How to protect your personal well-being in the legal work environment How to protect personal well-being in a legal environment

The pressures on legal professionals are intense. The desire to zealously represent clients is as strong as ever, as is the need to hit their billable hours goals and stay on track for their career goals.  

But burnout is acute, and it’s affecting a lot of attorneys to the point that they are considering leaving their roles. The movement toward better well-being will pick up steam as the workforce shifts toward millennials. According to a Thomson Reuters report, “This generation of attorneys is bringing along big expectations and differing priorities… In fact, 50% of millennial attorneys say they would change jobs if it meant more balance between their personal and professional lives.” 

Changing jobs or industries is certainly an option. But what if you like your current job in the legal environment? What if you want to stay where put and enjoy more balance and greater well-being in your life? 

Know your why 

“When you have a fuller sense of purpose at work, it’s easier to feel engaged rather than burned out,” says Nita Cumello, Global Client Director and Director of Well-Being for Global Large Law at Thomson Reuters. She encourages attorneys to understand what their firms are working toward and how they contribute to that work. “When people have a clear sense of purpose, the team is more engaged, the culture thrives, and the environment overall is healthier,” she says. 

Take advantage of employee well-being programs 

Law firms have done a lot to support individuals as they nurture their own well-being. This might include extra days off, wellness apps, yoga over lunch on days in the office or expanded opportunities for remote work. Many attorneys resist these offerings because they fear the optics, and firms have work to do to change that stigma. The more people who participate, the more likely people will be to recognize that well-being programs aren’t just for “struggling” attorneys, nor are these programs “fluffy,” as they may have been seen in the past. Cumello notes that wellness programs are high-value investments firms make in the whole individual. “It is a holistic way of approaching work that enables an individual to thrive,” she says.  

It doesn’t have to be a new program – it could be something as traditional as taking your vacation time. In the ABA’s Well-being Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers, author Anne Brafford reports on the benefit of taking vacation time. She writes, “In their study of 6,000 practicing lawyers, law professor Larry Krieger and psychology professor Kennon Sheldon found that the number of vacation days taken was a significant predictor of lawyer well-being – and was stronger even than income level in predicting well-being.”  

Everyone wants to invest in their wellness, but people may be waiting for someone else to take the first step. If you’re hesitant to take advantage of a new offering, consider the good you could do for your colleagues. You can discover what mix of work and activity helps you optimize your physical, mental, emotional, and social state. When other people see you doing so, they may feel more confident exploring this for themselves.   

This is especially important if you lead teams. People will look to you to validate or undermine firmwide messaging on wellness. Help others by taking care of yourself. Cindy Kelly, who leads a customer training team for the Legal Professionals business at Thomson Reuters, has taken to opening her meetings with grounding and connection exercises. “My team members are in a metrics-based role and work with clients all day – and we take a moment to get present with each other,” she says. “We signed on to the Mindful Business Charter, and I saw a huge opportunity to make that charter real at the team level.”  

Protect your time 

It may be uncomfortable to set boundaries at work. There will always be more work to do, and there will always be clients or colleagues who want your time. The client demand won’t go away, but you can ask, “Can it wait until Monday?” Corporations are rethinking their own posture on well-being, which gives you a great opportunity to match them and extend noncritical deadlines to accommodate balance and well-being.  

Law professor Rosario Lozada, who offered a helpful 10-step reflection exercise in the ABA Journal, reinforced the importance of creating time for self-care. She wrote, “the next time you pull up your calendar or another to-do list, add a specific self-care duty. Pick an activity that renews and energizes you; make it a recurring, high-priority event. You may have just engaged in a courageous act of ‘self-preservation.’” 

Start in six-minute increments 

None of this is easy. Finding level ground for personal well-being will look different for every attorney. Your professional and personal priorities will be different than your colleagues, and your appetites to rock the boat will vary, too. So where do you start? Cumello likes to paraphrase attorney well-being expert Jarett Green in encouraging you to start with six minutes, based on their conversation on her Practice Well(Being) podcast. “You can find six minutes in your day to breathe, go outside, find stillness, or do something that brings you joy. Make it a daily practice. Invest the time consistently and see where it takes you. If you give yourself an opportunity to reframe that this is not a luxury, it’s helping you optimize the way you work – it’s easier to make the time.”  

Six minutes a day could lead you anywhere – to a more sustainable approach to your current role, to the confidence to take the next big step forward in your career, to a new hobby, or to more time with your family. It can help you connect with your why and decide how to protect your time. It can help you be a better attorney.

“It’s not a luxury,” Cumello says. “It’s an imperative.”

Well-being is intimately connected to mental health. If you are concerned about your mental health, don’t hesitate to seek advice. Our article on managing mental health in the workplace can help you identify your employer’s legal responsibilities to accommodate your mental health needs. 

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