December 01, 2019 The BLT (Balanced Life Theory)

Small Efforts Can Advance Attorney Well-Being

Cedric Ashley

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Start conversations with other attorneys on 
the topic of attorney well-being

Start conversations with other attorneys on the topic of attorney well-being

You don’t need to work in a large organization to benefit from an attorney well-being policy or program. As a solo or small firm practitioner, you can adopt your own practices that drive attorney well-being within the profession. To achieve this, you must begin with the mind-set that it can be done. We always must overcome self-imposed obstacles: my practice is too busy; I’ll never get (or keep) clients who will be understanding; I must keep my phone on 24 hours a day; my clients expect an immediate response. These are not always true. We must be intentional about making choices that will lead to well-being in our lives and in the profession. Outlined below are some easy-to-implement practices to help get you there.

Consent to Adjournments

Seems like everyone from solos to Big Law is super busy in the world of litigation. For that reason, I automatically consent to attorneys’ reasonable requests for an adjournment or an extension of a deadline, until they give me reason to believe they are taking advantage of the policy. I don’t need to know them personally, and I don’t need verification of their reason. I just need to know they are a fellow member of the bar.

Create Communication Boundaries

Although I may look at work e-mails or texts before 9:00 am or after 5:00 pm Monday through Friday, I generally will not respond to them during these off-hours. Similarly, I limit my phone calls to this period. In doing this, I am sending the signal to clients and attorneys that I usually don’t respond after hours. I am also hoping that they will reciprocate and not communicate with me after hours. This doesn’t mean I am totally disengaged. I may review e-mails for a reasonable period of time after hours in preparation for the next day, but I am still limiting my outbound traffic during the after-hours.

Take Advantage of Time When A Trial Settles

You have blocked out one or more weeks for a trial, and like clockwork the civil case settles, or the criminal case reaches a reasonable plea resolution. This often happens on the eve of trial or the morning of trial, and what do we usually do? We wrap up that case and get back to the office to attend to the next file. I also used to do this—but not anymore. Because I already had the time blocked out for trial, I would be unavailable. I now use at least that first and sometimes second canceled day as a day off or vacation day. I don’t fit in new client appointments, and I don’t dive into the next case. I take just a little time for me. It’s all about mind-set. If you were on trial, you would not have been able to work on that next item or meet that potential client. You would not have felt any guilt or pressure to check off the next item. I’m not suggesting you take off the entire time that was allotted for trial, but try a day or two to come down from the stress of trial prep. If you are in a position to take a spur-of-the-moment short vacation, the same principle applies: You would not be available, so don’t guilt-trip yourself for taking the time off.

Become Aware of Religious Observances

To the extent the possible, I pay attention to religious observances and holidays of attorneys I am engaged in litigation with. In today’s age this is easy. For example, Apple’s iCalendar self-populates with various religious holidays. Do you need to limit yourself to only one day a month to file and serve documents? Not at all. You are only being conscious of dates and observances if they matter to attorneys involved in the cases. Does it take some intentionality? Yes. It means you are trying to pay attention to who the attorneys are. You are trying to listen to what they are saying— not merely listening to respond.

Rename the War Room

Recently, I was taking a deposition at a midsized firm. During a break in the deposition, I was speaking with defendant’s counsel, and he directed me into a large conference room near our deposition room. Next to the door was a temporary sign that read “War Room.” Decades ago as a young lawyer, I would have seen the sign as a clarion call get into the fight and prepare our case to do battle with “the enemy.”

Now, a bit older and a bit wiser, I see nothing inspiring about such a term. Why we would even liken a legal dispute to the concept of war? Even with a “just” or “necessary” war, we are seeing humanity at its worst, with no alternative to causing destruction, death, and injury in advancement of a political agenda. That alone should cause us to shelve the term. In war there are allies and enemies. We cannot feed the mind-set that a fellow attorney is the enemy or an agent of the enemy. Likewise, our client’s adversary is not the enemy—regardless of how many dirty tactics they may stoop to. They are the adversary only in this case. And the room is simply a litigation room.

Be Mindful of Titles

Recently, I started the practice of no longer referring to an attorney as “opposing counsel” or my “adversary.” I will either address them by their first name (if appropriate) or as “Attorney Last Name.” The more I personally address other attorneys (in writing as well), the better I can identify with them, empathize with them, and see them as colleagues and not just counsel for the other party.

Inform Your Clients

If you don’t already have one, you might want to consider adding a new addendum to your agreement for legal services that outlines some of the client-facing suggestions listed here, such as communication time periods and case managements practices (your discretion to grant adjournments and extensions). Use your state’s rules of professional conduct to your advantage to explain why your guidelines are in place. The extent to which the client signals reluctance to the guidelines may be the telltale sign of what lies ahead.

Share Your Efforts

You can also start conversations with other attorneys on the topic of attorney well-being. Whatever you are doing now that works and if you choose a suggestion highlighted in this article, talk to a fellow attorney about it. Find out what they are doing. If you are involved in a solo and small firm section or division on the state bar level, start the conversation to find out what others are doing. By collecting the varied practices, you might be able to develop a “compact” among your fellow members that can serve as a well-being/professionalism initiative within your bar association.

Pick Something and Start

You have to begin somewhere. The huge ship that is your practice may not turn on a dime like a speedboat, but you should decide when to begin the slow, steady turn to your newly charted course. It is not as hard as you think. You just need to start. What I have outlined here are only suggestions to consider. If you like any of the items, begin to incorporate them into your practice. If they have generated thoughts about other practices, try those. But remember to be intentional. We can think of many reasons why we can’t or shouldn’t be concerned about attorney well-being. The difficult part just might be convincing ourselves that those reasons likely have no basis in fact.

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Cedric Ashley, Esq., is a sole practitioner (Ashley Law Firm) in Princeton, New Jersey, concentrating in business, employment, and criminal litigation. Cedric is the Editor-in-Chief of GPSolo magazine and an elected member of the ABA GPSolo Division’s General Council for the 2017–2021 term. In the New Jersey State Bar Association Cedric has served as Co-Chair of the Diversity Committee and the Law Office Management Committee.

Published in GPSolo magazine, Volume 36, Number 6, November/December 2019. © 2019 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.