Reprinted with permission from the American Bar Association GPSolo eReport.
This article is the second of four installments exploring ways to keep the spark of enthusiasm alive in your law practice.
In my first article in this series in the December issue, I discussed the dissatisfaction that seems to permeate the legal profession, and the stressful nature and long hours associated with the dual responsibilities of practicing law and running a small business. If you are in the middle or the later stages of your career, do you find that you don’t feel as passionate about the law as you did in those initial years of practice? If your enthusiasm for your law practice has diminished as the years have passed, I encourage you to not simply accept that change as an unpleasant but necessary byproduct of a long career. Instead, self-examination is in order. The questions posed at the end of my article were: “If you [knew that you] had six months left to live, or perhaps more practically as a long-term approach, six years to live, would you continue to work just as you are doing right now? Or would you make some changes?” To those I add: If change is needed, what would those changes be? How could the changes be identified and implemented so as to have a lasting and favorable impact?
As you undergo a process of self-reflection, a perhaps difficult, but critical, initial question to ask is: Are my circumstances such that I am able to do that process justice? Taking an honest look at your life and your law practice, identifying areas of dissatisfaction and then creating a roadmap for change involves time, hard work, and critical thinking. I submit that, before initiating this process, you need to assess your current physical health and state of mind. When was the last time you slept for the recommended seven to nine hours per night for a week straight?1 How about your diet? Did you eat breakfast this morning? Do you consistently follow healthy eating patterns?2 Let’s not forget about exercise. Are you working out on a consistent basis? Are you following the recommended guidelines for physical fitness?3 And how do you feel mentally? Clear and focused? Or frazzled and distracted? Starting with these core questions about your physical and mental well-being may be unpleasant, but it’s best not to underestimate the importance of the answers.
If something is out of sync, you may have already identified the primary reason for your lack of enthusiasm toward your law practice. If you sleep five or six hours a night, eat fast food for lunch, or your exercise regime consists of an occasional walk on the weekends, you may not be in a place in which you can successfully undergo a thorough process of self-examination. It would be the equivalent of taking your car in for detailing when the engine is so corroded that it needs to be towed to the auto detail shop. Put first things first. Focus on getting healthy, both mentally and physically. Keep in mind that sufficient exercise, sleep, and a good diet have been shown to improve your ability to think.4 You may find that, as your health improves, your energy level and mood will improve as well. Your attitude towards your law practice may become more positive. “There’s a strong link between good mental health and good physical health, and vice versa.”5Finding the time to address primary health concerns may not come easily for some lawyers, particularly because of the typically long work hours as discussed in my first article. In viewing the alternatives, however, which are, at a minimum, a loss of luster for your life and law practice and, in the worst case scenario, a shortened life span, I believe you will conclude that carving out the time to address these fundamental issues simply must happen.6 If you’re not feeling well, how can you confidently and successfully meet the challenges of self-reflection?
When you’re ready to begin, one practical way to approach it might be to carve out an hour every weekend for four weeks in a row. Solo and small firm lawyers are busy, and it’s likely you lack the time to block off an entire day. Additionally, if you spread the process out a bit, you may be able to identify certain questions that create uncertainty, ponder those questions a bit during the week, and then come back to it again the following weekend with fresh ideas. Some questions to consider, using the six-years-to-live scenario, might include:
- Would you choose to keep doing exactly what you are doing? If so, you can stop reading now—you are exactly where you need to be!
- Would you choose to not work at all? Work less? Work more? Would you seek to offload more of the responsibilities of law firm management? Or perhaps the other way around, would you spend a bit more time developing your business model while delegating some of your client-related responsibilities? Would you choose to abandon one or more of your practice areas? Would you fire some of your more toxic clients? Would you take on more pro bono? Perhaps take on some bar leadership responsibilities?
- Would you choose to stretch yourself a bit? Do you feel like you’ve hit your comfort zone as an attorney, working on similar, and increasingly unchallenging and uninteresting, cases over and over again? If so, what could you do to change that, so you could continue to enhance your skill level and increase your sense of challenge and adventure throughout your career?
- Would you change anything about the business side of your practice to make it more enjoyable? Hire someone? Or maybe fire someone? If you were to adjust some of the backend systems and processes related to your practice, could that result in more ease and enjoyment?
- Are you fairly compensated for the work you perform? Or do you believe you are earning less than you truly deserve, which contributes to your overall sense of dissatisfaction? If you believe your compensation is not what it should be, how could that issue be successfully addressed?
- And, in doing this analysis, would you make some changes to aspects of your personal life that fall outside of your law practice, but nonetheless impact your passion toward your work? Would you adjust your work hours so you are better able to get more exercise? More sleep? More leisure and vacation time? More time with your friends or significant other? Or perhaps, end your relationship with your significant other? If you think all of those factors don’t impact your career, think again. When you get the right mix, you will tend to bring a clear, energetic, and, dare I say, enthusiastic mindset to your work.
As you go through this process, be imaginative in how you proceed! Choose the method that works best for your personality type. Maybe you need to lock yourself in a quiet room and journal on your tablet or with an old-fashioned legal pad and pen? Maybe a whiteboard would help, so you can map out some ideas and see it visually? Perhaps you should start by chatting with some friends, family members, or other attorneys to gain their perspective? If you first take a short hike, practice yoga, meditate, or even take a nap, would that help clear your mind so you are better able to engage in self-reflection? Working with a coach might be a terrific option for you, so that you could receive the benefits of professional assistance in identifying and improving the areas of dissatisfaction. Or perhaps engaging in therapy would be the right way to start. I invite you to try one or more of these methods to see which approach sparks the highest level of self-reflection and creative thought.
What’s the desired outcome? I suggest that, through your examination of these questions and others that are pertinent to your situation, you identify no more than three areas for improvement. If you could achieve the desired results in these three aspects of your life and your career, would your enthusiasm for your legal career be strengthened? You may find a dozen areas that could be improved upon. If so, that’s great! Hold that thought. Then prioritize your list by choosing your top three goals. Once you are able to successfully accomplish your initial goals, nothing is stopping you from picking out your next three objectives. In order to make a lasting impact, the implementation process has to be reasonably achievable for a busy professional. I recommend taking small realizable steps rather than taking on too much, becoming frustrated, and abandoning the process.
In my next article I will offer suggestions for implementing necessary changes, and then I will complete the series by exploring the idea of legacy—a motivating concept for keeping the spark alive.
1. National Sleep Foundation Recommends New Sleep Times (Feb. 2, 2015), https://sleepfoundation.org/press-release/national-sleep-foundation-recommends-new-sleep-times.
2. See Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015–2020 (8th ed.), https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.
3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, https://health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/. Attorneys tend to work in high-stress environments, and also tend to sit more than is recommended. I believe that lawyers should not simply meet the lowest standard of these guidelines, but should instead consistently follow the requirements set forth for “additional and more extensive health benefits” in order to help counter the health challenges that are often an integral part of our professional lives.
4. Heidi Godman, Regular Exercise Changes the Brain to Improve Memory, Thinking Skills, Harv. Health Blog (Apr. 9. 2014), http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110. See also Stephanie Watson, Caffeine and a Healthy Diet May Boost Memory, Thinking Skills; Alcohol’s Effect Uncertain, Harv. Health Blog (June 18, 2014), http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/caffeine-healthy-diet-may-boost-memory-thinking-skills-alcohols-effect-uncertain-201406187219; Sharpen Thinking Skills with a Better Night’s Sleep, Harv. Health Letter (Mar. 2015), http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/sharpen-thinking-skills-with-a-better-nights-sleep.
5. Mind and Mood, Harv. Health Publications, Harvard Medical School, http://www.health.harvard.edu/topics/mind-and-mood.
6. Please make sure, in assessing and addressing your overall mental and physical well-being, that you first seek the advice of physicians and mental health professionals as appropriate.