It’s no secret to the legal industry that in-house counsel positions are generally seen as less strenuous than jobs at traditional law firms with billable hours. However, Bloomberg Law’s Attorney Workload and Hours Survey found that, on average, in-house lawyers only worked 3 hours less per week than their law firm peers.
In 2021, Gartner discovered that 54% of in-house attorneys reported feeling “exhausted,” with 20% claiming they were “highly exhausted.” This uptick in in-house legal burnout can be largely attributed to expanded responsibilities in a post-pandemic recession as well as a heightened sense of needing to be “always on” when working remotely.
These combined factors wreak havoc on a lawyer’s work-life balance, which leads to further dissatisfaction, both in and outside of work.
Bring your professional and personal scales back into balance with 5 tips that will support productivity without compromising your well-being and happiness.
1. Avoid using work apps on your phone
According to Bloomberg Law, surveyed attorneys listed an “inability to disconnect from work” as one of the top challenges impacting their well-being. One way to remedy this struggle is to keep work-related communications and programs off of your personal cell phone. When you don’t see inbox notifications and Slack pings after hours, the temptation to respond or check in to the virtual work world will be lessened.
We get that this can feel like a big ask. In a joint Qualtrics and Google study, 62% of employees said they “always or very often” use their phone for work tasks — even when they’re off the clock. But if you’re constantly plugged into work from the moment you wake up to dinner time, and on the weekends, you’re not giving yourself adequate time to fully recharge. Maintaining clear boundaries between your work and personal time is key to avoiding legal burnout. Separating work from your personal life by keeping it off your phone is a great first step.
Start small by turning off notifications, and then see how it feels to remove workplace collaboration apps and work email accounts altogether. When you see how doing so doesn’t cause your company to fall to pieces, you’ll begin to enjoy more peace of mind and a better work-life balance.
2. Add time blocking to your day
Context switching, or constantly bouncing between different tasks and meetings, drains your productivity and leaves you feeling like you need to work extra-long hours to catch up. Protect your productivity and focus with time blocking — carving out time on your calendar for work hours where you focus on one type of task at a time.
Time blocking your schedule prevents you from operating from a place of reactivity. Time blocking minimizes distractions and lets you focus on one task or project at a time. Your work quality and efficiency will both improve while, at the same time, your stress decreases — you know what you’re tackling and when, and you can get more deep work done.
While time blocking doesn’t lessen your workload, it makes it feel much more manageable. As Dennis Garcia, Microsoft’s assistant GC for corporate, external, and legal affairs, says, “This whole idea of working smarter, not necessarily harder, is important for all of us.”
Here’s what a sample time-blocked work schedule might look like:
- 9:00-10:30: Task #1
- 10:30-11:00: Snack and walk
- 11:00-2:00: Task #2 and Task #3
- 2:00-2:30: Lunch
- 2:30-4:00: Task #4
- 4:00-5:30: Meeting #1 and Meeting #2
With meetings grouped together, you spend less time context switching throughout the day, leaving more time for deep work. While it might not always be possible, batching meetings together is one of the best time blocking tips there is. Has anyone ever really gotten significant work done in those 30 minutes between meetings?
3. Take breaks throughout the workday
If you’re glued to your desk chair for practically every minute of the day, chances are, you’re going to be mentally exhausted by the time you’re off the clock. Not to mention the health complications that arise from sitting for too long. Taking breaks throughout the day benefits your physical and mental health, gives you sustained energy, and actually makes you more productive.
Treat your breaks like non-negotiable meetings and put them on your calendar, or try an app like BreakTimer or Pomofocus that sends notifications throughout the day reminding you when to take a break.
It’s just like putting the pause button on during long, long law school study sessions. Think of how much tougher those would’ve been without taking time to refill your double-shot espresso, stretch, or get in a quick nap.
Remember, breaks don’t need to take up a huge amount of time. According to a 2022 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers found that frequently taking 5-minute pauses from work, known as microbreaks, boosted work engagement and reduced “end-of-work fatigue.”
The key to getting the most out of your break is to switch up your environment and point of focus — don’t just stay in your office. Opt for actions that support both your body and brain. You might:
- Take a walk or go to the gym
- Call or text a friend or family member
- Eat a healthy, filling snack, like no-bake energy bites
4. Remember that your career is only one part of your identity
Paid work fills a significant portion of most people’s days — on average, the only other daily task that occupies more time is sleeping, according to Our World in Data. So, it’s natural to see this large part of our lives as connected to our identities. However, this association can become unhealthy when your role as a lawyer becomes the only part you concentrate on.
As Anne Wilson, professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, notes, “If you tie [your self-worth] to your career, the successes and failures you experience will directly affect your self-worth.” Measuring yourself solely by what goes on in your professional life will leave you in a constant state of emotional flux, and you’ll always be racing to do “more” to prove your worth. This type of mentality can quickly give way to work addiction, which can devastate your wellness and personal life.
Remind yourself that who you are and what you do outside work is just as — if not more — important than your professional role. Make a list of all the roles you carry outside work (spouse, parent, friend, volunteer, etc.) as well as any hobbies, and write out what makes you happy about them. Fill your office space with reminders of these different aspects of your life to keep a grounded perspective on all the unique and valuable parts of yourself outside your 9-5.
“We need to remember what’s important in life: friends, waffles, work. Or waffles, friends, work. Doesn’t matter, but work is third.”–Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation
5. Ask for help when you need it
Just because you have your JD doesn’t mean you’re expected to tackle every problem on your own. It’s perfectly ok (and healthy) to admit when you’re struggling and get the support you need. Treat yourself like you’d treat a close friend — you wouldn’t tell them to just “suck it up” or go it alone, would you?
Asking for help can take many different forms, from reaching out for a colleague’s assistance on a complex legal matter to attending a Lawyer Assistance Program meeting. It’s normal to feel uncertain or anxious when admitting you need help, but the more you practice it, the easier it becomes. Relying on others more is also a great way to build deeper connections and trust, which reduces feelings of isolation and further supports your mental and emotional well-being.
“We can be much more effective, efficient, and creative by reaching out and asking for input and resources from other people.”–Wayne Baker, Faculty Director of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business’ Center for Positive Organizations
The right legal tech is key to lawyer work-life balance
Having to consistently spend time on manual, cumbersome admin work is mentally draining and impedes productivity. Legal software that automates workflows frees corporate legal up to focus on higher-level priorities and more engaging tasks, relieving strain that contributes to burnout. Learn how the American Trucking and Transportation Company’s in-house team was able to save 55 hours a month by switching to SimpleLegal.
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