Are You a Healthy Lawyer?
So many things factor into whether or not a person is healthy. “Healthy” is a concept we all define slightly differently, which complicates things when you are trying to give tips on becoming just that. While I’m no health expert, after spending many years working in Biglaw, I do know that, no matter what your definition of healthy is, lots of lawyers don’t come close to meeting it. The stressful environment of Biglaw, like many other corporate offices, makes staying healthy especially challenging, but it can be done.
Based on my time spent in Biglaw and having made both healthy and unhealthy choices over the years there, below are my top seven habits that I think all lawyers would benefit from adopting. None of these are earth shatteringly innovative things, and I’m sure you’ve heard them before, but they are tips and strategies that have worked for me and for those colleagues of mine who remain in Biglaw. I hope they help you, too!
Top 7 Habits of Healthy Lawyers
Healthy people move their bodies and elevate their heart rates every day. Going to the gym, taking a yoga class or taking your dog to the park have long been prescribed as great ways to keep you healthy. Everyone is busy, but squeezing in the time for exercise should be your number one priority. That being said, it’s not always that simple for Biglaw lawyers…
Making it work in Biglaw: healthy lawyers make the time to work out, even if it takes an extra effort and lots of trial and error to figure out when they can squeeze in the time to do so.
Healthy Biglaw lawyers prepare ahead of time and are flexible when it comes to fitting in the time to exercise (like being open to going for a run in the middle of the day when there is a lull in the work, if you know you’ll be at the office until 2a.m. that night).
Sometimes you even need to prioritize exercise above a client’s needs (gasp!). This can be extremely challenging, especially for younger attorneys, but remind yourself that being unavailable for one hour so you can go for a walk or a run is beneficial to everyone, clients included, if it keeps you healthy and at the top of your game.
2. EAT TO FUEL:
Healthy people eat to fuel their bodies and avoid junk food. I could go on and on about what a healthy diet is and link to a million different studies that each contradict another about what the best diet is, so I won’t go there. What I do know is that if you limit your intake of packaged junk-food and eat food that gives you energy instead of sucking it from you, you’ll be healthier for it.
Making it work in Biglaw: healthy lawyers know what a “healthy” diet is for them, and they stick to that diet no matter what challenges and stressors Biglaw throws at them.
Snacks, catered, greasy lunches and free, fatty sandwiches seem to always be available at a law firm. Not to mention the worst diet enemy of all – dinner delivered to your desk while you continue to work.
Even the healthiest eaters will occasionally succumb to Seamless dinner orders that resemble McDonalds’ meals more than homemade ones, but you can avoid this by preparing ahead of time. Plan a few go-to delivery orders, so that when you are starving and have to eat yet another dinner at your desk, you can easily make a better choice for yourself. If you can avoid the free food during the day and unhealthy Seamless dinners at night, you’ll be well on your way to becoming (or staying) a healthy lawyer.
3. MEDITATE / DEEP BREATHING:
Healthy people know how to regroup, take a few breaths and calm down during stressful situations. The most even-keeled amongst them also have some sort of daily meditation practice.
Making it work in Biglaw: healthy lawyers meditate and have strategies for calming themselves down when Biglaw is causing their stress levels to rise through the roof. Whether this means closing your door, putting on some headphones, going for a walk alone or finding a quiet, abandoned office at the end of a rarely used hallway, have a strategy in place to reduce your stress levels.
If you’re interested in starting a meditation practice but have no idea where to begin, definitely check out Dan Harris’ book 10 Per Cent Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story (affiliate link). The book details his journey to finding meditation and becoming not only happier but also calmer and more at peace.
Since Biglaw lawyers are notoriously skeptical (it’s basically their job to be, right?), I’d also suggest taking a look at Dan Harris’ second book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10 Percent Happier How-to Book (affiliate link). The title explains it all.
4. SET BOUNDARIES:
Healthy people set aside time to totally unplug from work and don’t give up their entire lives for the sake of their jobs.
Making it work in Biglaw: healthy lawyers put up boundaries and stick to them, even if it doesn’t seem like they can or should. If not, Biglaw will take that time from them and they will very likely burn out (see #6 below).
As hard as it might be, the one thing I found that actually works to help carve out personal time within Biglaw was to put that personal time on the calendar. Your calendar can be your saving grace if you schedule personal things on there and actually honor them. You are not going to get fired for sticking up for yourself and occasionally having a personal life, so make sure you schedule it in.
5. LIMIT DRINKING:
Healthy people don’t abuse alcohol and don’t need it to have fun at social events. Like exercise, eating and most other habits, everyone has a different idea as to what it means to have a healthy relationship with alcohol (but I think most of us can agree that drinking during the day/work, blacking out or stumbling home night after night are not healthy habits). Healthy people know what their own healthy relationship with alcohol is and they honor that.
Making it work in Biglaw: healthy lawyers may drink on occasion but not to excess, and they know how to stay within their limits, even when alcohol is abundant and encouraged.
Alcohol is a big part of Biglaw but it doesn’t have to be. Nobody cares if you don’t partake, so you shouldn’t feel pressured to. But if you do drink, the options in Biglaw are endless. Cocktail parties, client dinners, summer associate events – the list goes on and on.
To start, I think healthy lawyers are those who are able to attend firm events without having to drink. It should always be a choice and you should never feel pressured “for your career” to drink. You’ll still have to attend these events, but nobody cares what’s in your glass.
6. KNOW THE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF BURNOUT:
Healthy people intuitively know when enough is enough. They can sense when they are beginning to burn out, they adjust their lives, recharge and stop burnout in its tracks.
Making it work in Biglaw: healthy lawyers know the signs and symptoms of burnout, too, and they are on the lookout for these symptoms in themselves and others. There isn’t really a difference between how a Biglaw lawyer and anyone else should approach burnout, as the signs and symptoms are the same for everyone, but Biglaw lawyers need to be hyper-aware of these signs because burnout in the law is so prevalent. You owe it to yourself to familiarize yourself with the signs, which include:
- Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
- Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
For a full list of signs and symptoms, causes, risk factors, consequences and handling job burnout, take a look at the Mayo Clinic’s article on How to Stop Job Burnout and Take Action.
7. ASK FOR HELP:
Healthy people ask for help when they are feeling overwhelmed or simply need some extra hands or guidance on a particular task.
Making it work in Biglaw: healthy lawyers, despite belonging to a culture that doesn’t necessarily encourage asking for help and might even view it as a sign of weakness, ask for help, too. They have a large support network of people within the firm and outside of it that they can turn to for help before they reach a breaking point.
Because the Biglaw culture prides itself on “powering through” (sometimes all night) and sacrificing anything (i.e., its lawyers) to get the work done, you might think you can’t ask for help. For this reason, I encourage lawyers to not only ask for help when they need it, but to offer it and make themselves someone at the firm that other lawyers can feel comfortable confiding in. Which brings me to my closing thoughts – how you can and should contribute to the health of your coworkers.
How About Your Coworkers – Are They Healthy Lawyers?
A good law firm associate is always available to his colleagues and his clients, pulls his own weight on the team and provides excellent legal advice. An excellent associates goes above and beyond this: he not only looks out for the firm’s partners and clients by providing excellent legal services, he looks out for his own health and for the health of his colleagues, too.
Biglaw, like so many jobs, even ones that are truly 9-5s, takes up so many hours of a person’s day. No matter where you work, if you take a step back and look at your waking hours, you are very likely spending more time with your co-workers than with your family and friends, even those family members that you live with. This means that even though Biglaw co-workers aren’t technically your family, you owe it to them to look out for their health, too.
This can be a tricky line to toe – how do you interject about someone’s health, something so personal – when they aren’t your family? Awkward as it could be, it is an important to do. I encourage you to familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of burnout, not only for yourself, but for your Biglaw family members, too.
If you’re a part of the legal community, whether a law student or lawyer or simply know someone who is, you probably read this heartbreaking piece written by Joanna Litt about her husband, Gabe MacConaill, who was a partner in Sidley Austin’s LA office and died by suicide a few months ago at the age of 42. The title of her article – “Big Law Killed My Husband” – makes it clear how Joanna feels about Biglaw and the culture that contributed to her husband’s death, but there is more to the story, as she writes, and it is absolutely worth the read.
One point in her story that really struck a chord in me was a response a colleague of Gabe’s gave when Joanna asked her, shortly before his death, if she had noticed anything unusual about his behavior at work. The colleague told her that he’d been working with his door closed more often and that “his sense of humor had been gone for a while.”
There are so many little things – a closed door, a shut-off sense of humor – that we as colleagues can notice about our Biglaw family that their actual family can’t see because they simply don’t spend as much time with their loved ones as we do. As healthy lawyers, we owe it to our colleagues and their families to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves and each other. So if you see something amiss, in the physical or mental health of your colleagues, reach out and check in and see what you can do to help.