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Finding time for yourself amid demands of lawyering

By Stacie Rosenzweig

timeIt’s 11 a.m. on a due date and I’m procrastinating, staring at my phone instead of my computer. This past month has been a mess, between deadlines and family health issues and summer school, with weddings and day trips and a conference thrown in for good measure. A three-hour hearing turned into six yesterday in a windowless basement room, and my lower back is screaming at me for sitting in the same wobbly government-issue chair in the same position for too long. Still, a stupid phone game is what I’m capable of handling right now.

I’ve been told by colleagues, friends, and family alike that I’m a Vulcan, like Spock from Star Trek—not with the pointy ears (maybe that’s a recessive gene?) but with a tendency toward logic and reason and away from overt emotion. I’ve grown rather fond of this description, and most of the time both the label and the aspiration are apt. Clients want to outsource their freakout; they don’t need their lawyers freaking out along with them. Generally, lawyers are hired to be rational and to get the job done competently and efficiently, and without judgment or fanfare. Most of the time, lawyering while Vulcan works well.

Except when it doesn’t.

As the world swirls around us, we’re constantly reminded we’re still human. We are distractible, and distracted. Sometimes those distractions are entirely our fault (those Angry Birds aren’t going to fling themselves) but often they’re external. We still have aging parents and our kids still get sick. We dare to say, out loud where people can hear, “this week is crazy but next week should let up,” though work expands to fill the space we give it. Even as we’re working very intently on a brief that has to be filed by midnight we’re pulled away by another phone call from an advertising service, an email from a panicked client, an incendiary tweet from the president.

I’ve learned some good lessons from the chaos of the last month—most importantly, when you can, let others help. It’s hard for me to let go and admit I can’t do everything I’m supposed to do by myself. But the issue was forced recently, and nothing bad happened. It is rare that you are indispensable, and when you are it’s to your 7-year-old having oral surgery rather than to your appellate brief. That’s another good lesson.

If you practice in a firm, letting others help can mean taking your colleague up on an offer to cover your scheduling conference—or bring you lunch when you’re too frazzled to break away. If you’re a solo practitioner you probably can’t get someone to cover a court appearance (at least, not without a good amount of legwork and informed consent of your client) but if your neighbor offers to take care of your dog while you’re at a sick relative’s bedside, accept the offer, or even ask for it. And in any case, aside from jurisdictional deadlines, most matters can be postponed and rescheduled for extenuating circumstances and all but the biggest jerks on the other side will agree to an extension for emergencies, and when the jerks won’t the court usually will.

Many of us, though, seem to be bouncing from emergency to emergency and there’s no real let up. Firms and practice areas with intense billable hour requirements and even more intense managing partners play to this stereotype but the need to constantly fire on all cylinders can hit everyone, from solos and small firm practitioners to government lawyers and in-house counsel. We pay lip service to things like “wellness” and “self-care” but we end up eating and drinking too much, sleeping too little, and staring at screens instead of exercising. (I am not going to tell you to take up yoga and knitting. I am not a good role model in this department.)

Stacie Rosenzweig

Stacie Rosenzweig

Still, lawyers’ well-being influences our ethics and professionalism. Our duties of competence, diligence, communication, and overall, our ability to handle relationships with clients and third parties are all affected. We’re not as good at what we do when we’re stretched too thin. Decorum and courtesy go out the window on three hours’ sleep.

The profession as a whole is slow at recognizing that lawyers are human, but there has been some progress. Last year, the Supreme Court approved a rule change allowing lawyers to earn up to six hours of CLE credit per cycle “on subjects designed to enhance a lawyer’s awareness and understanding of substance abuse/dependence disorders, mental illness, stress management, and work/life balance relating to the practice of law.” SCR 31.02(3). Lawyers aren’t required to take these courses, and I suspect a lot of us are skeptical – yeah, sure, we will fit that meditation right in—but it’s a start.

The Trekkies reading this, by now, have silently protested to me Spock was actually only half Vulcan. (Half of them are also silently protesting to me that the proper term is Trekker. We will agree to disagree.) His father was Vulcan, his mother was human. Spock struggled with balance, and sometimes his visceral, human side won.

But even the most Vulcan among us are human at the end and our human side is going to win. It’s inevitable, and probably for the best—while we’re hired to be rational we’re also hired to be empathetic, and doing a good job requires both. My month of chaos is over (for now) but it did force me to remember that.

Stacie Rosenzweig is an attorney at Halling & Cayo S.C. in Milwaukee. Her practice centers on working with lawyers and other credentialed professionals in a variety of licensing, professional responsibility and disciplinary proceedings.

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