Keeping Sane When It’s Crunch Time

Big revelation: I was never a model associate. Despite my present willingness to freely dispense advice on how to make your career all that it can be, I was pretty consumed as a young lawyer with setting and adhering to strict boundaries and trying to maintain a work-life balance. While I was relatively efficient with my time and regularly achieved solid results, I never set any records for billing massive hours or being the earliest to arrive or the last to leave the office. My stats were underwhelming, at best.

I recognize now that, in my preoccupation with boundaries and balance, I was just delaying the inevitable realization that ours is just not a profession that conforms well to individual desires for boundaries and balance. We’re in a service industry, and we’re forever beholden to both clients and courts. Both are demanding. Without either, we’re sunk.

Although it’s technically possible to “skate by” as a young lawyer like I often did, there comes a time when reality catches up to you. Once you develop your own clients and cases, you suddenly realize there is no longer a safety net–the buck stops with you. You’re no longer worried about disappointing a partner with the quality of your research or writing in a memo or a brief. Instead, you’re worried about losing the case or the client, or both.

I’ve spent the past decade or so learning to adjust to this new reality. It was harsh at first, a little bit like my experience as a Southern Californian visiting Alaska in January for depositions. But I’ve evolved and actually developed some strategies to cope with the sturm und drang that is inevitable in an active litigation practice.

Recognize It’s Cyclic

The first step I’ve found useful is to be objective and recognize that, for most of us, episodes or periods of extreme stress tend to be cyclic. There will be demanding times and slow times. When I find I’m in a particularly demanding period, I remind myself that this will at some point pass and life will return to normal. At least my practice is cyclic and I know there will come a time when I’m slow again and hungry for excitement. If you are reading this and shaking your head, “no, there’s never a break,” then I think you might need to take a look at changing how you manage your professional life. Seriously.

Communicate With Those Close To You

I’ve only had the experience of being married to another lawyer. But if your spouse or significant other is not a lawyer (or even if they, too, practice) it can be challenging for them to comprehend the extreme stress we experience when we are preparing for trial, or are in trial, or are just too friggin’ busy. Communication can be key to making it through these periods. Even if you bore your family to death describing what you’re working on, they will appreciate being included and better understand the challenges you’re facing and the stress you’re under.

Get Outside And Get Some Exercise

Speaking for myself, the first thing that seems to happen when I go into “lockdown” mode is that I forget all about exercise or diet. I tend to be chained to my desk and I give in and eat a lot of crap I generally avoid when I’m more in balance. If I don’t actively force myself to get outside, I’ll pass several days sitting at my desk, only venturing outdoors long enough to get to and from my office or pick up lunch or dinner. Really unhealthy! I’ve learned, however, if I set my iPhone alarm to go off at 3 in the afternoon, I can force myself to leave the office and walk for at least a half hour. This not only provides a break with some mild exercise, it reminds me there is a world outside  that hasn’t stopped spinning just because I got busy. This small slice of exercise, daylight and reality can be refreshing and helps me not to be so irritable about being so busy.

Look On The Bright Side

Although I’m stressed and missing my family and chained to a desk getting fat, I actually find that our profession is most exciting and rewarding to me when I’m either in trial or getting ready for a trial. There’s something about this time, when a case is (hopefully) starting to really come together and make sense and we are nearing the point of no return that I find stimulating. I try to appreciate these times and, again, remind myself it’s all cyclic and before too long things will slow down and return to “normal.”

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