Managing your legal career
Simple steps to achieve and maintain a healthier work-life balance
Work-life balance: ‘the division of one's time and focus between working and family or leisure activities’ (Oxford Dictionary).
Realistically, broken down, lawyers spend between 37 and 60 hours a week working and between 48 and 58 hours a week not working (excluding sleep). Essentially, a healthy work-life balance is in the ability to be productive while at work yet entirely switched off (from work!) when you’re not.
The notion of work-life balance within the legal profession might seem laughable to some lawyers, certainly to those who’ve been in the industry for a long time, but times are changing – the legal profession is catching up to the 21st Century.
This is partly due to the fact the profession has a lot to answer for – with high levels of mental health issues: an overrepresentation of those suffering from anxiety and depression – and also due to new technologies and the shifting demands of lawyers in general (prompted by millennials).
Over time, this turns into a business need: in order to attract and retain good lawyers, law firms must offer working environments and job roles where a healthy work-life balance is achievable.
Work-life balance – whose responsibility?
However, achieving a healthy work-life balance, or striking the balance desired, isn’t down to the employer alone. There’s an equal onus on the individual. In fact, maintaining a healthy work-life balance starts and ends with the individual lawyer and it involves a certain level of commitment and self-discipline.
Most certainly, employers have a duty to take care of employees and more and more law firms are adopting flexible working policies as one of the most effective ways for their employees to achieve a better work-life balance; a positive step forward.
Interestingly, there’s a common perception that moving jobs will offer a better work-life balance. While this may be true in some cases e.g. moving from the City to a regional town, drastic measures can be unnecessary.
As stated, the golden and overarching rule for achieving a better work-life balance is commitment and practising self-discipline. The other: give it time; striking the balance is an ongoing process.
To a certain degree, long hours and the legal profession go hand in hand, but there are simple measures you can take in order to achieve a healthier work-life balance.
Striking the balance – where to start
Reflection: distinguishing priorities
It’s necessary to reflect on what’s important to you: family, friends, socialising, exercising, reading, working etc. Write a list and focus on your top three priorities. Categorise them into leisure, family and work.
Ultimately, striking the right balance is always having time for your priorities: never neglecting them because you have to do something else or you’re too drained or tired from doing something else (be it work or otherwise). Keep a diary, as it’s easy to go through the motions if you’re not taking note.
Determine whether you’re a workaholic
It’s fine if work is one of your top priorities. For many ambitious lawyers, this is a given. However, if you struggle to come up with other – competing – priorities, it’s important to consider whether you’re a workaholic or not. If the answer is yes then it’s going to take an extra level of commitment and self-discipline to achieve some form of work-life balance.
No addiction is healthy – even if you get paid for it.
Be your number one
After you’ve worked out what your priorities are, achieving a healthy work-life balance starts with a declaration: it’s OK to put yourself first.
People pleasing – for the sake of work-life balance, forget it
A people-pleasing approach at work is the enemy of work-life balance.
Don’t be a martyr. (If you master step two above, this won’t be a problem for you.)
Before you take on that extra piece of work, exciting project, or do a colleague a favour, remember you have a choice: yes or no. Your number one says no!
Set your own boundaries
For certain blocks of time in a day or one day per week, try and make yourself hard to contact when you’re at work. This allows time for productive solitary bursts, which are particularly effective for tackling large or challenging tasks. For example, book a meeting room for an afternoon and close your email application. Turn on an internal auto-reply to notify colleagues to call you if it’s urgent.
If you make this a daily or weekly routine, you’ll be far more productive and able to switch off more easily when you’re not at work. Most importantly, there’s less chance you’ll take the larger or more challenging tasks home with you.
Know where – and how – to work smarter
With a little bit of time and objective consideration, this is one of the most effective ways to increase your productivity levels in the workplace – achieving more in shorter time periods.
Take a step back to realise where you’ve picked up bad habits and inefficient ways of doing things.
For example, take note of daily distractions: write them down so they’re out of your mind and you can deal with them at a later stage rather than going back and forth between tasks: multi-tasking.
Work in bursts and take lots of breaks. Don’t feel chained to your desk. Too many get into a bad habit of staying at their desk for long periods of time: over two hours at a time.
Another bad and common habit is putting too much importance on email. It wasn’t too long ago that email didn’t exist and it’s probably overused in today’s office. Tied in with managing distractions and setting your own boundaries (above), have set blocks of time when you’re not checking your emails – to acquire more focus.
All in all, working at maximum efficiency does instant wonders for achieving a healthier work-life balance.
Did you know that a lot of lawyers, whose firm or company policy includes flexible working options, don’t employ it properly?
For example, some may be afforded full time working hours over a four-day period to have Fridays off with young children, but spend half of Friday worrying about work and checking emails. Worse, replying to them. If you’re fortunate enough to have a flexible working arrangement in place, apply it properly; otherwise, it’s a mere buzzword.
There are so many ways to accomplish a better work-life balance. Ultimately, it’s about making a clear distinction between your life priorities, setting limitations within those, and sticking to them through self-discipline. It starts and ends with you.