Mental Health and Work/Life Balance

Living Well in the Legal Profession

Doug was an Associate at my first law firm. Martin was our boss.

Just after lunch on my first Friday at the office, Doug said to me, “Any minute now Martin is going to come into my office with a file that absolutely, positively, has to be completed by Monday morning. He does this every Friday to be certain that I have to work on the weekend. He must tell the clients to hold off on giving us files until Friday morning.”

Sure enough, Martin arrived shortly afterwards with urgent files for both Doug and me.

With the expectation that I work most evenings and weekends established, I learned that I had to squeeze life in around my job, and I made all of the required adjustments to the expectations that I may have otherwise had for other areas in my life.  My passion for skiing was an early sacrifice, as was my squash game and fitness regime. It was essential that I have a full-time nanny for my children. I hired people to do all sorts of stuff for me because most of my time was needed for my job.

When I reflect on my legal career, I can now see that this first tragic lesson was the foundation for much of my subsequent misery.

If I could do it all again, I would take the exact opposite approach. I would start by deciding what type of life I would like to have and then figure out what type of work I could do that would permit me to have that type of life.

Presumably, there will be some trade-offs to be made. Perhaps I would have to give up some money and prestige if I really wanted to have time to take care of my physical and mental health. Or maybe I would have decided that I could make do with less intellectual stimulation from doing cutting-edge work if it meant that I would have had time to nurture my personal relationships. It is possible that I would have had to start my own law firm if I wanted more control over my schedule. Or possibly choosing a less stressful area of practice might have allowed me to sleep better at night.

Yogi Berra is credited with having said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” 

When I started practicing law, I just went where Martin told me to go.  Later I went where my clients and partners told me to go.  I really had no particular destination in place other than a vague notion that I was pursuing success in the legal profession, defined as earning more and more money. It is hardly surprising that I ended up someplace other than happy and healthy.

I recommend that people starting off in the legal profession do the opposite of what I did.  Start by defining success in your personal life. Then figure out what you want to do professionally that does not conflict with your definition of success.

Good luck!  The legal establishment will fight you every step of the way.

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