Mental Health and Work/Life Balance

Always Failing at Something

When I practiced law, I was fairly good at doing the many things that a lawyer has to do in order to deliver great client service. I always offered to meet at the client’s office. I listened carefully to the clients to ascertain their goals and concerns. I insisted that I work to a deadline and if the client did not volunteer a deadline, I prompted them to set one. I frequently made the deadline on Monday so if I got overwhelmed with work, I could finish the project up on the weekend. I almost always met my deadline, and on the rare occasion that I was having difficulty doing so, I would call and explain the situation and give the client options, such as having me work all night to meet the original deadline, extending the deadline or having an associate take over the project.

Clients knew that they could email or phone me at any time and I would usually respond within minutes or hours. When I could not respond quickly, I would forward the voicemail or email to my assistant and she would call the client and offer them choices, such as having me call the client in the evening or having an associate or partner call sooner.

I could do all of that, but not without sacrificing other things. More about that later.

On a separate but related topic, I used to tell clients who wanted good legal work done cheaply and quickly, that they had to be willing to make choices. They could have cheap and quick, but it would not be good. Or, they could have quick and good, but it would not be cheap. Cheap and good was rarely even a choice, but if it were, it would certainly not be quick.

I had a similar conundrum when it came to trying to do all of the things that were necessary to provide great client service, promote business, administer my practice, and take care of my physical and mental health. I could do any one of them, and sometimes two or three of them, but never all of them at the same time.

And for some twisted reason, I always chose to sacrifice the part about taking care of my physical and mental health. In fact, until my last three years of practice, I never did manage to devote a reasonable amount of time to such trifles.

The reason that during my last three years of practice I was able to devote sufficient time to my health is that I withdrew as a partner at my firm (thus lessening my administrative responsibilities), worked from home most of the time (thus losing the commute),  gave up on promoting business (since I was busy enough and I was planning to retire soon anyway), increased my delegation of things that I did not like doing (just because I could), and reduced my billable hours significantly (because I was finally choosing lifestyle over income).

In other words, I never took proper care of my health while I was a partner in a law firm and working the way that lawyers were expected to work. Bear in mind that I was in a suburban firm with a billable hour expectation that was downright reasonable compared to the expectations at the large Toronto firms.

It always seemed to me that the lives that lawyers live have parallels to the “quick, good or cheap” paradigm that I described above. Except that instead of “quick, good or cheap,” the parameters are “bill, administer, promote or take care of yourself.”

I saw many lawyers who could bill, administer their practice, and take care of their health, but not promote business. I saw others who could bill, promote, and stay healthy, but who were an administrative disaster. Then, there were some who could take care of themselves and perhaps promote but were not good at putting in billable time or administering their files.

You get the idea. Choices have to be made. It is a rare individual who can do all of the things that are required to keep their clients and partners (or employers) happy and still find the time to stay fit and happy.

All of this would be tough enough if it did not seem to be the mission of some lawyers to torture those whose strengths, interests or choices are different than their own.

For example, I knew a lawyer who was absolutely great at practicing a certain specialty within a medium sized firm. I will call him Martin. Martin’s work was excellent. His hours billed and collected were often the highest in the firm. He had virtually no work in process write-offs or bad debts. His client service was phenomenal. He was low maintenance in his inter-personal relationships and a pleasure to have around.

Although Martin’s client base was not the largest, it was respectable, and he kept himself busy and spun off some work for others as well. His client base was largely generated by personal referrals based on his excellent work and client service.

On the other hand, Martin disliked many aspects of business promotion, including public speaking or attending marketing events, and although he could ‘do lunch,’ he preferred to be back at the office working on files. As a corollary of working so hard, Martin was not much of a delegator. He always said that he would delegate when he was too busy to handle everything, but when he got busy he just put in more hours so the delegation rarely happened.

You would think that his partners would be thankful that they had someone like Martin in the firm and would leave Martin alone except to thank him for his contribution. But, no! They nattered and nattered at Martin over the years about his failings in marketing and delegation. (As an aside, one of his most vocal critics was a partner named Patricia who loudly celebrated all of her alleged marketing successes while criticizing Martin for his lack of marketing efforts. She made so much noise that few of the partners even noticed that Martin’s ‘billed and collected’ client base far exceeded Patricia’s, although Patricia’s marketing expenditures were 10 to 20 times those of Martin’s.)

Martin has been at that law firm for a very many years, but for oh so many of them, he has had to put up with others who think they know better about how he should run his practice, while not being nearly as productive as him.

I really wish that Martin’s case was the only example that I ever saw of lawyers devoting way too much time to criticizing their partners and associates as some form of twisted self-promotion.  It is not. It is one of many examples.

To summarize:   Practicing law is demanding. There are so many things to do to be successful, especially if you want to have a life and maintain your health as well. Few of us can do them all. Something has to give. We all make choices that work for us. It sure would be easier if people would respect each other’s choices.


My wife (and lawyer) Maureen McKay just read this and said that I have become quite the idealist in my old age. Then she said that it is amazing how easy it is to be an idealist when one does not have to operate within the system. It is possible that she was being sarcastic. Or envious.

2 replies on “Always Failing at Something”

From what I can see, the way to achieve all of these things is to be one of those people who naturally don’t require a lot of sleep.

Sleeping 4 rather than 6-7 hours a night frees up time for a workout, and having a meal with the family or reading to the kids before bedtime (before going back to work to squeeze in a couple more billable hours).

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