It’s been a long, hot summer, and we are dreaming of vacations. But vacation isn’t limited to summer—any time of year is a good time to think about taking a break to refresh. Nor is refreshing limited to vacations. It’s possible to pause and refresh for short or longer periods of time—it’s the quality of the time that counts when we think about giving ourselves a break. Sadly, lawyers, like many other professionals, take care of themselves last, and this plays out in our apparent inability to take a break to refresh. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, to be certain that we are attending to our own well-being, it shouldn’t.
The current situation
As lawyers we have been encouraged, subtly or overtly, to be proud of the number of hours we work and bill. This is particularly true in the medium-to-large firm environments, but the message has pervaded the legal profession. We should be happy when we work 70 hours a week; those who work fewer hours are somehow considered . . . well, less. The implementation of technology to make lawyers more efficient has not typically resulted in a corresponding reduction of work hours for lawyers; in the practice management world, we hear anecdotal stories about lawyers being able to take on even more clients/cases because technology has made them more productive. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear a lawyer share that they are taking more time for themselves, or for their families, because they have been able to streamline processes?
The solutions, or the beginning of the solution
In her new book, Positive Professional: Creating High-Performing Profitable Firms Through the Science of Engagement, Anne Brafford discusses the scientific support for encouraging recovery and rejuvenation. Well-established scientific evidence shows that persistent lack of sleep is dangerous to our physical and psychological well-being. By contrast, the time-honored tradition of a day of rest, at first relating to religious observance and later adopted by secular society, has an important and positive impact. By allowing our minds and bodies to rest, we return to our tasks refreshed and better prepared to dive again into the fray.
But don’t panic—recovery and rejuvenation can occur during the evening, a weekend, a vacation, but it may also occur during very short breaks. Aided by regular, high-quality sleep (yes, regular sleep and enough of it), short breaks may give lawyers the zip they need for the rest of the day or task, and thereby benefit both the lawyer and the client. Particularly for newer lawyers who may find their days and weeks dictated by partners, and therefore lack control over the way they spend so much of their waking hours, having autonomy to choose how to spend their personal time is important.
Other factors discussed in Positive Professional that help to encourage quality rest times are switching off mentally from thoughts related to work and the tasks at hand, engaging in deliberate relaxation exercises of meditation, and mastering new challenges or learning experiences.
The Pomodoro Technique—most visible by its branded tomato-shaped timer—is an organized way to incorporate relaxation into a daily time management routine. In its simplest form, it involves a cycle of short periods of focused concentration, interspersed with very short breaks. After working on a task for 25 minutes, you take a break for up to five minutes. This repeats throughout the day, with a slightly longer break every fourth break. The strict requirement, though, is that your intervals, either 25 minutes or five minutes, cannot be disrupted. Many apps are available to assist with the timing. The short breaks described in this method certainly fit the criteria for the micro-breaks described and recommended in the research discussed in Positive Professional.
Do you remember a time when the evening was your relaxation time? When you didn’t have work, personal obligations, or tasks to complete? Sure, we are adults with adult responsibilities that may include the more routine tasks required to keep a household or family going, and yes, it’s hard not to take work home when deadlines are pressing and clients are calling. It would, perhaps, be unduly optimistic to think that one might schedule time every evening to refresh. It is possible, however, to schedule time (longer than a five-minute break) several times a week to engage in some relaxing behavior. Anything from reading something enjoyable (but not work-related), to taking a bath, to setting aside some time to meditate can be the pause that refreshes. You are probably reading this saying, “Right, but, you don’t know about my life. I can’t do it.” The grit and determination that got you to this point in your life will certainly serve to implement this new habit if you will only give it a try.
Longer periods of rest
Let’s revisit the idea at the start of this article: vacations. It is possible for even the busiest lawyer to schedule vacation time. It will require planning in advance, and you may be a bit busier before you leave and when you return, but it is possible. You may prepare others for your impending time away from the office in many ways. In addition to more formal notifications to the court, or extensions of deadlines by agreement with opposing counsel, you may wish to create automatic email replies, information in your signature, or some auto-text you can easily insert into emails explaining that you will be unavailable for a specified period. Emails in advance to your clients telling them that you’ll be away, and giving them enough time to contact you before your departure with any issues they consider pressing, will help to ensure fires don’t erupt during your time away.
Do you have a colleague who will be able to step in if some truly urgent matter arises, perhaps as part of a reciprocal arrangement in which you will do the same for the colleague? The key is advance preparation and then the diligence to follow through. Depending on your area of practice (and perhaps the loyalty of your clients) consider a strict “no email, no voicemail” rule during your vacation, whether it’s a long weekend or a week or more. Don’t underestimate the refreshing nature of true time away; answering voicemails and emails while on vacation isn’t the same as getting a true break.
Science has confirmed what we’ve all guessed or known all along. We all need downtime, we all need a break from time to time. Even the most driven, passionate, and diligent lawyer needs some time to refresh and renew. Regardless of the way you decide to take a break, make sure you do take a break and give yourself the time to refresh.
About the Author
Roberta Tepper is the Lawyer Assistance Programs director for the State Bar of Arizona, where she advises lawyers on practice management and wellness. Roberta is the President of the Arizona Women Lawyers Association, serves on the ABA Law Practice Division Council and on the 2019 TECHSHOW Board. She may be reached at Roberta.Tepper@staff.azbar.org.