A personal life is important to balance out the stress of long days and the forced hyper-efficiency of the billable hour. Hours have not changed much in 20 years with the typical day for a Biglaw attorney spanning from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. If you factor in a forty-five minute commute for some cities—good luck getting past Market Street at 9 a.m.—and an hour to get ready in the morning, you end up with 10.5 hours of time to split between a personal life and sleep. If you can maintain your faculties on seven hours of sleep then you are finally left with a measly 3.5 hours a day of personal time—which is likely further siphoned by other responsibilities.
Law can be a tremendously rewarding career, but also at times frustrating and incredibly stressful. The evidence is stark; lawyers suffer from depression at 3.6 times the rate of the general population (and likely even higher for Biglaw attorneys), and in a study of several professions, they were the fourth likeliest to commit suicide, twice as likely to be alcoholics and three times as likely to use cocaine. Granted the last two metrics were from a 20 year old study of 1,000 lawyers; nonetheless there is little question that there is a lot of improvement to be made in ameliorating some of the negative aspects of Biglaw.
Besides reforming Biglaw altogether, there are several things associates and partners can do to manage stress within and without of the office. With New Year’s resolutions rapidly approaching, here are a few suggestions I learned from my time working in law.
1) Exercise. Who has time for it, right? But even on a busy schedule, if you can sneak in just twenty minutes at lunch you can greatly improve your mood, focus and energy levels. Even if you can’t in the middle of the day, exercising before or after work can greatly help combat anxiety by releasing serotonin and endorphins and ultimately help you fall asleep at night.
2) Sleep. Obvious, right? While obvious in theory, the epidemic of eye bags among younger associates sustained on energy drinks and the promise of spontaneously growing wings seems to worsen by the year. Some associates delay sleep at night in an attempt to reclaim some personal hours before restarting the daily cycle. Not only is this bad for your mental health, it also undermines your physical health and productivity. Less sleep often equates to more careless mistakes, which in the long run could cost you a partnership. So if you truly value the prospect of making partner one day, or even just springboarding to that highly coveted client, make sure you get as close to seven hours of sleep as you can. I would suggest eight, but let’s be honest, it’s not happening.
3) Transition Your Day. Associates often rush through the day so focused they feel as if they finished a complete marathon by the time they leave their desk. Transition your day by taking a quick minute or two to breathe evenly and reflect. It can help unburden your mind of the often massive amounts of information you have to retain every day and consequently reduce stress levels. If you’re into it, meditate.
4) Keep Work At Work. If you take lunch with your fellow associates, don’t talk about business every day. Your lunch, however brief, is your quick chance to recharge your batteries before finishing the final leg of the day. I learned this one the hard way. Same goes for home: make your home a place of relaxation from work. If you have to work extra hours on the weekend, try to do it in the office.
5) Talk. If you are stressed about something at work, do not internalize it, talk to someone about it. Just be cautious about who you talk with; unbridled venting can have serious repercussions if it bounces back to management’s ears.
6) Balanced Consumption. Succeeding in Biglaw requires the acumen equivalent of a Formula 1-outfitted Ferrari. If you fill that Ferrari with petrol that some guy sold you out of a canister for £1/liter, the car will never reach its full potential. Similarly, when you walk into work in the morning, think twice before reaching for that pastry to help give you an energy boost in the morning. In the short term it feels great, but in the long run, a bad diet can have negative repercussions on your mental and physical health.
Even more importantly, ration your caffeine consumption. If you need a boost in the morning, don’t finish the whole cup, or order a smaller size. Drink enough to cast off the spell of sleepiness but not so much that you want to ricochet off the windows.
7) Music. There’s nothing like a four-minute music break to recharge the mind. No matter what genre you like, music is shown to increase endorphin production and slow the heart rate down.
It is always important to retain perspective. The people who toil at Biglaw and become partners are there because they love it. To many lawyers, it’s not a chore to be at the office for ten hours a day. Nonetheless, 56% of Biglaw attorneys describe themselves as unsatisfied. For some, happiness exists outside of Biglaw, for others it exists at another firm. It is not ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,’ so whether you want to lateral, move in-house, or move outside of law entirely, our team of experts would be glad to help you figure out what would make you the happiest.