Friday, September 8, 2017
Law & Wellness: Interview with Gabe Azar (Sr. Patent Counsel at Johnson & Johnson)
Gabriel (“Gabe”) Azar and I graduated one year apart, from the same law school. He has an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech and started his legal career as an associate practicing patent law at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, LLP. He moved from Finnegan to Paul Hastings and from there to an in-house position with FIS. Currently, he is Senior Patent Counsel at Johnson & Johnson. I’ve admired, mostly from a distance (he lives in Jacksonville, FL now), how Gabe has balanced family, work, and health. We recently reconnected on Strava, and it has been inspiring to see a dedicated husband/father/attorney taking his fitness seriously.
The interview is below the page break.
HM: Gabe, thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions. First, would you tell us a bit about your history trying to balance family, work, and health?
GA: Thank you, Haskell. I've been inspired by your personal and professional accomplishments through the years since law school and have enjoyed reconnecting with you after all this time.
I would describe my path to finding personal and professional balance as a (yet incomplete) long and rocky road. As a single, full-time law student, I had a fairly easy time attending to the business of being a student while remaining engaged with family and friends and keeping physically fit. It was during law school that I discovered my love for running, taking on every distance from the 5k through the marathon, culminating with the 2006 New York City Marathon. I enjoyed seeing my times improve and my body change for the better, and I appreciated the mental calm and confidence that being fit provided. But very soon after I began work as an associate, running fell by the wayside as the pressures of the billable hour and the travel requirements of a litigation-heavy law practice became my priority. Once my lovely wife (Cristina) and beautiful boys (Julien (6) and Alec (4)) added to the equation, they rightfully and without regret became my number one focus. Between being a husband and father and pursuing my law career, time spent attending to my physical fitness fell so far down the list of priorities that ultimately I stopped any form of regular exercise for several years, only recently achieving a healthy and sustainable balance.
HM: Would you tell us a bit about the differences between private practice and in-house positions in the battle for balance? Do you think there are significant differences between the two or do you think the ebbs and flows in your life have been more due to motivation and time management?
GA: While every in-house and law-firm job is unique, I'd say my time in-house has proven more conducive to balance than my time in the law firm--the most important advantages being the relatively predictable work schedule and the limited travel time. When it comes to spending quality time with my wife and children, there's no doubt that having a job that gets me home most evenings and keeps me local most days goes farther toward making overall work-life balance possible than anything within my control. With that said, I struggled with personal health and physical fitness for several years in both the in-house and law firm settings. In these respects, I believe motivation and time management are far more important factors than the type of job.
Motivation has always been easy to come by initially, for example, after a sobering visit to the doctor's office or feeling unable to keep up with my active kids, but it has been tough to maintain over the long term. For me, the smallest departure from routine was enough to doom my efforts, whether it be an especially busy time in the office or a family vacation. The most significant game changer for me has been finding a support network in my local running club. This has proven especially important for me, as someone without a close friend, coworker, or family member with whom to train or share positive experiences. I have to give a shout out to PRS Running Club and coaches Paul McRae and Chris McCaffrey for building an inclusive, positive, and encouraging community for runners of all ages and abilities in Jacksonville, Florida.
Also, for all the debate about the merits of social media, I think Strava (and similar platforms) play a positive role in terms of motivation. It's one thing to see and hear about the athletic accomplishments of elite athletes but another to see friends you know share the same family and work constraints achieving objectively impressive athletic achievements, while also being dedicated husbands, fathers, and professionals. The transparency offered by these platforms cuts against the false notion that success is primarily a product of people's superior innate abilities.
As for time management, the only "hack" that has worked for me is simply reclaiming portions of the day that I otherwise would spend on less productive activities, such as watching TV at night. Generally this means going to bed earlier, waking up much earlier, and knocking out some work or a workout while my family sleeps. By taking back this time, I'm able to do more with my kids and better focus during the day without the stress or guilt associated with finding the time to take care of myself at the expense of family or obligations at work.
HM: I know that days often vary greatly, but, at best you can, would you walk us through a fairly normal weekday and weekend day for you?
GA: On days when I work out (currently 5-6 days/week), I wake up between 4 and 5 AM and knock out a run or workout and return home around 6:30. My wife, Cristina, also works as a corporate counsel for another Jacksonville-based company. We divide and conquer when it comes to the kids' school routine. She heads out for work around 7, while I get the boys ready and walk them to school at 8. I'm in to work shortly thereafter (thank you short commute). At J&J, I'm embedded within the Research and Development arm of the Vision Care subsidiary where I work with engineers, scientists, and business executives on various legal aspects related to the development of the company's next generation of contact lenses and medical devices. My days include a mix of in-person and virtual meetings, as well as time spent drafting and prosecuting patent applications before the United States Patent and Trademark Office. I also negotiate and draft vendor and consultant agreements. Cristina typically picks up the kids around 5, gets them home and starts dinner, while I work until 6 or 6:30. I'm generally home in time for dinner with the family, followed by bed-time stories, which I read to the kids before putting them to bed before 8.
While work does occasionally require my attention during the weekends, by and large my weekends are dedicated to spending time with family. Northeast Florida is a great place to live with plenty of outdoor activities, including the beaches, the St. John's River, and a host of state and local parks. We also enjoy visiting my parents or my wife's, each of whom live within driving distance.
HM: For our student readers, is there one habit you are glad you started to form in law school?
GA: Though more of a technique than a habit, one thing I learned in law school that has stuck with and been very helpful to me is Bryan Garner's "personalities" of writing. Garner encourages writers to first allow their thoughts to flow onto the page without getting bogged down in editing and critique until a later stage in the process. To relate this to good habits in general, I find it useful to remember that in all things, personal and professional, the best way to approach a challenge is to stress less at the outset and instead begin chipping away, trusting that the details will work themselves out through consistent effort.
HM: Finally, do you have any advice for others in the legal profession who are trying to balance family, work, and health?
GA: To anticipate failures and setbacks and to have a planned course of action when they occur. If I've learned anything, it's that when it comes to being a father, husband, lawyer, and health-conscious individual, things are guaranteed not to go exactly as planned. It is too easy to let these short-term setbacks throw you off of a positive long-term routine. Instead, prepare yourself mentally for that family vacation not going as perfectly as planned or missing a workout because of an unexpected meeting or illness. Forgive yourself and trust that it's consistency over the long term that truly matters.
HM: Thanks for sharing with us, Gabe!