to do it or when I’m going to do it but I feel like I haven’t reached my potential there.
I’m on the journey but I haven’t gotten there yet. It’s frustrating actually. I feel frustrated about that because I feel like I should be doing more and I don’t know how I would have the time at this point to be more.
How do you deal with having that feeling of needing to do more?
Well, that’s a perfect example of what I’m not doing that I feel like I should be doing to handle that frustration. I actually just recently bought the Sun Salutation tape so I can start doing it at home. I think about it and I try to come up with ways. I mean If I could actually figure out how to keep my lifestyle and pay my bills and go and work at someplace for animal rights I would do it but I haven’t figured that one out yet. I’ll keep you posted.
Right now you sign petitions and probably contribute, you donate to organizations, write letters and that sort of thing?
Yes. In fact, technology has really created a wonderful way for those of us who are interested in any causes to participate from our own home. Most of the organizations I belong to (there are maybe five or six of them) get a petition once a day and the petition is already set up for me — It’s about an issue that that particular organization is addressing and it’s already addressed to the person or the entity where that petition has to go to. All I have to do is read it. I can add a sentence or two or a paragraph sometimes and I just press a button and my voice is being heard on that cause. So I have told many friends if there are certain causes that you believe in join the organizations that are with those causes and you’ll get those petitions and your voice will be heard even from your own living room.
Given that we’re talking about changing the world, if there was one thing that you could do to, one thing that you would want to see changed, what would it be?
Well, I think if each person was enlightened, the world would be a peaceful and nourishing place. There would be no more wars. I think we would be compassionate towards each other. So if each of us would be enlightened or at least going toward enlightenment that would be the thing that I would change. Raising the level of consciousness would be the first thing on my list because everything else I think would fall into place.
Do you have the feeling that we’re on that path?
I certainly hope so for my grandchildren’s sake.
And I’ve made a point of not going to movies that are violent and negative. I don’t watch those types of TV shows. And I’m not being prudish. I don’t mean it that way. But I just feel that to whatever extent I can devote my consciousness back to that issue we had in the beginning — to being positive, compassionate, loving and accepting — that that’s what I can do to contribute towards that goal of enlightenment.
Dan Couvrette is CEO, Divorce Marketing Group, Divorce Magazine and Family Lawyer Magazine.
Sharon Blanchet has more than 25 years of experience in Family Law and is a founding member of the firm Ashworth, Blanchet, Christenson & Kalemkiarian. Her practice focuses on high asset and complex litigation matters and custody issues.