Mental Health and Work/Life Balance

Working To Be Relevant

I first met Lauren when he was a partner in a large Buffalo law firm which had a significant cross-border practice with an office in Toronto.  Lauren practiced business law, although by the time that I met him he was spending a great deal of time on business development.  His job involved significant travel between Buffalo and Toronto.  Lauren was also quite active in an international legal association and travelled internationally as well.

Within a few years, Lauren left the law firm that he was with and joined another U.S. law firm which was seeking to develop a cross-border practice.  He told me that he was looking forward to a new challenge.

There are lots of lawyers who work hard, so from that perspective there was nothing particularly unusual about Lauren.  What I did find unusual was that Lauren was still working that hard at 85 years old.

Two years later, when Lauren was 87 years old and I was in my early 60’s and already looking forward to retirement, I met with Lauren for lunch.  I asked him why he was continuing to work so hard at his age.  I found Lauren’s answer to be interesting.  He said: “If I stop working, I will cease to be relevant.”

Within the year following my lunch with Lauren, he collapsed in his office.  I am told that while the paramedics were treating him and strapping him to the stretcher, he was giving instructions on his files to his staff.  Unfortunately, Lauren did not make it.

Lauren died “with his boots on” as he wanted to.  I imagine that he had no regrets.

Since that time, I have retired in my mid 60’s after 40 years of practicing law, and I am delighted to have done so. Short of economic disaster, I cannot imagine ever practicing law again.  For me, being relevant through practicing law was nice, but eventually the accompanying stress was just not worth it.  I am finding other ways to try to be relevant, and to the extent that I fail at being relevant, that is okay with me.

I occasionally find myself thinking about the contrasting views held by Lauren and myself about the importance of our respective legal careers to how we saw ourselves.   People are different and I have only the utmost respect for Lauren and how he saw himself in this regard.  His career worked for him, and I know that he immensely enjoyed his travels and his network of international contacts, as well as his daily interactions with clients and other professionals.

While I also enjoyed aspects of my career, over time I came to value things outside of my legal career, such as reduced stress levels and having time to take care of my physical and mental health, to spend time with the people who I care about, to enjoy nature, and generally to enjoy a slower pace of life.

There are no rights and wrongs, of course.  Lauren may not have thrived if he had given up his career earlier, and I would likely have gotten sick if I had kept going with mine much longer.  I was delighted to call it a day after 40 years.

What I do find interesting is how many people in the legal profession define themselves by their careers as Lauren did, while not seeming to enjoy it the way that Lauren did.  It seems that for every Lauren who is thriving as a lawyer and would never want to give it up, there are many more who are continuing in their careers for other, less satisfying reasons that often have nothing to do with financial need.

I wrote this article a few months ago and then put it aside because I did not know how to finish it.  I thought that it made a valid point but to take it further seemed to have no purpose.  Looking at it again, I realize that in this regard it is much like my legal career was.  It was a valid way to live until it was not.

To everything there is a season, they say.  How many people, unlike Lauren, keep plugging away at their career after the season is done?

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