For many lawyers, the terms lawyer and wellness may seem contradictory. Long hours and demands of clients and colleagues can make balancing career and life a struggle. Life often loses. As I recently learned, that trade-off can be life-threatening.
Lawyers must, at times, work long-hard hours. Stress is a part of the game. As lawyers, we tend to believe that we must be “on” all the time. We must take every call; we can’t delay any engagement with a client or partner. But not taking care of yourself as a lawyer puts your life at risk, which isn’t good for you or your clients.
There is another way to look at your work and life that will improve both by bringing wellness and legal practice in line with one another. The stakes are high: I am talking about your life.
In this post, I share my story, talk about the wellness challenges in law, and give you some advice for improving your wellness.
How I narrowly avoided tragedy in a day (without losing a client)
My doctor prescribed a colonoscopy. That sounded unpleasant and like a very unnecessary interruption to my busy schedule. From the day of prep to anesthesia, I would not be in top condition to serve candidates or firms.
It seemed like a bad idea. My mother insisted I do it. And, since I am not a teenager, I listened.
I had the entire procedure, the prep, the day of the recovery – everything – planned. Then the calendar shifted. Important meetings came up right in the middle of my expected brain fog.
So, I had to make a decision. I was working on a big deal, big for me, life-altering for the candidate I was helping. I wanted it to be right. I wanted to be responsive. I wanted everyone to be happy.
I was on the verge of putting off the procedure when my family stepped in again. I kept the appointment.
It is a good thing I did.
That moment of choosing to take care of yourself is tough. It isn’t just the expectation of service; I (and I imagine you) enjoy serving my clients and candidates. I relish their success. It is what keeps me going. Jeopardizing that for an unpleasant scan that I was sure would do nothing more than make me uncomfortable seemed like a terrible idea.
However, that unpleasantness revealed cancer, real colorectal cancer that affects 4% of the population. I had it; the doctors were 100% sure.
They had discovered it early, very early. A few weeks later, I went in for surgery, and they eradicated the cancer. Recovery wasn’t fun, but I am cancer-free, face no chemotherapy, and am healthy.
The question lingers in my head: what if I had delayed? What would this have been like six months or a year from now?
And how many of my colleagues are walking around right now with early cancer that can be detected and cured now, but that would be much worse later.
The fallacy of delaying your well-being in the interest of clients.
There is a good probability that you are behind in checkups and screenings. Many of us are.
The reason we often give ourselves and others is that the needs of the clients come first. We don’t want to make ourselves less available. We want to support our clients in every way possible.
Concern for a candidate and the deal we were working on almost kept me from my life-saving scan. I thought that I’d lose the deal for sure.
But I didn’t; I did what I could, we put off what we had to, and the deal went through. The candidate is happy, the law firm is happy, and I am happy and healthy.
Of course, clients want you available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Nobody asks for the inconvenience of your unavailability.
But they also want you to be healthy. If it is inconvenient for you to be unavailable for a checkup or a screening, how much more inconvenient would it be if you died?
And even if it isn’t death you risk; routine screenings prevent more significant issues.
A dentist visit today that results in a filling prevents an extended root canal later. This is better for you and your clients.
Law is not known for its focus on wellness, and while that is changing, you will have to take the initiative.
The truth is that most lawyers (and law firms) struggle to make time for attorney wellness. There are inherent pressures in the profession that can make focusing on wellness difficult:
- Answering to a lot of people. From partners to clients to judges, lawyers are routinely expected to meet others’ expectations.
- The adversarial nature of legal practice can also lead to mental and emotional challenges. It’s a profession that involves constant conflict, with opposing sides pitted against one another. While this is often part of the allure of the profession, it can also be draining.
- Long hours and demanding work – preparation takes time, and it is often combined with deadlines. This means that taking time for good meals or trips to the gym feels unrealistic, so we skip the workout and rely on unhealthy sustenance to get by.
As challenging as it may seem to make time, long-term wellness is essential for firms and individuals.
Firms are realizing that investing in a robust wellness program is essential to a firm’s overall productivity. Especially in this tight labor market, large firms are taking notice and innovating ways to improve the working environment for their team.
Solo practitioners face the challenge of time off, resulting in lost revenue but still benefit from the trade-off of less time off today versus more time tomorrow. Finding balance is crucial. Often, the search for support, a team, and the right resources motivates solo practitioners to join big law firms.
No matter what resources your firm provides, the ultimate responsibility for your wellness lies with you. No program or concept will help you unless you take action yourself.
How you can decrease stress and increase wellness in your legal life
- Exercise. Maybe a daily visit to the gym is unrealistic, but a recent study showed that just 150 minutes of exercise a week could have a significant impact. Make some time for a walk during the day, get an exercise bike, and ride it for a few minutes in the morning while catching up on headlines. Walk to the printer, take the stairs, and find ways to build movement into your daily routines.
- Nutrition. Lawyers are busy, and healthy eating takes longer than fast food. But choosing the salad over fries can be a start. Or maybe stop by the grocery store (on the walk you take at lunch to get more exercise) and pick up some fruit.
Isn’t one more healthy meal a week better than none?
Eating healthier doesn’t have to be complicated; you know what is healthy and what isn’t, start with minor changes, and build from there.
- Permit yourself to relax. Sometimes, we simply need permission to relax. After all, your well-being is one of the few irreplaceable things in life, so permit yourself to put it first. If you struggle with relaxation, mental health, relationships, or stress, you may consider reaching out to a mental health professional.
- Make time for social connection. It is essential that you socialize with people outside of the law firm. This breeds healthy, happy relationships, which increases your overall quality of life.
- Get screened. Take the time to go to the doctor, the dentist, or the therapist. Get the colonoscopy or mammogram that you have been putting off. Get your checkup. A small investment of time and discomfort now can save you a lot of time, pain, and suffering in the future.
Wellness isn’t about making one massive change and suddenly transforming your life. Make small changes over time; one healthy choice today is better than not having made that choice.
Small steps over time will help you build a more sustainable lifestyle and career for the future.
Your wellness is in your hands
The legal profession is stressful, busy, and time-consuming. That is both the allure and the risk. Firms are finding ways to integrate wellness into their way of working but making daily decisions to support your well-being depends on you.
The passion for my candidate that led me almost to skip my life-saving colonoscopy came from me, not anybody else. And it was my perception, not reality, that nearly led me to put my life on the line.
Clients want you to be available, but they need you to be alive. They need you to be at your best.
So, I would like to encourage you to take time for yourself. I implore you to learn from my experience and get screened, get the checkup, and take care of yourself. You, your clients, and your firm should want this.
If you happen to work at a firm that will not allow you to take care of yourself, it is time to switch. Let’s talk about finding the right firm for you.