Many of us have heard the saying, “Being a great trial lawyer is a marathon, not a sprint.” In some important ways, this is true – we have to find ways to hang in there for the long run and not become burned out along the way. The long view makes a lot of sense: our professional lives are an accumulation of many years of work and continual learning. And yet in other ways, there are times that we need to be able to sprint – to immerse ourselves in out-of-state depositions or a lengthy trial schedule. So how do we do both of these while not becoming consumed with working around the clock in an unhealthy way that will not benefit anyone, even our clients, in the long run?
It is an important question, because unfortunately lawyers are in high stress jobs that leave them vulnerable to burnout and a frightening array of problems. The American Bar Association estimates that 15-20% of all U.S. lawyers suffer from alcoholism or substance abuse. Attorneys have the highest incidence of depression of any occupation. One study found that the death rate of suicide among lawyers is six times the suicide rate of the general population. Moreover, suicide is the third leading cause of death among attorneys, after cancer and cardiac conditions. In January 2014, CNN ran a story based on Center for Disease Control statistics that confirmed that lawyers come in 4th in the ranking of professions with the highest risk of suicide (after dentists, pharmacists and physicians). There are many causes & solutions to these horrible problems, but I’m going to focus now on one solution that everyone can do, whether or not they are facing these major challenges or just the everyday risk of burnout: commit to improving our work-life balance by exercising.
When I was in law school (25 years ago), one of the hot topics was how to find “work-family balance. “ This was an issue for everyone, but often came under the topic of issues for women lawyers more than for men. Now, many more people understand that “work-life balance” is probably a more inclusive term, because our lives and our time include more than just work and family, and it’s certainly an issue for men as well as women. In fact, the Harvard Business Review daily blog recently posted a summary of a book which supports the finding that above all else, exercise is the key to work-life balance. Instead of waiting to find time to exercise, people who exercise first tend to make the other priorities fall into place, and people feel happier and more productive in the process. Paradoxically, once you make time for exercise in your schedule, you feel like you have more time, not less, to do the important things, and you will probably accomplish more. This certainly resonates as true for me. It is one important piece of how I was able to serve as president of two organizations that are close to my heart within a 10 year period – the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys and the Massachusetts Bar Association – while practicing law full-time and raising four kids.
Whenever I feel a time crunch (a trial, a packed schedule of important depositions, a family stress), it is tempting to put everything else aside. But instead, I try to pay particular attention to scheduling time on my calendar to doing something active every day (my favorites are running, bicycling, kayaking, cross-country skiing and power yoga). I’m probably not ever going to do marathons, but I can run 7 miles on a good day. Now it’s enough of a routine that in a typical week, it is not hard to fit in the exercise that lets me think more clearly and reduce stress. The challenge comes in the weeks – like a sprint – when it’s inevitable that to do a good job, I have to put in a huge amount of time. Thanks to the Harvard Business review blog, I can now remind myself that I will be doing everyone (including my clients) a favor if I don’t stop exercising, because that’s probably when I need it the most.
Having the luxury of immersing ourselves in a case is wonderful, but also having the luxury of stepping outside of our long periods of intense concentration is hugely helpful. For those of us who are trial lawyers, we know that some of our best insights about human nature (which affect our decisions about witnesses, deposition strategy, experts and trial strategy) come when we are outside of the office – and they come even more often to me when I am running. I am a great believer that one of the reasons I love practicing law so much is that I can immerse myself in a case but not become a workaholic. It’s encouraging to meet more and more lawyers who understand the value of work-life balance in general and exercise in particular. In the end, it will benefit everyone – ourselves, our families and our clients (by having the value of our sharpest insights in the short term and by avoiding burn out in the long run). Get out there and enjoy it, knowing that it’s good for every part of your life!