Balancing the Scales

By Dale Goodwin; photos by Rajah Bose


Sometimes in this fast-paced world with technology adding to the immediacy of life, it’s tough to find balance among work, family, community and one’s own needs.

Certainly few professions offer more life-balance challenges than the practice of law, where court deadlines are set, clients are anxious and exhaustive research is pervasive.

But a handful of Zags area changing the face of a profession that previously was characterized by six- or seven-day workweeks and long hours that resulted in lack of sleep, sometimes excessive drinking and somewhat frequent bouts of depression.

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Ryan McNeice (M.B.A. ’04, J.D. ’05) had spent several years in business, and in his mid-20s decided to go back to law school and the Gonzaga M.B.A. program. He was building a family, as well. Meanwhile, Becki Wheeler knew law school was what she wanted to do, but upon graduation began a family and her desire to stay with her kids outweighed her passion for working behind a desk.

McNeice started a solo law practice upon graduation in 2005. A peer from the class of 2005 at Gonzaga Law School, Wheeler joined his practice in 2008 and they transitioned to a partnership, McNeice Wheeler, PLLC in 2010. They created a law practice based upon business models McNeice had seen that were built around young families.

“What Becki and I tried to do at each level was consider what we would want if we were an employee/attorney at a larger firm,” McNeice says. “Becki has three kids, she’s very involved in their lives as young athletes, and she wants to be able to take it all in,” he said. “I have two kids involved in sports, digital media and theater, and I want the same.”

So McNeice Wheeler was formed, allowing attorneys the flexibility to set their own schedules, dictate their own office time, take the cases they want to work on with no billable-hour requirement, and be able to collaborate with other attorneys within the fi rm to allow more flex in their schedules, as well as better serve their clients.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t put in the hours,” McNeice says. “It’s not that we’re doing less work, but we’re doing it on our own schedules.”

They’re also open to new ideas of their fellow attorneys and staff members as to how to make work life more positive.g

“We have monthly trivia night with our whole staff . We’ve had retreats at Priest Lake, we’ve run half-marathons as a staff , and we find important causes to support, like the Modern Theater production of ‘Chicago,’ ” Wheeler said.

FLEXIBILITY + HUMANITY = MORE SMILES

While this work/life balance found its catalyst in the family lives of McNeice and Wheeler, it’s not just for attorneys with families.

At 38, Robin Haynes (’00, ’02 M.A., ’06 J.D.) is the youngest state bar association president ever in the United States. She came to work at McNeice Wheeler because she wanted flexibility in her schedule to participate in bar activities, as well as community service efforts.

“If you don’t have a life outside of your work you end up being not a great attorney,” she says. “I still work six or seven days a week, but I work on my terms, not some arbitrary notion of business hours or face time.

Becki Wheeler

Becki Wheeler, a former college basketball player, stays busy running her two boys and a daughter to sports practices and games. You can find her on a field or court most every evening, nearly year- round.

“My clients are busy people, and they don’t always have time to come in during normal business hours,” Haynes said. “So often we communicate over Skype or FaceTime, and it is most conducive to my clients’ schedules.”

This philosophy of good work/life balance has helped her in other ways, too, like choosing a workout over a spotless home.

Janice Brown (’83 J.D.), a San Diego attorney and founding principal in Brown Law Group, is a champion of work/life balance. She started Beyond Law, a business helping lawyers to become successful in all aspects of the legal profession.

“To be truly successful, from a holistic standpoint, you must develop inner strength and calm,” Brown says. “Inner strength and calm is true confidence. True confi dence is the path to success – it is cyclical. Thus, balance is one of the ways to access inner strength.”

Dave Jackson (’82 J.D.) tried law both with a large Spokane firm and on his own. After 11 years of practicing law, he was missing that important balance in his life, and was ready for a change. He was actively involved in the community, and raising a family. He needed more flexibility. “Whenever I entered the courthouse I saw very few smiles,” he said. “I needed more smiles in my life.”

So he became a high school teacher at Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, and now he teaches criminal justice, legal studies and a sports and entertainment marketing class.

“Gonzaga taught a lot of us to give back. I walk into class every day and I see smiles on my students’ faces. I like being around happy people. There’s nothing wrong with being a lawyer and upholding the law. But I really like what I’m doing,” Jackson said.

His older kids are 32 and 28, and successfully employed. Now he’s raising a younger family – a fi fth-grader and a second-grader – and enjoys coaching youth sports, along with his extensive community involvement in Hoopfest, Bloomsday and other worthy Spokane causes.

A wise Jesuit (Father Scott Coble, S.J.) once said, “Happiness in any profession is a product of passion, ability and a good personal fit.”

Today’s Gonzaga lawyers seem to be finding that fit quite nicely.