Lawyer Life: Is It Time to Rethink the Long Hours?

Long Working Hours

The legal world is infamous for its long work hours. Lawyers have a lot to accomplish in a day, and you can’t punt much of it to next week because next week will be busy, too.

While there’s undoubtedly a level of pride in putting in the time to do your work well, the practice of overworking day after day comes with real consequences, including mental health problems, addiction issues, and the physiological effects of long-term stress. Some lawyers even get so burned out that they quit their jobs.

However, there are certain measures you can take to address the symptoms of being overworked before matters come to a head.

The culture of long hours

First, it’s worth acknowledging that long hours are a common part of law firm culture.

We admire people who work hard, and many lawyers who have made partner put in a lot of hours to get there. But, once a lawyer is at that level, it can be hard for them to say that the younger lawyers in their firm shouldn’t work as hard as they did.

Additionally, lawyers often make money in accordance with the number of billable hours they work. As a result, many larger law firms ask their lawyers to meet minimum billable hour requirements. And even at medium-sized and smaller law firms, lawyers and partners often feel driven to make a certain amount of billable hours to keep their firm financially healthy.

Between billable hours and trying to accommodate client schedules, it’s easy to end up with a too-full schedule today, tomorrow, and next week.

Consequences

This level of being overworked comes with consequences. Evolutionarily, stress was a signal that something was wrong in our environment, and we needed to pay attention to it. Numerous physiological processes occur when we’re stressed out, but one particularly important one is releasing the hormone cortisol.

Cortisol suppresses certain daily body functions. The idea is that if you need to run away from a tiger, it would be helpful if your body put all its energy into running away—not digesting breakfast or letting your immune system function normally.

Today, however, that ancient hardwiring isn’t usually set off by a tiger—but it can be set off by stress at work. Specifically, the job that pays for your food and housing.

So when we’re operating on stress and adrenaline, we’re keeping our bodies in a state where our everyday health and system-balancing processes can’t do their thing. Even lawyers who are convinced they thrive on being busy or up against a deadline are susceptible to the physiological consequences of stress.

Different people handle stress in different ways. For some, the physiological consequences compound with other health problems. For others, stress may create or exacerbate mental health issues, such as anxiety. And still, others may develop a habit of having several drinks after work to speed up the transition into “relaxation” time.

In fact, a recent study showed that:

  • “21% of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers,
  • 28% struggle with some level of depression, and
  • 19% demonstrate symptoms of anxiety.”

Such numbers are concerning, to say the least.

Greater efficiency saves time

There are two solutions that lawyers can use in combating stress and overly long work hours.

First, lawyers can reevaluate how they spend their time. While there’s an argument that younger lawyers are slowly changing law firm culture by demanding a better work-life balance, that change won’t happen overnight.

But shifting how you approach your workday can have a real impact now. Start by looking for inefficiencies. Are you using a modern practice management system that offers fully integrated billing and accounting? If not, why not? Eliminating double data entry and the inevitable resulting human errors can streamline your workday. How about using a program that can run three-way reconciliation for you?

Likewise, are you doing tasks that you can delegate or outsource? For example, hiring a professional marketing company to write blogs for your website or manage your social media can be well worth your time.

Healthy practices are a lifelong investment

Second, begin building healthy habits now.

Consider:

  • Mindfulness meditation. Apps such as Insight Timer and Headspace offer guided meditations, but just five minutes of deep breathing with an old-fashioned egg timer can be a good start. Many meditation beginners benefit from having a little structure by counting their breaths up to ten and then starting over. It’s more challenging—and more rewarding—than it sounds!
  • Regular exercise. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends 150 minutes per week for “substantial health benefits.”
  • Healthy eating. Food is more than just fuel. What we eat affects our moods.
  • Keep up friendships and other social connections. Social connectivity improves health.
  • Plan time into your day to relax.

Any changes you make to your daily or weekly routine don’t need to be abrupt. It’s often easier to build up slowly. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments as needed, either. What you do doesn’t need to be the same as what worked for your neighbor.

Use tech to save time where you can and build up to a healthier lifestyle in your day-to-day. Even if you thrive on adrenaline, it’s wise to reduce stress where you can.

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