Let’s talk about creating a work-life balance.
Look, being a lawyer is an exhausting job, unless you’re one of those namby-pamby “in-house” guys who spends his days sipping lattes placed on the backs of interns that are brought in by the company for course credit. By and large, lawyers are responsible for their own practice and case file management, and are responsible for their own time management, and everything about firm life, be it small, mid, or big, is geared to encourage that. Take me for instance. I spend about thirty-forty minutes a day working on this type of shit, a blog post. However, if you’re a frequent reader you’ll have noticed there are days where my post consists of “Too damn busy, will have something up tomorrow.” Part of this is because posting substantive content three times a week as a practicing lawyer is incredibly ambitious for me, but another part of it is the fact that, when weighing shit against my case load, the blog comes in second every time.
That’s something every lawyer is familiar with: “The X comes in second place to my cases.” X could be video game time, it could be going out to dinner with friends, it could be that vacation you’ve been planning, it could be the birth of a child. “X” is the real world that exists beyond the confines of our law offices, where people rarely use Latin and never use it correctly and where time isn’t measured in six-minute increments. You know, the world that exists outside your office window.
The problem comes because some lawyers, myself included, don’t know when to hit the off-switch on lawyer mode. That’s fucking sad, because the end result is many attorneys burn the fuck out way too soon to reach their full potential.
Alright, story time.
Who Is Captain Eyebrows?
In the Super-Secret Lawyer’s Slack, there’s a young buck with amazing eyebrows. This guy has been in practice less than a year, but I’m regularly talking to him at weird times on there. In the morning, the afternoon, and late into the night, and every single time he’s at the office. You can generally tell what time zone a person lives in by when they log out of the Slack channel for the night, but not this guy. He’s always there, and he’s always working and asking for guidance on cases. I like the kid, but I’ll admit that more than once I’ve wanted the channel administrator to ban him and his glorious eyebrows for a day or two just to force him to socialize with people other than lawyers, or to finish up what he’s doing and get his ass out of the office. I understand that being able to talk to other people makes his life more bearable, but to some extent I want him to be miserable.
I want him to be miserable, not just because I take perverse delight in the misery of others, but so he’ll desperately seek out someone who isn’t an attorney to spend some time with. Because let’s be honest, lawyers aren’t that much fun to be around and we’re always trying to play a game of oneupmanship. We’re friendly, but two lawyers circling each other is like two dogs circling each other, it’s in our nature to try and determine who’s the biggest and baddest from the pair. This is especially true of litigators, who by and large are dyed in the wool candy-coated assholes with a creamy shit center.
So it’s just generally not healthy for Captain Eyebrows to spend all of his time in the office or on the Slack channel, especially when you consider that the habits someone establishes in their first year of practice are the habits they tend to hold onto throughout their careers. The habit this guy is setting is a habit of always working, never flipping the “off” switch, and always giving 110% late into the night, seeking solace only in the salty bosom of other attorneys to help him muscle through the day and the cases. It’s not healthy, and quite frankly I’m rather concerned about it, because…I like this guy. I like him a lot. I think he has the makings of a great attorney, and a stalwart advocate for his clients (for as much shit as we give him). I don’t want to see him become a burned-out shell of an attorney who spends his nights alone, sipping bourbon and staring blankly at a television in a quiet house with two dogs and a worn-out couch, wondering if sometimes things might have gone better if he had gone into a different profession. I might be projecting a little.
Other than that, why do I give a shit what this guy does?
Look, everything I just accused Captain Eyebrows of doing is shit I do. I stay in the office late and always take work home with me. I’m on the Slack channel constantly, morning, noon, and night. I socialize almost exclusively with other attorneys and nobody else. Work is life for me. There’s nothing else.
But that’s why I don’t want to see him go down that path, too. That’s why I think it’s important for every young lawyer to establish a clear limit to the amount of time they’re willing to work, and to reassess their priorities. Because I didn’t, and being a lawyer is most of my life now, both in and out of the office. My relationships with non-lawyers are fleeting to non-existent, when I’m with my kids the time I spend in my home office working on things versus being with them is sincerely out of whack, when my phone dings I immediately look at it, and I’ve been known to spend birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, and other important dates in the office working on stuff. I haven’t taken a vacation in over two years, and I have to be forced to take a sick day. I am the lawyer who will die at his desk.
Like I said, the habits you create in your first couple years of practice are the ones you’ll carry with you through the rest of your practice. For me, that meant that I’m never “not a lawyer.” A common mantra for me from the beginning was “Well, once I make partner” or “Once I start my own practice” I’d have time for all the things I don’t have time for now…like dance recitals or awards ceremonies. But I know how this works, and eventually I’ll wake up in my fifties with a case load that has to go through, a new set of dogs, and a new worn-out couch in my home, with an always fresh bottle of booze. Because I never did establish that boundary between on-and-off duty.
You, and Captain Eyebrows, can.
First, set limits. Clients don’t get your cell or home numbers. Second, unless the case is big or a deadline is looming, you are not constantly available. Yes, our jobs require us to be available at weird hours and willing to work, but you need to establish there are times that are “your times” when you aren’t going to check your phone or email. Third, get a non-legal hobby. I play video games. Fourth, get a non-legal hobby that you do with other people who aren’t lawyers. I also bowl in a league. Fifth, and this is important, your family and emotional health come before the practice of law, period. Yes, sometimes you need to be able to work even if there’s an emergency, and even if you’re sad, but if you find yourself missing more events than you’re making, or constantly sitting alone, you’re doing it wrong.
Related Story Time:
Years ago my father worked for a big firm. At the end of the year, he was comparing bonuses with another associate who had logged a couple hundred more hours than dad. The other associate said “I made $X,XXX more because of that!”
Dad’s response was “Yeah, but I got to spend 200 extra hours with my wife and kids. That’s a good trade.”
At the end of the day, we need to remember that the practice of law is a profession, but it is not a holy calling. We are lawyers by choice, but we are human by nature, and we all need to make sure we make time for ourselves, our health, and our families. We need to decompress, we need to unwind, and we need time to do something other than sleep, shit, shower, shave, practice law, and sleep again.
With that said, will someone please bar Captain Eyebrows from the Slack Channel on the weekends? I want him to still be practicing in two years and not be a bitter, fat, older lawyer…like some people who shall remain nameless.