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March 12, 2014
Yesterday, I posted comments about the State Bar’s lawyer assistance program (WisLAP) for members. However, there are other work/life stresses that do not fall into categories covered by WisLAP, but which can lead to burnout or job dissatisfaction. It is important to address these issues before they lead to more serious concerns.
A friend of mine, lamenting the life routine we seem to fall into, once e-mailed me the lyrics to a song titled “Something More.” The song was apparently a country music hit, and the lyrics address how a typical weekday induces dread, burnout and feeling unfulfilled by the demands of work and home. Of course, I responded to this thoughtful message like any friend would – I seriously questioned why he was listening to country music.
But after my sarcasm subsided, I started thinking about how everyone feels unfulfilled at times because of work, family commitments, money, or the fact that he/she is the only one not starring in a reality television program. This dissatisfaction is not unique to lawyers. Yet, attorneys are certainly at risk because of the stressful nature of the profession and because many find it difficult to alter their perhaps not-completely-satisfying careers.
One way to ward off professional and personal burnout is to reinvent yourself every few years. Reinventing yourself does not necessarily require wholesale life changes. Introducing some new focus or purpose can transform those daily doldrums into that “something more” that makes you look forward to the days and weeks.
The new personal aspiration can be fairly modest – start playing tennis; learn a foreign language; or take those piano or voice lessons you’ve always talked about. Alternatively, the new resolve may be something work related but new to you – perhaps taking on a legal project outside your current niche that requires you to learn some new aspect of the law (a pro bono project, maybe). You will be surprised at the impact such modest diversions can have on your morale.
Here are a few reasons for dissatisfaction, and strategies to reinvent and refocus(1)
It is common to approach work by performing a sort of periodic triage, where the most pressing client/work matters get attention first. This approach carries over into personal lives. Unfortunately, new work emergencies tend to arise before the to-do list is finished, and the personal items are left at the bottom of an endless list.
Furthermore, when lawyers do get around to addressing non-work matters it is often to focus on neglected family or significant others. In the end, no time is left for the individual. And while some successful reinventions may include an activity with a significant other or involve a re-dedication to family activities, such as being a soccer mom or dad, I caution that many of these activities may be satisfying but do not always address an individual’s needs (and the stress of these activities can actually contribute to burnout). To overcome the risk of always coming last, consider finding some specific, individual interest.
There is a reluctance to make time for personal matters because the axiom, “time is money,” is so often literally applicable for lawyers. Even outside private practice, work demands and office politics are emphasized over personal lives.
It takes a personal commitment to get over the peer pressure, but in virtually all instances production will increase rather than decrease in the long run if you take some time for yourself. More importantly, quality of life will increase. And taking time for one personal activity on a regular basis is unlikely to throw your universe out of whack, no matter how full your schedule may be.
Lawyers are trained to show no weaknesses, actual or perceived. It may be acceptable to engage in small talk with clients or attorneys by discussing the Green Bay Packers’ potential defensive woes this year. On the other hand, the same tenaciousness may not be perceived if you volunteer thoughts on the best romantic comedies of the last 20 years.
Even if it were socially acceptable to debate whether Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are the best romantic tandem since Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan (or even Tracy and Hepburn, for us old movie buffs), lawyers still have to convince themselves that acknowledging personal feelings is acceptable. Attorneys are analytical, and many people with this trait are uncomfortable with their own emotions and needs.
Take baby steps, if necessary, when you first start being personally attentive. Don’t commit to big self-improvement projects or tasks that require substantial time. Instead, pick something more limited that you know you will enjoy.
This advice for reinventing yourself may seem somewhat simplistic. In fact, many problems do require more attention or outside support — such as addiction, anxiety or depression, or deteriorating personal relationships, which is why WisLAP is there to help.
But if you are in a rut primarily because you keep putting yourself last, then I encourage you to reinvent yourself and add some personal fulfillment to your professional focus. So, search for “something more” from life by joining that RomCom fan club, writing your memoirs, or becoming lead singer in your new garage band. Although if you choose a garage band I do have one request — please, please sing something other than country music songs.
(1) See Keeva, Steven, Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life (1999), and Take Care of Yourself, ABA Journal (12/04) for an analysis of the factors similar to those summarized in this article.
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