I Resolve to Have Fewer Regrets
by Mark Fogg
I have an active board of trustees. One of the trustees of the Denver Bar Association has a special interest in work-life balance and mental health issues for lawyers. Agreeing that these are very important issues, I asked him to prepare a presentation for the next board meeting. Shortly before the meeting, he told me that he would be unable to attend the meeting and would send me an e-mail for the presentation. On the morning of the meeting, I received a very thorough memo, which I would expect from this bright, young lawyer. However, I couldn’t help getting a kick out of the fact that the memo on work-life balance and mental health was e-mailed to me at 3:30 a.m.
In survey after survey of the issues that attorneys believe are the biggest problems with the practice of law, the issues of professionalism and work-life balance are usually in a dead heat. The stress of case load and the constant focus on billable hours takes its toll.
However, I no longer believe that the main reason for this focus on work and billable hours is greed. After giving talks on professionalism and blaming greed as the instigator of stress, many attorneys have approached me and clarified for me that it wasn’t greed, but survival, that makes them work so hard. Annual increases in health care, facility costs and technology ravage the firms’ budgets, especially those of solo practitioners and small firms.
I also have come to discover that, although some lawyers could stand to lower their income expectations (especially if it is borne on the backs of others), it isn’t necessarily the money that drives attorneys to work so hard; it’s often the inability to say "no." Lawyers are loyal to their clients and want to continue to provide the best service possible. However, lawyers, like many professionals, also live in the personal purgatory of usually having so much work they can’t see straight. Yet, they are constantly worried about where their next case is going to come from. This conundrum usually is accompanied by the constant complaint of feeling immediate pressure to get something done at all times. Then, the minute you don’t have that immediate pressure, you don’t want to do anything. Yuck.
Only you can determine in your heart of hearts whether you are working too hard, and whether that additional work will put you into a serious stress zone.
First and foremost, it is okay to say "no." It’s okay to say no to clients, prospective clients, partners and other lawyers. Only you can determine in your heart of hearts whether you are working too hard, and whether that additional work will put you into a serious stress zone.
Clients, other lawyers, and, yes, even partners, should and will understand if you honestly convey that you will be doing a disservice to them by taking on the task. There comes a point where you are going to provide a poorer legal service or product than another lawyer due to over-commitment. You owe it to them to pass it on elsewhere. Probably the most difficult thing I had to do in my career was to advise clients that not only could I not take on more work, but that I had to cut back on my existing work, when I experienced a major health crisis in 2001. I was scared. Here I had worked for 22 years to develop a practice, and now I was risking losing it. I felt like I wasn’t acting tough enough. These were all false fears. The silver lining in that for me is that I now know I can always replenish my practice if I have to cut back.
Find a way to lessen your stress on an every day basis. You have obligations to your family, friends and practice, but you have an obligation to yourself first. Although I keep expecting calls from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade to be in their balloon lineup, I exercise regularly. Frankly, I can’t understand how other lawyers can maintain a healthy stress level without exercise. However, many of my partners have shown me other ways to relieve stress, through yoga, meditation and just quiet time alone reading.
Figure out what works best for you to spend time with family and friends, and then don’t feel guilty about the other things that you can’t do. Having "grown up" in the District Attorney’s Office, I was used to trying a lot of cases and putting in a lot of hours every week. I simply could not keep up this pace in civil practice week in and week out. Although I did coach baseball for eight years, I can’t say that I was home for every dinner or even home every night when the kids went to bed. I do have regrets about that, but what I figured out works best for me is to work hard while I am in the office and then take off between six to eight weeks a year. I was lucky to be blessed with a tolerant wife, who let me take each of the kids on an annual trip for a week, which I believe was one of the best things I ever did. I know that this particular arrangement is not possible for many lawyers, but I tried to faithfully follow through on what I thought I could reasonably do with my family and not beat up on myself for what I could not do.
My New Year’s resolution is to try to get the technology thing figured out. It is mind boggling that a client who used to grow intolerant without a return call within two days has now reduced that waiting time period to two hours. I have tried to shut down the computer screen with the resolve to only check e-mails in late morning and late afternoon. I have failed miserably at that. It used to be that when I was out of the office, I would tell my staff where I would be and that they could contact me if they absolutely had to. I never called to check in with the office. Now, I struggle whether to bring my Blackberry with me on all trips. I receive an average of 150 e-mails a day. Am I better off to deal with them daily or come back to 1,000 e-mails?
Despite all the stress and worry, it’s been pretty cool to have lived this life as a lawyer with a moral, ethical and legal obligation to place the good of another above my own. Although I could have done much better in many things, I have few regrets about the enormous amount of time devoted to being a lawyer.
I never did take that trip around the world I promised myself a long time ago because I was too afraid that I would not go to law school if I took time off. My wife and I have decided that we are going to do that when my third kid is in his second year of college. Just don’t tell my firm.