It’s difficult working in and managing a high-intensity workplace. In the legal profession, the expectation that lawyers will be available around the clock has never been stronger, as firms do whatever they can to retain clients. Lawyers get to the office early, stay late, work weekends, are routinely contacted by both partners and clients to fulfill last-minute requests (whether reasonable or not), and remain tied to technology 24/7. Lawyers must manage these demands while also servicing clients in a constantly changing and evolving profession.
Daily recovery from work is crucial to maintain high levels of well-being, performance and resilience. Recovery from work is defined as the process by which a person’s functioning returns to pre-stressor levels and work-related strain is reduced. It’s not enough to go home and take a break. Optimal recovery is a combination of both internal recovery—the short breaks you take while you’re at work every day and external recovery—how you spend your time after work, on the weekends, and on vacation.
Law Firm Culture Can Undermine Recharging
Unfortunately, the “ideal worker” standard—the creation of our modern day workplace where people are expected to be totally dedicated to their jobs and always on call—gets in the way of recharging. To be an ideal worker, “people must choose, again and again, to prioritize their jobs ahead of other parts of their lives: their role as parents (actual or anticipated), their personal needs, and even their health,” Erin Reid and Lakshmi Ramarajan wrote in “Managing the High Intensity Workplace,” published in Harvard Business Review.
One respondent to a survey of more than 400 lawyers who have left at least one legal employer said, “I was missing out on a lot of life to make my billable hours requirement. To retain me, the firm would have had to totally rethink its business model and do away with a culture of billable hours and bravado.” Many firms have implemented flexible work policies, but the success has been mixed. According to this same survey, nearly 74% of lawyers who said they tried working part time felt stigmatized in some way. In addition, hours worked often exceeded agreed-upon thresholds. The survey responses also suggested that project-based work—being allowed to work on projects on an hourly basis—would have helped firms retain lawyers.
The Way Lawyers Live Today Requires Recharging
Failing to recharge your batteries on a daily basis can take a toll on your mental and physical health, and technology use only makes the problem worse.
1. Technology Helps and Harms
If you had a choice between breaking a bone or breaking your phone, which would you pick? Would it surprise you that 46% of people who responded to this question said they would prefer to break a bone! What’s more, this was not an easy decision for the other 54% of respondents—they agonized over it. In a recent 60 Minutes episode, experts explained that when you hear a ping or feel the buzz of an incoming text or email and can’t check it, you feel stressed. Even when you can’t hear or feel those signals, people feel uncomfortable if they can’t check their devices on a regular basis. Your body responds to each of those micro-moments by shooting out a little bit of the stress hormone cortisol. That’s not a bad thing until it happens hour after hour, day after day.
2. Daily Stress and Coping with “Addicted to Busy”
One study investigated whether levels of negative emotion people experience along with how they respond to everyday hassles had long-term health implications. Researchers asked participants to assess whether any of the following types of stressors had occurred in the past 24 hours: an argument, a situation where the participant could have argued but decided to let the issue pass, a problem at work, a problem at home, a problem in the participant’s social network, or any other experience that occurred that most people would consider stressful but which wasn’t one of the other five categories. Ten years later, the participants completed an interview. What they discovered is that the way these participants reacted to everyday stressors and hassles predicted changes in mental health outcomes across the 10-year span. The chronicity of frequent negative emotion and the inability to process everyday stress takes a toll on your mental health.
In another study, researchers found that both the frequency and perceived intensity of daily hassles showed a significant relationship with overall health, a relationship that was stronger than the relationship provided by major life events. Both the frequency and intensity of day-to-day hassles were associated with illness.
New research in the area of chronic stress reveals that it actually ages us down to the cellular level. Telomeres (tee-lo-meres) are repeating segments of noncoding DNA that are housed at the ends of your chromosomes. If you want a good visual, telomeres look like the plastic tips on the ends of your shoelaces, and their function is to keep your DNA safe. Telomeres shorten each time your cells divide and they help determine how fast your cells age. Interestingly, your telomeres can be lengthened or shortened, making aging a more dynamic process than previously thought – a process that can be accelerated or slowed. While we will all get older, how we age is very much connected to our cellular health. If you’re interested in how this process works, your goal should be to have more days of cell renewal than wear and tear.
One of the strongest barriers I’ve encountered in my work teaching resilience to lawyers is their deeply rooted belief that they cannot take any time to recharge; yet the most successful lawyers I’ve met have all figured out how to manage their energy in a way that doesn’t involve large doses of caffeine, sugar and alcohol. Here are five strategies that will help you recharge.
1. Say “no” in a different way.
Lawyers who consistently say no in an ideal worker culture will eventually pay a price; however, these strategies from Dr. Adam Grant will help you to say no while preserving your professionalism:
The Deferral: “I’m swamped right now, but feel free to follow up.” With this strategy, you don’t close the door, but you let the person know you can’t respond at this time. If you truly want to help fulfill the person’s request, make sure to include a specific date or time for them to reconnect.
The Referral: “I’m not qualified to do what you’re asking, but here’s something else.” You can be of service by connecting the person with someone else or other helpful resources.
The Introduction: “This isn’t in my wheelhouse, but I know someone who might be helpful.” According to Grant, “introductions are the gift we love to receive but forget to give.”
The Triage: “Meet my colleague, who will set up a time to chat.” Delegate the initial conversation to a trusted colleague who can than help you evaluate next steps.
The Batch: “Others have posed the same question, so let’s chat together.” You can facilitate the development of a community around a shared or common interest.
2. Take an energy audit.
Do you even know how you’re spending your energy each day? Many people find that they spend an inordinate amount of time on tasks and with people that drain their energy. This is one of the first exercises I do with my workshop participants – I have them track what drains their energy at work and outside of work and what builds their energy at work and outside of work.
3. Tame the Zeigarnik effect.
The Zeigarnik effect, named for the researcher who discovered it in the 1920s, refers to your tendency to ruminate about all of the unfinished tasks you didn’t complete, which for lawyers can be endless. I feel a quick jolt of accomplishment every time I cross something off of my to-do list, and now I know why. One way to lessen the impact of the Zeigarnik effect is to keep a pad of paper on your desk and do a “brain spill.” Whatever you’re stewing about, put it on paper. This simple strategy relaxes your brain so it can focus on the task at hand.
4. Use technology to your benefit, but…
Every day, 183 billion emails are sent and received around the world, and one-third of U.S. workers report replying within 15 minutes of receiving a work email, and 75% reply within an hour. One study found that people experienced reduced stress when they were assigned to limit the number of times they checked their email, and the reduction in stress translated into higher overall well-being and higher self-perceived productivity and sleep quality. Most lawyers I know can’t turn off their email, but there are specific apps that you can download to help you manage overworking. The app Moment tracks your frequency of automatic phone use; Happify delivers science-based activities to increase emotional well-being; and Headspace offers guided meditations and mindfulness strategies.
5. Limit tech use with the “butt-brush effect.”
The “butt-brush effect” is an example of a stopping rule, a cue in your environment that gets you to stop something. In the 1990s, psychologist Paco Underhill was asked by shopping store owners to help them identify why people suddenly stopped shopping. Underhill noticed that when strangers brushed up against each other, they left the store. The shoppers couldn’t explain their behavior, but the “butt brush” served as a cue to stop shopping and move onto something else.
The legal profession is stressful and it’s changing. To meaningfully sustain your career, your health and the relationships you hold most dear, you must carve out time each and every day to recharge. It’s no longer optional.
About the Author
Paula Davis-Laack is a former practicing lawyer and is an internationally recognized counselor, writer and speaker on resilience and stress reduction. Contact her on Twitter @pauladavislaack.