by Kelly A. Bennett, Esq.

Americans are chronically overworked and overstressed, more than ever. With all that non-stop work comes increased stress, depression, weight gain, cardiovascular problems and a decline in overall happiness.

I’ve been practicing law for nearly 30 years. Over that time, one of the biggest personal challenges has been fighting “work-aholism.” Workaholism is a habit, a culture in which most lawyers were raised. In turn, lawyers promote that culture within their law firms – teaching their paralegals and administrative staff that chronic overwork is the norm (and the expectation).

Culture of Insanity

Workaholism is taught and fostered in law school. It all begins with the assembly of academic super-stars who, for the most part, are wildly competitive. As pre-lawyers, we are thrown into the competitive pool with our peers, and we’re told to sink or swim. And to swim, you must consume mountains of information, study seven days a week (6 to 8 hours a day) in addition to class time.

For most attorneys, taking time off is associated with losing income (because after all, we sell our time for a living). For self-employed lawyers, time off is often not “in the cards” because there’s always so much to do: Pressing court deadlines, client concerns to be addressed, and operating costs to be covered.

The never-ending “press of business” tempts us to buy into the notion that we “can’t afford” to take time away from the office. And so, we forget about self-care.

Like many Americans, we continue putting in 60 to 70 hour work weeks, ignoring the signs of burnout. The legal profession has a long-standing culture which promotes this unhealthy “go, go, go” workaholic lifestyle. This lifestyle is routinely praised and financially rewarded by most law firm management models (despite the fact that in working 60 to 70 hours per week, there is no time to enjoy the “rewards”).

But when attorneys fail to take time off, they eventually fail their clients. How can your attorney give you the level of care and skill you deserve, when he or she is running on empty? Burnout is the devil’s road to alcohol and drug addiction. And based on the numbers, attorneys are increasingly on that highway to hell.

The statistics[i] are shocking:

  • About 21% of American lawyers qualify as having a drinking problem.
  • 28% of lawyers struggle with mild or more serious depression.
  • 19% of attorneys struggle with anxiety.
  • 85% of the 12,825 lawyers (practicing in over 19 states) surveyed by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association, had used alcohol in the previous year. (Compare this with the fact that about 65% of the general population drinks alcohol.)
  • Alcohol is the #1 substance abuse problem for lawyers, followed by prescription drugs according to the A.B.A.’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs’ most recent national report.[ii]

I’ve personally had numerous encounters in the last 10 years with opposing counsel who have showed up to court or depositions intoxicated or high. I’ve “negotiated” in the court’s hallways with an attorney who showed signs of meth or crack cocaine use. I’ve appeared in front of a judge who was intoxicated on the bench.

Seriously, it happens. Why? Substance abuse is almost always a coping mechanism to deal with the stresses of the law biz. In an eye-opening New York Times article, “The Lawyer, the Addict”, Eileen Zimmerman shares the tragic loss of her ex-husband, a brilliant intellectual property attorney, to drug abuse. The cause? The law firm culture, lack of life balance and time off.

Cause & Effect

Aside from the obvious (fatigue and risk of substance abuse), when your attorney fails to take quality time off, your case will suffer. Great lawyers develop strategic approaches to keep cases moving and get great results. Delays mean increased legal expenses. Often, the other party in your case may simply relish the conflict and want to drag it on and on and on. That’s where a smart, strategic lawyer can work some “magic” by creatively incentivizing the other party to settle. But the quickest way to put the kibosh on creative legal strategies is lawyer fatigue and burnout.

It’s common sense and it’s a reality, that those who fail to take time off are more stressed, which leads to increased lapses in judgment and creativity. But there’s good news: Clinical studies reveal that burnout can be reversed. For an eye-popping article on the effects of burnout and the value of time off, see “Burnout and the Brain” by Alexandra Michel, published in the Association for Psychological Science’s Observer magazine, February 2016.

Group Fix

Over the years I noticed that our team members at the law firm weren’t using much of their vacation time. And when they did, they would take only a day or two, here or there – never really getting away for a chunk of time to truly recharge. As a group, we noticed that the more we indulged our habits of chronic overwork, the more job satisfaction and productivity plummeted (and health problems increased).

So, we decided to get serious about life balance and self-care. That meant implementing predictable (and required) time off – meaning all of us at the office would get out of dodge. Yep, we shut it down and hit the road – “mandatory” vacation time for all. The results have been amazing. After a good chunk of time off, we all come back refreshed, bright-eyed and full of motivation to bring our best to the clients we serve.

Are you feeling overwhelmed and overstretched? How about your attorney or other professionals in your life? If the signs of burnout are there, maybe it’s time to challenge those habits and make a change. After all, a happy healthy you makes for a happy healthy life. Same goes for your lawyer – if she or he is on vacation, give them a big “thumbs up”! You’ll get better representation and ultimately, better results.

[i] “The Lawyer, the Addict” by Eileen Zimmerman, July 15, 2017, The New York Times (digital edition) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/15/business/lawyers-addiction-mental-health.html.

[ii]  ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, “2014 Comprehensive Survey of Lawyer Assistance Programs”, https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/lawyer_assistance/ls_colap_2014_comprehensive_survey_of_laps.authcheckdam.pdf.

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