General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine


Finding a Life While Practicing Law


Phil J. Shuey has been a practicing lawyer in Colorado since 1969. He is president of Shuey Robinson, a 20-year-old international legal technology and future management consulting organization, which is now his primary professional practice. He is past chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section, and a five-time past chair of TECHSHOW™.

The impact of burnout on a lawyer or a firm is so substantial that it should be avoided by all means possible. No work or task is more important than maintaining good professional mental health. Fortunately, creation and regular use of good systems for quality of life issues can minimize professional burnout.

Many of the dissatisfaction problems associated with the practice of law can be attributed to a lack of consideration of quality of life issues. The problems can be more severe for the solo or small firm practitioner because these firms often lack the size and resources to provide the same “time off” alternatives as larger firms.

Thoughtful policies can help improve the quality of a lawyer’s professional life and minimize the prospect of disillusionment or even withdrawal from the practice of law. To improve your chances for finding a life while practicing law:

• Do what you love; love what you do

• Recognize your niche

• Define success

• Set reasonable expectations

• Fire problem clients

• Plan for time off

Love What You Do

It is difficult if not impossible to develop, sustain, and grow a law practice when you find your substantive area of practice unpleasant. You need to identify the tasks or interests that provide emotional, intellectual, or spiritual satisfaction. It is essential in this evaluation process to not restrict this analysis to matters of the law.

The first step is to tune the antennae—create a list of all of your interests in life that provide real and sustaining personal pleasure or satisfaction. Apply that list of interests to existing or projected practice areas. Remember that law practice is ever-evolving—what used to be law practice may now have shifted to nonlawyers while new areas of legal services are developing. Think “outside the box” to create a legal practice that could incorporate your identified interests and skills. Consider innovative ways in which such interest areas could be marketed to a targeted audience—this may be easier if you are already involved with others with the same interests.

Actively consider how to differentiate such a practice from others that are (or may appear to be) similar to prospective clients. Create a plan to grow such a practice and assure that others in the firm or the office are either equally committed to the change or supportive of the decision. The final measure: Is it fun? Do you actively look forward to going to work? If so, you have found the right practice area(s). If not, keep looking!

Recognize Your Niche

An adjunct to identifying what you would love to do is to identify those areas in which you are especially skilled. Some lawyers are naturally at ease with clients—others are more comfortable away from human interaction, instead creating or generating the work product for the client. Some lawyers enjoy negotiation, mediation, and resolution of conflicts. Other lawyers embrace adversarial work—they enjoy the “battle” of the courtroom. The problem solving involved in complex litigation or transactional issues may be attractive to other practitioners.

Carefully evaluate those tasks at which you are good. Strengths vary widely in the profession and no one lawyer has prowess in all substantive areas. Choose the niche that appears to be the best for meeting the “do what you love” admonition.

Define Success

Success has many possible measurements. For some, it is purely a function of financial success. For others, it is the satisfaction of helping people. For others, it is the prestige and recognition of being a lawyer in a particular practice (if prestige or positive recognition is possible in the current lawyer image-damaged environment). Many lawyers are willing to accept lower financial rewards for a higher quality of personal life.

It will be impossible to create a satisfying practice unless you have carefully and clearly identified what the measurement(s) of success will be. These must be quantified. Use a yellow pad to write down those measurements of success for the next 12 months. Can your objectives be met with your current practice? Can they be better accomplished after using the “do what you love” exercise? Can the objectives be measured reliably? Create a reporting system every quarter to help measure those objectives and achieve the goal of greater success.

Reasonable Expectations

It is important to set reasonable expectations for the new “quality of life”-focused practice. Just as a new lawyer will lack a portfolio of clients, so will the law firm attempting to substantially change or alter the course of its practice. It is reasonable to assume that measurable success might be a year or more away.

Regardless, it is important to work the plan for success and to expect accomplishments at a measured rate. The task may seem daunting. The answer to the question, “How do you eat an elephant?” (i.e., the massive reorganization of the law practice), is “one bite at a time” (i.e., the accomplishment of a series of much smaller segments of the overall task). The process of developing a different professional life is often complex. Break the plan into smaller increments and set the expectations at incremental levels.

Client Relations

Many of your concerns about a scheduled absence can be addressed by advisories to clients and others while out of the office. A word of caution: Avoid widespread disclosure of your absence from town. Criminals are skillful at noting when a home will be unoccupied. It is prudent to be a bit vague about your whereabouts in professional communications. From the clients’ perspective, the only important information is that you will be out of the office, and that the firm has the means of contacting you in the event of an emergency.

It may be prudent to send a carefully worded letter to key clients to indicate your lack of availability during a particular time. Such notice will usually remind clients of their importance to the firm (you notified them, after all), as well as eliminate most, if not all, nonemergency contact.

If you regularly use e-mail for communications, explore whether your e-mail software will allow you to create an “auto-answer” message to be sent to anyone who sends an e-mail during your absence. Again, care should be exercised in the content of the message. Make sure the feature will not create a loop by sending multiple messages to recipients in a List Serve. If an “auto-answer” feature is not available, or if more screening seems prudent, designate someone you trust in the office to read and respond to all business e-mail. Change your password before arranging for such monitoring, and again upon return to protect your privacy.

Fire Problem Clients

Evaluate current clients and determine the ones that pose a “problem” for the firm. These clients extract more emotional and intellectual resources than are offset by financial and professional rewards. Then, when professionally and ethically appropriate, “fire” the client.

Such an action, while potentially appearing harsh, may actually benefit the client. Clients that do not have your full respect, support, or interest cannot receive the maximum benefits from your efforts. Another lawyer may be a better match for the client’s personality or matter. There are many reasons to “accept” disagreeable clients or matters in which you lack the appropriate interest or commitment, but no reason offsets the potential damage to the lawyer’s mental health or quality of life.

Calendar That Vacation

Even with the best-planned practice, there is always a need to get away from the office for rest, relaxation, or just a change of pace. It is important to identify the kind of vacation that is needed or desired. Not all vacations are (or should be) the same. A tour of art museums in Europe may be intellectually rewarding but can be extremely busy and tiring. A vacation trip with the kids to Disney World in Orlando may be more relaxing for the children than for the parents, but offers the benefit of quality family time. A backwoods fishing or beachside vacation can be refreshing or boring, dependent upon your viewpoint and needs. The one immutable axiom is that every lawyer needs to get away from the practice periodically. The kind of vacation should be determined by the need that the lawyer is trying to address: personal time for reflection, quality time with the family, intellectual stimulation, or just rest and relaxation.

When to vacation may be as important as the type of vacation. Certainly that decision may be driven by the availability of others involved in the vacation. It must also include consideration of personal needs. The overriding objective is to avoid professional burnout and dissatisfaction. The vacation should be taken before these problems set in.

At a certain point, no matter how committed a lawyer is to the practice, the needs of the clients or the requirements of the firm will cause the lawyer to lose effectiveness and energy. One of the goals of time away from the office should be the rejuvenation of the lawyer.

Not all vacations or other time away from the office will meet the same needs. Someone who is emotionally and intellectually exhausted needs to avoid pressures and just relax. Others may benefit from a romantic interlude or quality time with the family. It is important to determine who else should be involved in the vacation (if anyone).

Where to vacation will be dictated, to some extent, by the nature of the vacation. For some, just being away from the office, even at home, is enough to obtain the rest and relaxation required; for others, real physical separation from the office is mandatory. A vacation can be obtained anywhere, as long as it meets the needs of the lawyer. An “at home” vacation can meet the requirement to recharge and relax, as long as the lack of physical separation does not cause the lawyer to yield to the temptation to start working from home.

A major problem is determining when a vacation can be taken. Vacations cannot wait for an ease in work pressures. That time will never come. A vacation must be scheduled just as a trial date would be set. It should be scheduled far enough in advance to assure that client needs can be met well in advance and that unexpected demands are unlikely to derail the vacation plans. Certain types of vacation will have special requirements. For example, a family vacation may require scheduling during children’s school vacations. A foreign vacation should involve consideration of the weather and access to attractions at the destination. The key element in each case is to schedule well in advance of the vacation dates. An additional benefit of early planning is that costs can often be controlled by such early arrangements (e.g., lower advance excursion airfares, reduced advance cruise booking discounts, or even hotel discounts at certain times of the year).

Challenges for Solos and Small Firms

A number of challenges are unique to the solo practice. Coverage for client matters during the solo’s absence must be arranged with other lawyers or firms. Consider the tasks and work to be accomplished by the office staff during the lawyer’s absence. Take into account administrative issues, such as the issuance of payroll checks, payment of bills, and other routine administrative tasks.

Solos should expect that cash flow will be affected during the vacation period—no billable hours, no cash. Proper budgeting in the month(s) before the vacation will enable the office to create a cash reserve. If other office personnel (e.g., paralegals) can generate billable time, this will minimize the dip in firm revenues.

Offsetting those disadvantages is the flexibility that comes with a solo practice—the decision to take a vacation is the lawyer’s alone. Unfortunately, often the solo feels so indispensable that absence from the office creates an atmosphere of guilt. Whether that guilt is generated by ego, fear, or laziness, the reality is that taking a vacation will not create massive problems. No lawyer created the world—set your ego aside and treat a vacation as a mental health requirement.

Small firm practitioners have different problems than solos. Cash flow is not suspended and coverage should be guaranteed; however, expect logistical problems when coordinating the lawyers’ schedules. Since holidays and school vacations are often identical, taking a family vacation may be a problem because more than one lawyer may desire the same vacation time. Again, advance preparation and coordination are the keys to assure that everyone can take a vacation without harming the delivery of legal services or damaging the business of the firm.

Unfortunately, most lawyers suffer from a bit (or a lot) of “eleventh hour” syndrome, with work left to the last possible moment. That ailment can make the week before a vacation very difficult for the lawyer and the staff. It is essential to avoid the syndrome during the time immediately preceding a vacation. In reality, what is the worst that would happen if every bit of the desired work or tasks is not accomplished? As long as the client is informed and the rights of the client are not compromised, there is no reason to complete the tasks immediately before a vacation.

Anticipate the needs of current clients by careful review of their files and by personal contact several weeks before the vacation. Determine which tasks can be reasonably accomplished before the vacation and which should be scheduled for post-vacation. Little benefit is gained when the first few days of a vacation are devoted to regaining physical or mental health. Effectively the vacation period will be reduced by that number of days, and the lawyer risks an illness that could jeopardize the entire vacation.

The opposite problem is avoiding overload immediately after the vacation. Restrain the temptation to “catch up” with all postponed matters during the first week back to the office. Make an office policy not to overschedule appointments during that return week—in fact, underschedule actual appointments to allow time to work on required tasks and deal with unanticipated issues. Delegate tasks to others in the office whenever possible.

Communicate with clients as efficiently as possible to avoid a time crunch. Again, put the ego aside and recognize that not everything must be accomplished in the first week back in the office.

Relax and Let Go

Do you know how to relax on vacation? This requires an honest assessment of personality, plus consideration of the type of vacation desired or required. In all instances relaxation requires leaving the office behind. Carrying the problems, troubles, and issues of your clients on vacation will negate any advantages in being away from the office—because you aren’t away!

One symptom of this problem is the desire to stay in touch with the office. The first question is—do you need to stay in touch? The answer is often no! Leave your itinerary with a trusted member of your staff in the event of an emergency. Define what constitutes an emergency. Determine the best way to deal with an emergency contact, and alternatives in the event that contact is not possible. Provide a list of medical or personal information that the office can access if required. If telephone contact is truly required, set up an arrangement that will minimize the interruption of the vacation and coordinate with likely needs of the office. Remember to consider changes in time zones in setting the contact time(s). Ideally, contact should be made when least disruptive to the vacation schedule (i.e., at the beginning or end of the day) and most beneficial for the office (i.e., when the information obtained can be used to address the office needs).

In all cases, recognize the value and purpose of a vacation. Larger firms have often implemented sabbaticals as a means of enforced absence from the office to allow the lawyer to “recharge the batteries.” While the length (or even the concept) of a sabbatical may be unreasonable for a solo or small firm practitioner, the purpose of a vacation remains. This is a time of healing from the wounds caused by the pressures of the practice. Even if the practice is an exercise of love, the stresses remain. Those pressures require relief, and relief requires some time away from the office. Vacations should enable the lawyer to return to the firm refreshed and with a renewed commitment to excellence in the delivery of legal services. Everyone benefits—the firm, the lawyer, and the client. CL
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