Work-life balance for the modern lawyer

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There are many self-help articles and books for every profession to assist with work-life balance, a trait that has never been more essential to service professionals like lawyers.

There are many self-help articles and books for every profession to assist with work-life balance, a trait that has never been more essential to service professionals like lawyers. In today’s smartphone society emails are treated more like instant messages, requiring immediate responses than the letters of old. In addition, the computer is always on your person, whether driving, at home or at work; while this allows for remote capabilities, it becomes much harder to “switch off.”  

There are many suggestions on how to improve mental health and achieve work-life balance — get more sleep, exercise and practise “mindfulness” — but very little in the way of how a lawyer is expected to accomplish this. A lawyer is expected to compete with client expectations, strict court or transaction deadlines, billing and docketing and senior reports — without being able to turn off at any hour or day of the week.

Many junior lawyers ask me how I have the time for my family, exercise, sleep and running a practice while also having time to volunteer, read books, write articles and make videos. I can point to many books that do a far superior job at explaining methods to accomplish this, backed by scientific evidence, but I wanted to provide a few strategies I’ve learned through experience that may assist lawyers (from articling students to those further along in their careers) in achieving a semblance of what many call work-life balance.  

The first strategy is what I will call “external training.” The reason there are so many outside pressures on a person’s time is that people expect immediate responses until they are “trained” to expect differently. If, for example, a lawyer wanted to set aside one 24-hour period a week to spend time with family on a weekend — say Saturday — they would simply not schedule meetings nor answer any emails or phone calls from external sources and even tell everyone they will have to wait until Sunday or business hours. Eventually, everyone knows that you will not be responsive on Saturday, and they must wait (I use Saturday for a variety of reasons but since banks, courts and most offices are closed, this is a good day to try this).  

This method also works in many other ways such, as short time increments. Some executives allot specific times in the day to answer all non-urgent emails that are building up throughout the day — an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. Thus, everyone will recognize that it is only at these times during the day they will get responses (this method works for many, but it does not fit my personal practice). Another popular method is to book “meetings” for specific times during the week for personal fulfillment like going to the gym. Again, everyone will know that for example, Thursdays at 9 a.m., you will not be responding due to a standing meeting. Nobody needs to know what this meeting is, only that the lawyer is unavailable. The “do not disturb” function on smartphones works quite well for this method.

I call this whole strategy “external training” because you are training other people externally to suit your internal timetable and well-being. Rather than be punished for this, third parties will respect you and your time. Note that society as a whole already accepts this during sleep hours as everyone agrees that the world is sleeping during night hours, offices are closed and correspondence will likely not be answered. As a result, society will accept the cutting off of certain days and times so long as they are trained to expect it. I won’t go into why family time, religion/mindfulness, exercise and sleep are important and should be fixed entities — they are self-evident, improve your decision making and make up the whole “life” part of the work-life balance you are trying to achieve with this entire exercise.

The counterargument to this strategy is that by taking time off to exercise in the middle of the week, there is now less time to complete all objectives and, as a result, your level of service and overall results will suffer. This is only true so long as the remaining time you have is not utilized properly, which leads to the next strategies below on how to do this. Keep in mind that I wrote the remaining time must be prioritized or put in order. Spending time on yourself, exercise, sleep and family are items that are fixed and nonnegotiable and might only leave one-third of the time in which to complete working tasks.

Prioritizing is extremely difficult to do well, with so many people clamouring for your time. Maintaining a proper agenda and calendar provides a bird’s-eye view of the items on your plate, but its main purpose is to then prioritize the tasks appropriately. All tasks that are your responsibility have different timelines — some are “due” immediately, others in a month. If you are not sure, ask — the client, your superior, whomever. Ask anyone how much time you have so that expectations can be set appropriately.  

But all things being equal, how can you know what task to prioritize? The simple (although unpopular) answer is money. After all, this is a major reason for working in the first place. Those tasks that get priority are those that earn you and the company you work for money at the end of the day. If there is a client who has money in trust and a client who does not, the client who has paid upfront for the service gets priority for your time versus a client who has not, even if they are providing more pressure. A regular client who is a large source of repeat business and referrals gets more priority than a one-off client. The same is true at a time when clients are scarce — time spent on sales, developing new clients and referrals get more priority than tasks that do not produce any money, but which must get done eventually, such as closing letters, memos, etc.

This is not to say that not every client deserves your time and attention or that non-revenue tasks are not required to be completed, but again, the purpose of this strategy is how to allocate your time appropriately. For articling students who are given many tasks, this is a very useful strategy because coming out of school, the collection of money is not emphasized but is a very real emphasis in private practice and is the ultimate reason for the tasks being provided. Procrastinating money-making tasks and sales in favour of easier administrative tasks is the most common mistake I see from every lawyer junior to senior, and I am guilty of the temptation of falling for it myself. 

A third strategy is delegation.  Everything can be delegated. Just as an Uber driver can pick up prepared food for you, a process server can serve a document, a third-party conveyancer can assist in a real estate transaction and an AI software can get a head start in drafting/editing a complex document. Many articling students that I mentor get bogged down in having too many impossible tasks: draft an entire share purchase agreement while closing a real estate deal and creating motion materials for a separate litigation matter. Resourcefulness counts whether you are a senior lawyer or articling student. You do not get extra points for the degree of difficulty of the project, only for speed and quality of service.

As I’ve written many times before, the value of a legal professional is not in the production of legal papers or memos but rather the quality of advice and thought that went into a customized solution. So, instead of spending hours checking a purchase agreement for spelling or format errors, ensure the statutory clauses are there and the business clauses relevant to the client have been thought through using software for the rest. So long as deadlines are met, the law is complied with and the client sees that their specific situation was thought through and was given service, everything else is a lower-level task that can be delegated to a software, a clerk, a remote assistant or even to the associate or student on the other side performing their same review.

To apply this to someone running a practice, all operational tasks, accounting and human resources can be delegated to hired resources or third-party firms so your time can be spent on high-paying clients and business development. As the owner and boss, it is your prerogative (and responsibility) to do so. There are times when work can get stressful and there are many competing due dates with equal significant priority, but these times should be temporary. The moment these times last more than 30 days, it is time for a change in your system.  

As mentioned before, there are many articles and books that can assist in providing strategies for work-life balance, including The 4-hour work week (Tim Ferris); Atomic Habits (James Clear); The One Thing (Gary Keller), The 80/20 Principle (Richard Koch); and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (Dale Carnegie), just to name a few. Investing some time into reading a few pages of any of these books or similar will hopefully provide infinite returns in work-life balance, leading to greater mental health, greater decision-making and a better modern lawyer overall.

This article was originally published by Law360 Canada, part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.


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