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February 05, 2021 Feature

One Lawyer’s Take on Lawyer Wellness

Steve Shewmaker

My first legal mentor, Cathy, would tell her clients, “I don’t do emails, so call me instead.” This was Cathy’s disclaimer that made it all right to have 3,000 emails in her inbox that went barely read. But that was 20 years ago, and the world has changed so much. Even before the country embraced videoconferencing as an adequate substitute for in-person hearings as an answer to the COVID-19 pandemic, the courts routinely used email as a scheduling and notice forum.

When I was a new attorney, Cathy and many other colleagues advised me of the importance of lawyer wellness. It seemed their advice began and ended with only two maxims: First, take vacations often, and second, fire horrible clients. Over the years, I have embraced both but I consider lawyer wellness a much more profound matter. I find that true wellness requires much more than firing an unreasonable client and hopping a flight to Tahiti. In fact, some of my observations may seem counterintuitve to many attorneys, and some may even strongly disagree. What I provide here is not aspirational. I actually follow it every day.

Information Overload

Sting got it right when he sang, “Too much information running through my brain, Too much information driving me insane.” These days, no single factor threatens attorney wellness more than information overload. As I said, email has now become the de facto communication medium. Add to that, today we all have smartphones in our hands, linking us to our email accounts. And we take them with us everywhere we go. Judges, opposing counsel, our associates, and our clients frequently start conversations with, “Have you seen the email I just sent you?” You must not let information overwhelm you. When it does, it creates anxiety and a sense of hopelessness. It also causes you to miss the important things—the deadlines, the really urgent client messages, and important inquiries from judges. To avoid information overload, I recommend three things.

First, get rid of multiple email accounts. They are distracting and inefficient. I used to have a law firm email account, another one for personal email, another for online purchases, and yet another issued to me by the U.S. Army when I was in the reserves. Multiple accounts were supposed to streamline my life. Instead, I was always checking them to make sure I was not missing something important. I had multiple passwords, and I found myself transferring things back and forth between my own accounts. Now, I operate with a single email account.

Second, do not let your emails get out of control! Again, you cannot see with any clarity when you have 2,000 emails in your inbox. On a good day, I strive for less than ten in my inbox when I go home for the evening. To achieve this requires you to remain constantly vigilant to overload. I set up email subfolders in my clients’ names. I even set up subfolders for nonclient materials that frequent my inbox. For example, I have subfolders for online purchases (by year), accounts receivable (which our office manager emails me daily), and various civic projects that I am currently a part of. The point is that when large numbers of like-minded emails flow into my inbox, I read them and file them in a simple, intuitive way, always with the goal of reducing the size of my inbox.

Third, program time to reduce email overload. Typically, I find that if I attempt to reduce a large number of emails, I will become mired in the task of digesting information and responding. Instead, I program a set amount of time (I actually use a stopwatch, typically set to twenty minutes at a time) with the goal of filing away emails. If they are simple and take little time or require no urgent attention, I will quickly read and file them. If they take more time (say a long email from a fussy client or multiple emails from a client), I will print them in a batch, file them, and then read them later as a batch. By doing this, I reduce the size of my inbox quickly, and I set aside a batch (or a single long email) for more attention when I have the time to focus.

Organize and Capture Your Time

Few things are as frustrating as coming to the end of your day (or your billing cycle!) and asking yourself, “What did I do with that time?” I find that everyone is different in this regard, but to reduce stress (and safeguard your wellness), you must capture your time. Doing this not only makes you feel productive; it drives productivity. This is how I do it.

First, keep it simple. If you like fancy billing and case management software systems, use them by all means. I keep things simple with a single billing software program and a single organizational system (Microsoft Outlook). I print off my Outlook daily calendar every night for the following day. The next day, I use the calendar to keep me on track. I keep track of all tasks, from major events (e.g., mediations, depositions, court appearances) to the myriad of small things that erode your day. I keep my daily calendar next to me all day—no matter where I go. I write on it in my own shorthand what I did and the time it took. Typically, the first thing I do the following morning is review these notes (as they are still fresh in my memory) and input them into my billing system. When I am done, I drop these daily calendars into a file folder for reference until the end of the quarter.

Second, visit your calendar a lot! Have you ever had a client show up unexpectedly, but it turned out she was on your calendar? Have you ever gotten that dreaded call from the judge’s office asking why you are not in court? All the fancy automated reminders in the world are not as useful as finding the discipline to look at your calendar, so do it! I print off my calendar for tomorrow every night as the last ritual of my day. Before I quit the office, I study the calendar, highlighting my appointments and making sure that I know where I need to be and at what time. As I say above, I use this simple tool to also capture my time.

Third, build your priorities. At least once a week, I will look at my calendar three to five weeks in advance. I do this “big picture” review for major events, discovery deadlines, depositions, client meetings, and, of course, trials. Then, I write a list of critical events based on this calendar review. These events then become my working priority list. Always be vigilant of these priorities. Typically, these are the clients that depend on you for your advance preparation. So, your priority list is your reminder and your defense against people and things that will attempt to suck away your valuable time.

Take Care of Yourself

Taking care of yourself is wellness. While it may seem counterintuitive to work harder at working harder or working more to be less stressful, think about that for a second. It is overflow, not feeling rewarded for the time invested, and running from one emergency to the next that causes the most stress. And this stress cannot be alleviated properly only by running fifty miles a week or only by going to the beach for a week every quarter. In this information age, we find wellness by embracing information and digesting it properly so that we can also find the time to make it to the aerobics class and take a family vacation. How many lawyers do you know who go on vacation just to answer emails at the beach? I don’t have all the answers, and many of my colleagues may disagree with my techniques or have other ideas. The point is that I see the stress of the profession. I experience it. No diversion makes it go away, so dealing with it—pushing through it effectively—is the main and best way to achieve wellness. If you read my thoughts and take away even one new idea that may help you, then our time was not wasted. Best of luck, and stay well!

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Steve Shewmaker is a founding partner of Shewmaker & Shewmaker in Atlanta, Georgia. Steve represents military service members and retirees in family law and criminal issues. Steve has over twenty years of military service in the active Army and the Army Reserves and still serves as an Army Reserve Judge Advocate.