One of the biggest challenges of our day is balancing a career with the natural desire to live a full and rewarding life outside the office. Lawyers are no exception. Over the years, intense work schedules have become a culturally accepted norm for legal professionals. Young attorneys enter the legal industry with high energy and ambition and a ‘no boundaries’ mindset leading them to work long nights and weekends in order to get ahead. These kinds of work habits kill work-life balance and lead to other serious repercussions.
Lawyers have been reported to be at a higher risk for depression, drug and alcohol abuse, heart disease, divorce, and suicide. A study published by the American Bar Association stated that of those surveyed, 20.6% of lawyers and judges reported they are dealing with problematic alcohol use and 28% of lawyers admitted to experiencing depression. Why is the legal profession more susceptible to these problems than other professions?
Lawyers are experts in their field. But often they lack the tools and skills they need to successfully manage their workforce, their finances, and their demanding caseload. They find themselves sacrificing personal commitments and free time to meet their overwhelming work demands.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are the top 8 habits that destroy work-life balance for lawyers, and some tips for bringing your life back into harmony:
1. Being Disorganized
Success in legal is about being productive—but productivity drops drastically when you are disorganized. It becomes increasingly more difficult to satisfy clients’ demands when you can’t keep track of their cases. 3,000 billable hours matter little if you aren’t meeting a clients’ needs and your billing statements are continuously adjusted downward.
Lawyers who report a positive balance between their work and personal lives are able to manage and organize their caseloads effectively, as well as meet clients’ demands. They also report greater job satisfaction and deeper, more meaningful relationships outside of work. Organization leads to higher job satisfaction, less job-hopping, less stress, and better work-life balance.
Thomas Mann’s statement that “Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject” applies to all fields—but none more so than legal.
Lawyers must pay careful attention to every detail of an issue, large or small. This intense focus creates a pressure-filled environment. Misplacing a comma when drafting an agreement or forgetting to include necessary boilerplate language can result in serious problems for both a client and a lawyer. Missing one deadline could mean a malpractice suit.
The stakes are so high, it’s understandable that lawyers stay up at night worrying whether anything has fallen through the cracks.
But every human makes mistakes. That’s why the best lawyers rely on technology to help them reduce human error and stay on top of their tasks. Smart task lists, calendaring, and workflow automation can perfect your work and save you from stress.
As a whole, legal professionals are intelligent, ambitious, assertive, and creative types who understand the importance of working hard. They don’t sit around waiting for an opportunity to knock—they chase it. Many in the legal field strive to earn the best assignments and hustle to land the best cases. Most lawyers have a competitive streak.
The downside to throwing a bunch of people together with these traits is that it can result in interpersonal game-playing as they attempt to psych out their “competitors.” An example of this is water-cooler talk about so-and-so who “logged 3,000+ billable hours last year.”
In my experience, most lawyers dislike these office games, but an environment that encourages such shenanigans tends to lead to extreme competition amongst employees to log more billable hours—always at the expense of their personal life.
To protect your work-life balance, help build a legal culture of cooperation and mutual support. Collaboration tools can enable you to help each other draft memos, review each other’s work, or cover for others in their time of need. Seek out other collaborators, and build a stronger and more sustainable practice together.
During the Great Depression, it was common around skyscraper construction sites to see unemployed men standing around. If a worker became injured, these men were quick to fill the job opening. It’s a similar situation in the legal world.
Presently, there are almost 1.3 million lawyers in the U.S., and each year, there are 35,000–40,000 students graduating from law schools. With so many qualified professionals seeking employment or trying to stay employed, firms are not afraid to keep whip-in-hand when it comes to hiring and retention. Wo, wo, wo unto the lowly associate who fails to contribute meaningfully to the bottom-line.
Lawyers at every level are susceptible to being replaced, but it is the younger associates who fear this sword of Damocles the most. They are all too quick to agree to long hours and heavy caseloads in an attempt to impress.
I was no exception. Like most young lawyers, I was all-too-willing to work late every night and even show up on weekends when pressured to do so. Our motto was “Stay busy, work hard, and show commitment.” Exhibiting a lack of enthusiasm for work in any way was viewed as the fast lane to the door.
One of the managing partners warned us about working too hard. He stressed that we should put in a full day’s work, leave the office at a reasonable time, and come back ready for the next day. The advice sounded good, but because none of us wanted to be seen as weak or disinterested in our jobs, each evening at 8:00 pm would find us still at our desks diligently racking up billable hours.
No matter your ambitions, developing healthy responses to the demands of work will serve you well both personally and professionally in the long run.
Oftentimes when employees get overworked or stressed, they turn to unhealthy eating and sleeping habits—these habits will only worsen the situation. Do what you can to limit your intake of things like alcohol, fast-food, caffeine, and other unhealthy things that often accompany stressful situations.
Ensuring you get quality sleep should also be a priority. Healthy eating and sleeping will greatly benefit both your work and your health. Good health and better work-life balance will help you to avoid the burn out that so many lawyers face.
6. FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)
This malady is common among lawyers committed to becoming partners. They feel the need to be constantly available, throwing off work-life balance. Their concern was that by not being seen in the office, at all hours, they would miss out on opportunities to work on important cases. Ironically, their fear of not missing out at the office can often lead to them missing out on their personal lives.
I’ve known many lawyers who kept a complete change of clothing hanging on the backside of their office door. They ate at their desks, showered at the firm (the same shower that young associates wouldn’t dare use), and ingested large amounts of caffeine in an effort to always be present. Such behavior can pay off, but in my experience, most of those lawyers quickly grew disillusioned and left for greener pastures.
7. Allowing Constant Interruptions
The average American checks their phone 96 times every day. That’s a 20% increase from just 2 years ago, and the trend is only expected to rise. The average worker checks their email 36 times every hour.
And for the average lawyer, these numbers are probably far higher. The constant need to stay on top of case developments and respond to clients’ calls and emails is exhausting. It can quickly destroy the balance between the office and your private life—especially when this is done after hours or on weekends.
With an effective case management software, you can give clients what they crave—more communication, without sacrificing your personal time. Technological features like texting to and from the case file can enable greater communication with clients in less time.
8. Wearing an Electronic Leash
With digital devices always on our person, lawyers today never really leave work. Firms have increasingly embraced digital transformation and automation of diverse processes that have made practicing law easier, less expensive, and more efficient. Electronic devices make lawyers accessible 24/7 so long as they have a phone or internet connection.
But while modern technology allows legal professionals to be more efficient, without boundaries in place technology can become a leash tying you to your work. It’s common for lawyers to slip in a few hours of work on weekends or even vacations to stay on top of their caseloads.
Using the right case management software enables you to use technology as a virtue and not a vice in your firm. Keep track of your workload and cases without being tethered to your desk. When you use it right, technology can give you more freedom instead of the opposite.
A good work-life balance can increase productivity, create a happier work environment, lower absenteeism, and increase the overall health of employees. The benefits to balancing your personal life with your work far outweigh the costs. As previously stated, the costs may be having a significant impact on both your physical and mental health.
Be wary of threats to your work-life balance and learn to use modern technology to enable you to practice law wherever you and whenever you need to—that doesn’t mean sacrificing a sense of work-life balance in the bargain. We must find harmony in the places our private and professional lives intersect—and become better legal professionals because of it.