“Work is just relentless. I’m exhausted and getting more and more inefficient”.
That’s a message I received last week from a barrister friend. She isn’t a client but she is fairly typical of my friends and former colleagues. She went on to explain how she just needs to get through X weeks to have 1 week off and then another few weeks before a longer break.
The very clear underlying message was that there will be no time for her in between (although there would be time for her to be a mum – some things are non-negotiable).
The rule, rather than the exception
I get messages like the one above a lot – partly because a lot of my friends are barristers or solicitors.
But also because, for many specialisms, work has only increased during the pandemic whilst support systems have been harder to access.
From the very informal support system of venting to a colleague at the kettle to the more formal catch-ups or appraisals – I hear time and time again that they went AWOL at the start of the pandemic and haven’t yet returned.
I suspect the impact of this is multiplied for lawyers – from the self-employed cocoon of the barrister to the solicitors, fee earners and legal executives putting their clients (and their targets) first.
The ever-cancelled coffee
The friend quoted above isn’t even in a place to put forward a date to meet up – a date which we could, and probably would, then cancel.
But I’ve had coffees or lunches with more optimistic barrister friends cancelled 3 times in the last fortnight.
If the person I’m meeting is a practising lawyer then the arrangement comes with a rebuttable presumption that it will be cancelled and re-arranged at least once before it happens. More likely 2 or 3 times.
Time and time again, the work comes first. Which is all very well until it’s health and well-being that fall down the priority list.
And, of course, overwork in the legal profession isn’t new.
From the focus on time-based billing which still prevails in many places, to the culture which seems to reward 3 a.m. emails rather than seeing them as a cry for help, the environment seems tailor-made to foster a lack of balance.
My over-working habit as a barrister.
In the interest of full disclosure, I had a serious over-working habit too.
• I can remember crying in toilets at court (see here for what I learned from that) and a particularly traumatic breakdown in Manchester Airport on the way to a friend’s 40th (that was triggered by the complex rules on taking Absolut Tropical to Portugal – don’t ask me to explain. I didn’t even understand it then).
• A well-meaning colleague once advised me that it is no bad thing to cry in front of the clerks because they will then see how close to breaking point you are. To my shame, I have subsequently passed that advice on to others.
• I once had a conversation with a colleague in which I confessed that I had no toothpaste or coffee in the house because I had had no time to get to the shops. Instead of wise counsel about reducing or managing my caseload, I received advice about getting some domestic help in.
Leaving the bar (but keeping the tin)
I also ended up leaving, not quite on the spur of the moment but after snapping when one too many weekends were cancelled.
I also had a 6 month notice period so I can assure you that it was a very well considered decision by the time I came to leave. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it. No doubt you’ve heard the expression “leap and the net will appear”?
The clerks and some colleagues do still ask whether I will be coming back and, as a profession, I am far enough away now to recognise that it has a lot going for it; it has many bits that I miss.
And whilst I love what I now do a lot more than I loved the law (so, no I won’t be going back), I do sometimes wonder what might have happened in a parallel universe.
Could it have ended differently?
This is not a blog to persuade you to leave the bar, or your firm. It’s a blog to tell you what I wish I’d known before I did.
That there is a different way to work. And that by getting off the treadmill for a short time to make conscious choices, you can make some small changes which could make a big difference.
The small changes:
Firstly, my anonymous friend above is right when she recognises that over-work breeds inefficiency.
You can’t possibly be productive at an elite level constantly.
And the less efficient you become, the busier you will be – everything will be harder and take longer.
So pause. Stop. Resolve to do less but do it more efficiently. You will need to pause to create a plan but it can be done.
Give yourself 30 minutes and a notebook – or, even better, walk for 30 minutes and come back to the notebook.
Get your thoughts onto the page without editing or judgment and see what solutions present themselves.
It might be that you do need some help around the house, that you can delegate other tasks, recruit support or close the door to new work. Only you will know what is right for you or your firm at that time but you won’t be able to access that wisdom if you never have time to think.
If you are the kind of person who responds well to boundaries (or if your clerks are) can you fix upon a new working routine (8am until 6pm and no more), or can you block days out either as holidays or to catch up on paperwork AND make those bookings set in stone. (“Away away” is the phrase you are looking for, if I remember correctly).
If it was up to me, I would also add in that every time you work out of those hours (evenings or weekends) you book time off to compensate – give yourself time off in lieu.
But I recently caught up with a barrister friend who very proudly stated that he now finishes work at 8pm (not a minute later) and only does 6 days a week and he was pleased as punch with that.
So I will pick my battles. No part of my coaching philosophy has me telling you what to do.
But, if you can build in pausing – even sitting and doing nothing for 10 minutes (set a timer) I am sure that you will soon notice an improvement in your ability to strategise and, therefore, your ability to cope.
Nothing good happens when racing at 90mph.
2. Choosing, delegating and saying “no”
Ask yourself this – again preferably with a notebook – Are you doing the sort of work you want to do? And, if not, why not?
Are you following the path you want to follow, or the one that family or colleagues expect from you? When did you last check that that was the case?
Our Own Worst Enemy
It is very easy to get into the habit of saying yes to everything. And common for lawyers to persuade themselves that if they say not to “this” then they will almost certainly never work again.
Allow me to let you in on a secret – that won’t happen. I promise. Sue me if it does.
The next bit is not original, but it is true as far as I know – this is not a dress rehearsal.
If you don’t take the steps to create the home and professional life that is right for you then
- nobody else will
- you don’t get to go back and do it all again.
You don’t have to do what you’ve always done. You have choices. Make them good ones.
So, take some time to tune into what it is you really want to do and, maybe, what it is you really want to change.
And, for many, that will mean getting rid of the work you don’t like and focusing more on the parts that light you up. That could mean distinguishing by size and complexity of case, taking on more managerial responsibilities (or offloading them), changing area of law or thinking about a more senior position, possibly on the bench.
Another promise – you will find it much easier to have the difficult conversation, to say no, and to delegate tasks that could be better dealt with by others, if you are doing so with purpose, rather than continuing down an accidental path.
3. Asking for help
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”
I love this proverb. I come back to it time and again in coaching when I see clients make a change which was all them, but that they hadn’t done before they had entered coaching for whatever reason.
Sometimes coaching helps you find out what the solution is so that you can then go and implement it. Sometimes you have had the solution all along and just needed either a confidence boost or, perhaps, some accountability to push you into action. So you do, one way or another, go further together.
And the proverb has a much wider application as well.
You don’t have to do this all yourself. Whether “this” is making decisions, creating a strategy for your career path, or learning to say no – there is strength in numbers.
So, build your tribe – find colleagues, friends and mentors who can provide a fresh perspective (and remember that mentors don’t have to be more senior than you – there is a lot to be learned from younger generations).
My experience is that people love to help and, rather than it turning you into a burden, being asked for help can be a fulfilling and rewarding experience for that other person. Maybe you’re the one doing them the favour. They will almost certainly learn something too, just by lending you a supportive ear.
If you think that asking for help is a sign of weakness, it’s time to think again.
But there is more to “going far together” than just asking for help. There is a real benefit to building a supportive network so that you can bounce ideas off each other and celebrate each other’s successes.
Time out of the busy day for coffee, or a meal with someone who could become part of that network is never wasted, in my view (but, as the queen of the cancelled coffee, I guess I would say that).
Making a change
I know that the run up to the summer holidays is often a bad time for lawyers. The rush to complete everything before the holidays is probably second only to pre-Christmas madness, so I will finish with another promise – it doesn’t have to be like that.
You don’t have to race from one crisis to the next, gaining plaudits for being busy.
Be more selective, be more purposeful and free up more time to enjoy life alongside work, without taking the drastic step of leaving your profession.
I work with lawyers who want to change their professional loves for the better, so if you need any help, I’d be very happy to chat to you about your options.
Finally, I am going to start group coaching sessions where lawyers can help each other with some of the issues in this article so if you want to be kept informed of those future events, please sign up to my mailing list.