Mental Health and Work/Life Balance

Band-Aids For Burnout

My partner Gordon used to travel to Florida each winter on vacation with his biggest client.

Gordon would pay for every meal for both families and submit for reimbursement from the firm.  When asked by the Managing Partner whether he had any friends who were not clients to vacation with, he answered rhetorically, “what better friend could there be than someone who helps me put bread on the table to feed my family?” 

I could never have done what Gordon did, because I needed my vacation to recover from being a lawyer. I routinely worked myself to the brink of exhaustion and then would go away to become human again. It seemed normal at the time, but it was not healthy.

I started practicing law shortly before cell phones became ubiquitous. At that time, when you were off, you were off. Of course, I still had to work very hard before I left to clear my desk, and just as hard when I got back to deal with everything that had accumulated during my absence.

I eventually figured out that I needed to take three weeks off to get a good vacation. The first week allowed me to ‘come down’ and begin to relax. The second week and a bit of the third were to have fun, and during the rest of it I would be nervous about what was awaiting me on my return. Of course it was somewhat unheard of for lawyers to be away that long.

I also found that I needed to be away at least every six months in order to avoid burn-out, although every three months would have been better. I had normalized the idea of working until I was unhealthy and then trying to recover my health by getting away. How sick is that?  And how many of you are doing the same thing?

Things are worse now.  I have heard of Associates being ordered to check and respond to their voicemail and email while they are away and to be on call for their supervising Partner.  Whether or not being available throughout your vacation is an official firm requirement, client and Partner expectations are often such that it has become a normal expectation.

Over time, I got better at taking vacations. I took longer and longer vacations, culminating with a six- week trip to Ecuador four years before I retired. I developed great clients who knew that they could call me when I was away if absolutely necessary but did so only rarely. I let clients know of my plans well before I left and scheduled their work to be done before and after my trips. I did not hesitate to delegate work to others to take care of while I was away. And most importantly, I accepted that I might lose a file or two because I chose to put my wellbeing first.

I am retired now, which is something like being on a permanent vacation. I will soon be leaving on a vacation from my vacation because I want to, not because I need to.

So here is the question – why is it acceptable for lawyers to work in a manner which makes a vacation a mental health requirement, and then have their firms ruin the experience anyway?

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