Now that you’ve survived — maybe even enjoyed — the rounds of law firm holiday parties, the slate is wiped clean for 2018. No doubt, resolutions and good intentions bubbled up with the start of the new year. You may have noted them in your head or purchased a new motivational calendar with quarterly pages for tracking your goals.
The predictable outcome? You won’t make it through the first quarter with your goals intact. As work piles up, most likely you will work through the dark evenings with a reward of fast food at your desk and a drink when you finally get home. And with the new year, you face the increased risk of becoming a statistic for substance abuse. For example:
- Lawyers are two to four times as addicted as those in other professions.
- Lawyers are four times as depressed as the general population.
- During the first 10 years of practice, lawyers have the highest rate of addiction.
There’s Nothing Like a Civilized “Hunger Games”
Of course, this could be the year you break the predictable cycle of broken promises to yourself (and your spouse, your family, your doctor) and insert more balance into your life: eat better, get more exercise, spend more time with family and friends. You know the drill.
Unfortunately, as they climb the rungs to partnership or work to build a viable practice of their own, few lawyers really believe they have a choice in the matter. Finding balance is especially difficult in a law firm of any significant size, where each day is essentially an “interview.” You’re under a microscope as others scrutinize your billable hours, client originations and ability to respond immediately to any demand. You are at the 24/7 disposal of new partners, new clients and new peers who will like you or not, respect you or not, and assess over a six- to nine-year period whether you have “the right stuff.” Nothing like a civilized “Hunger Games,” right?
Tangible, Realistic Ways to Begin a Shift Toward Balance in Your Life
On the bright side, many law firms are shifting away from unhealthy work models, hoping talented lawyers can avoid burnout — and that they’ll stick around. Eventually, this culture shift should reduce defections and lead to more lawyers having long and robust careers.
Until then, however, here are five concrete things you can do to take control of your work-life balance:
1. Disconnect from technology whenever possible. Set up a message on your voicemail and email systems stating you are unavailable and provide contacts for those needing help. Leave an additional number to reach you in a real emergency (it typically is not one). Most senior partners and clients expect 24/7 instant availability, so this won’t be easy. But, it can be accomplished with some creativity. Doctors learned this decades ago by assigning “on call” weekends or weeknights. Maybe your practice group can do the same.
2. Learn to say no. Set realistic work boundaries that permit you to do quality work and maintain high energy. In my experience, a senior partner has more respect for young lawyers who are honest about their workload and do not wish to compromise quality.
3. Take all vacation and comp days. Make them real vacations, not “staycations,” especially if you have finished a major project or trial, or have been traveling excessively for work. Take off for two weeks — not one. You need at least three or four days to feel your body relax and then you’ll have a full week to decompress. And try not to plan too many trips that are exhausting in and of themselves.
4. Commit to healthy habits. Easier said than done, but here are the basics:
- Take frequent, quick breaks: a quick walk, five minutes of deep breathing, a short meditation.
- Every night, spend an hour doing something for yourself that you can look forward to — a good book, some Netflix, yoga.
- Follow good nutrition habits instead of binge eating when you’re feeling starved or late at night.
- Get some social interaction outside of work.
- Make a sustained sleep schedule a priority. Studies confirm that we lose all stability if our sleep is compromised for any period of time.
5. Get in touch with your life’s priorities, goals and passions. Have you discarded or forgotten them? Your tombstone is not going to read that you had the highest billable hours for a decade. Here are a few tactics to use when looking to reconnect with your passions:
- Identify your greatest joys. Feel free to go back to your childhood.
- List five things (jobs, volunteer work, hobbies, adventures) you would like to do.
- List five more things that you are very good at doing (even if you have never done them in public or as part of a job).
- Complete this sentence: “My life is ideal when … ” Do it again 15 times, then reduce it to your top five.
Everything in life that results in real change begins with simple and tangible action steps, not a January flood of empty promises to yourself and new gym memberships.
Link Christin is Executive Director of the Legal Professionals Program at Caron Treatment Centers, and works extensively with impaired lawyers through the treatment and recovery process. A former lawyer and firm partner, he also educates and provides training to law firms about these issues. He is a licensed and board-certified alcohol and drug addiction counselor.