During a casual conversation in the office last week, a colleague mentioned that she was taking a few days off for her first vacation in almost 5 years. While my friend stated this as a badge of honor, my immediate thought was, “You need to do that more often.” I know of other attorneys who take several trips in a single year, and while I know them to be committed and productive lawyers, the perception is that they don’t work as hard.
We all know the variety and levels of stress associated with practicing law. There are constant demands on our time, intense pressures of performing well and obtaining good results for our clients, the assumption that we are all constantly available through technology, and our own self-driven motivators that led us to our chosen profession. There is little doubt as to why lawyers and judges suffer from high rates of addiction and depression.
I have spent a lot of time over the past decade learning about the impact that environmental and professional factors can have on our physical and mental health. Doing so has helped me personally through some tough obstacles life has thrown my way, but more importantly, it has helped me in serving as a volunteer and mentor for others in our profession. I wanted to take the opportunity in this column to share some of what I have learned so that you can fine-tune how to best juggle all that life as a lawyer throws at you.
The one mantra I preach and practice is balance. Admittedly, that’s neither an original nor a novel concept. Popular law publications and websites have focused more attention to the concept recently. Many law schools nowadays are offering classes or programs focusing on mental health and physical well-being. What I find important about the work-life balance is that the equation is unique and personal to each one of us. In the examples above, perhaps my friend finds that a less-frequent but longer-lasting vacation is what recharges her battery; perhaps others need more 4-day weekends or hooky days.
More than just a “work-life” balance, it is important to have the right amount of balance within your career and within your home life. It is not an excuse to have a 4-hour work week (bless your heart, Tim Ferriss), nor does it indicate a lack of commitment, as Harrison Barnes stated in a notorious rant on his company’s (BCG Attorney Search) website, www.bcgsearch.com.
Instead, it is about trying to make the best version of ourselves in every walk of life.
So what can you do to fine-tune your personal work-life balance? Here are a few tips to consider:
Conduct a self-assessment. To the best of your abilities, see if you can determine what factors in your life are triggering the most stress or are making you feel out of balance. Are you spending too many late nights in the office, keeping you away from family time or other outside activities you enjoy? Are you feeling constantly pressured by client demands and case-related deadlines? On the flip side, are the demands on your time outside of the office more than you can handle?
Prioritize what’s important to you. There’s no way to eliminate everything you identify in a self-assessment that causes tension in your private or professional lives. Still, the next step is to prioritize what’s important to you professionally and in your personal life and to make sure those things that are of most importance are getting the proper amount of attention. For example, are you trying to make a push for partnership in your firm? If so, you may need to spend more late nights in the office to hit a revenue goal, or have more dinners away from your family while growing your book of business.
Use technology to your advantage. How many of you miss appointments, court hearings or case deadlines when they’re on your Outlook calendar? Schedule some time for the things you enjoy and block them out on your calendar. For me, that is most Tuesday nights, where you’ll find me on the golf course or the tennis courts (weather permitting). Absent extenuating circumstances, that’s a night that I take for me to help me maintain my sanity and manage my stress levels. Additionally, fitness tracking watches and bands are all the rage now — they will push reminders to get you up and moving throughout the day and help you stay accountable to yourself to meet metrics and goals. Likewise, there are plenty of apps that can help you during the work day and in your free time to relax or get your endorphins flowing — whether it’s through meditation, yoga or other exercises at your desk, or helping you eat healthy lunches and snacks — and to keep you committed to your balancing goals.
But put away the technology when it’s not absolutely necessary. None of us is so important that we cannot take the appropriate amount of times for ourselves. Put another way, you are your most important client. We all have times where we need to be available for our clients and colleagues, but there should be times where you’re off the clock. I find that managing those expectations up front with your clients goes a long way. Remember, your clients are people too, and if they understand that you’ll drop what you’re doing when they really need you to, they won’t abuse the privilege by making unnecessary demands on your time.
Get support or help. Most importantly, we are all only as good as the support system around us. Whether you need a little help or a lot, plenty of resources are available. JLAP is not only a confidential resource for those struggling with addiction, but is an invaluable tool for those feeling burnt out, depressed or dealing with any other mental health issues in our profession. For less extreme examples, you can often find a co-worker to exercise with over the lunch hour or before or after work; find a friend willing to be a confidant, a mentor or just a listening ear. There is no shame (and should be no judgment) if you need to go to your managing partner or co-workers and tell them that you need help getting through your to-do lists or meeting upcoming deadlines.
Look, I know I do not have “balance” figured out. I have plenty of days where I do not turn out the office light until the wee hours of the next day. And while I make time for physical activity and hobbies, that post-law school 20+ pounds is still hanging around my waistline. But nonetheless, I always feel better and “balanced” when I have these types of activities mixed in with my work schedule, and I always feel equipped to handle those days or those tasks that cause me the most stress. I think if you implement some of these ideas into your routine, you will find yourself feeling more poised to handle those tough times that work and life throw your way.•
• Mr. Brinkerhoff is with the Indianapolis firm of Katz Korin Cunningham and serves on the board of directors of DTCI. Opinions expressed are those of the author.