No one has to tell you that lawyers have some of the busiest, most stressful jobs out there.
Law school was difficult and left you with very little free time, but it has nothing on the time-suck of actually practicing law. The long, often unpredictable hours coupled with high stress and anxiety about billing enough hours or being on the partner track leaves many lawyers with little time or energy for socializing with friends or spending romantic time with partners. Just how are you supposed to stay on top of the game at work while not losing touch with your friends, family, and significant other?
Your Social Life Is Important to Your Health
The benefits of having a robust social life are well-known and scientifically proven. Those benefits include:
- Better physical health
- Better mental health
- A lower risk of dementia
And of course, an emotionally balanced, mentally healthy, well-rested lawyer will be much better at her job than one who hasn’t had a drink with friends, dinner with family, or spoken to anyone she doesn’t work with in six months.
The Consequences of Social Neglect Can Be Especially Dire for Lawyers
Lawyers are notorious for suffering from higher levels of anxiety and depression than people in other professions, as well as improperly using alcohol and drugs to cope with stress. Law firms are also notorious for not adequately addressing these issues, mostly ignoring them, and treating them as a normal part of the job. Indeed, being stressed out and overworked is often a weird badge of honor for young attorneys.
The health consequences of constant stress, anxiety, and depression are many: sleep disturbances, weight gain or loss, difficulty concentrating, lethargy, muscle weakness, eating disorders, obsessive thoughts, heart palpitations, addictive behaviors, and ultimately burnout. And that’s not even getting into the damage done to personal relationships—friendships that slowly disappear and romances that fall apart. Sound scary? It is! Luckily, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Stay in Contact During the Workday
Don’t underestimate the usefulness of texting or video calls to help you feel connected to the people you care about and your life outside of work. Eating lunch “with” your girlfriend through Skype or FaceTime can help to soften the blow of an 80-hour work week. Exchanging a few texts with friends throughout the day can help you feel less out of the loop. Yes, these things take a sliver of time out of your busy day, but remember the goal: To preserve your social life and ultimately, your mental health.
Hopefully, you take opportunities to get from behind your desk and move around a bit throughout the day. A great way to do that is to take a quick walk—also an excellent time for a call to your friends. As you stretch your legs and get some air, you can catch up, check in, or make plans.
Learn When and How to Say “No”
Exerting any control over your schedule working at a law firm can be difficult, especially for newer lawyers. You are at the mercy of senior partners and really, anyone who outranks you. No matter how efficient, focused, and hard-working you are, you will often end up with a pile of work on your desk as you try to escape the office and meet up with friends—and that pile may have just been put there five minutes ago with a casual “I need you on this deal and these need to be done by 9 a.m.” Just like that, you disappoint your friends by canceling once again.
Now here is where we blow your mind: You don’t have to agree to do 100% of the work thrown at you. Sure, you have to do most of it, but if you are known as a reliable, trustworthy worker who jumps in to help most of the time, you will build up enough capital to (respectfully, graciously, but firmly) decline on rare occasions. Refusing work, especially from a partner, can be terrifying, so practice a few times before you need to use it. Be sure your refusal includes thanking the requester for thinking of you, and unambiguous words such as “unable to do it” and “must leave by 8 p.m.” Don’t use words like “don’t think” or “not sure” and don’t apologize. If you have already made a name for yourself as a helpful go-getter, saying “no” once in a blue moon can work.
Sure, you may help someone out, but you will be infringing on your own valuable time and getting away from your focus on having a personal life.
Limit Working on Your Days Off
Ok, we all understand that doing zero work on the odd day off or during a vacation is not a thing that’s going to happen. But what can happen is putting a reasonable limit on what you do so that you can relax, enjoy your loved ones, and make the most of the time that you are not at work. Time off is pointless if you turn your living room or hotel room into an office.
It’s a great idea to take the occasional mental health day or three-day weekend. To pull off taking these days away, schedule them in advance and get your work done in the preceding week with the upcoming day off in mind. You’ll be able to firmly set limits and keep people from contacting you unnecessarily if you don’t leave a mess for those who will cover for you for the day. Set aside a short time in the morning and evening— “short” being the operative word here—to check email and make any necessary, quick calls— “necessary” and “quick” being the important words here—and that’s it. Don’t check email, make calls, or review documents periodically throughout the day. Your time away from the office won’t feel restorative if you are not fully present, so go ahead and spend the day site-seeing with your friend from out of town, visiting with your parents, or driving to your weekend getaway with your partner.
You also need to take real vacations. Reject the notion that going without a vacation for several years shows how dedicated you are to your job just as strongly as you reject a vacation consisting of working all day in a different location. Extended time off is necessary to prevent burnout, refresh your energy, and help you connect with the important people in your life. To achieve a reasonable vacation, meticulous planning is essential. Plan any vacations as far in advance as possible, periodically reminding partners and other colleagues as the dates approach. Spend the week before your vacation tying up loose ends and making sure people are lined up to cover for you. Your clients should also be made aware that you will not be in the office and will only be available for emergencies, but will be leaving them in good hands. And of course, don’t forget to set up an out-of-office message that includes your return date and directs them to who they can contact in your place. Then conduct your vacation just as you would a shorter time off—check email and make calls at set times at the beginning and end of the day, then go about enjoying yourself.
When you do get to spend time socializing outside of work, be sure to be fully present for whoever you’re with and whatever you’re doing. We’ve all been around someone who spends their entire dinner checking email and stepping away to take calls, annoying their companions and not enjoying themselves. Don’t be that person. It’s bad for your relationships and your time away from work won’t be at all refreshing. Practice mindfulness by paying attention to where you are, what you’re eating, the conversation you’re having—be in the moment. Your relationships will flourish because the little time you are able to spend socializing will truly have an impact, and not just be a frustrating period of being distracted by work while surrounded by other people having fun.
When’s the last time you took a three-day weekend to hang out with friends or take a short trip with your partner? If you’re overdue, make a day off to connect with the important people in your life a priority—schedule something fun in the next two months.