Nov 19. 2019
Work–life balance is essential to lawyer wellness.
This can be a real challenge when faced with the “extraordinary demands contemporary law places on its human capitol,” according to psychotherapist James Dolan.
As a lawyer, how can you maintain work–life balance? A quick check-in can help identify some areas where you may be at risk.
- Technology: Does it own you or support you?
The smart phone in your pocket means you are—in theory—always available to work. In a profession that “asks lawyers to make [work] their only priority,” constant access to technology makes it difficult to detach from work, which can be a real threat to your well-being.
Reliance on technology also contributes to an “epidemic of loneliness,” according to Dan Lukasik, founder of LawyersWithDepression.com. When you are dependant on technology for work, “opportunities throughout the day to have interactions or bond with people—those are taken away.”
- Personal relationships: Does your work infiltrate your private life?
Working in the law regularly involves a heavy workload, long working hours, and fatigue—things that can encroach into relationships with family and friends. Psychotherapist James Dolan suggests this can lead to work-induced alienation syndrome, something lawyers face when the demands of the job interrupt and take priority over personal time.
Wellness consultant Jarrett Green also warns lawyers “that the things that make you successful professionally can make you sick emotionally.” Litigators in particular may find that the things that make them successful in their careers—searching for fault and picking apart arguments—can adversely affect their personal relationships.
- Emotional investment in your work: Too much or not enough?
The demands of trying to help people—sometimes without success—can be a great source of stress. This has become known as compassion fatigue, which can result in lawyers who “feel alienated and anxious as their clients’ powerlessness transfer[s] to them.” Some lawyers find they cannot disconnect from their clients and take their problems home with them, which can trigger mental health issues and alcohol abuse.
In contrast, there can be a disconnect between your expectations of what a successful law career looks like and the everyday demands of the job. Clinical psychologist Tyger Latham suggests this can result in an existential crisis: you go into the law to hep people, but find the job is focused on competition, firm culture, and billable hours. This pressure can be compounded by the “pressure to cultivate a certain self-image and achieve a specific social standing.”
- Burnout: Are you getting to the breaking point?
Burnout can happen so gradually it may become chronic before you think to address the issue. Paula Davis-Laack, an expert on burnout prevention and resilience, identifies three key dimensions of burnout:
- exhaustion, a feeling of emotional depletion and loss of energy
- cynicism, a sense that nothing you do matters, leading to disengagement from people and activities you enjoy
- inefficacy, a decline in productivity even when you feel you are making a significant effort
Burnout can manifest in many different ways, according to Davis-Laack. Physical symptoms may include headaches, digestive issues, sleep problems and chest pain. Panic attacks, irritability, hopelessness and a need to be alone may also point to burnout.
Being a lawyer requires a large investment of time and energy, and the payoff can be rewarding. But if your work takes over your life, you may find your mental health at risk.
Take time for a wellness check-in by going through these four categories.
Consider what James Dolan suggests to lawyers: strive for “a life that includes law practice, not one that is law practice.”