As lawyers increasingly moved to remote work during the pandemic, it became apparent that working remotely can be effective, efficient and a viable way to conduct business. This is a powerful realization. The law firms and businesses that will succeed will be those that embrace a new vision for what lawyering looks like, which not only refers to where and how we work but also how we are supported in our roles.
A healthy workforce is a productive one. It is imperative that we recognize the importance of caring for our minds and bodies. Cultivating a culture of well-being is vital to adapt to this new workforce. Adaptation is key. Flexibility in work can significantly reduce the struggles we all face when balancing our personal and professional lives and better equip lawyers to care for their own mental, emotional and physical needs.
So How Does Well-Being Work?
Well-being isn’t just casual Fridays and bubble baths. Well-being is a state of mind. There is a whole science evidencing the benefits of increasing lawyer effectiveness by encouraging wellness, well-being, and implementation of personal and systemic strategies. Well-being considers quantum physics, which is the study of how the universe works. It explains how everything in your world came to be part of your world. We are directly in control of our physical world, even though we may not be aware of it. The key is to understand how all the parts work together to create the circumstances you desire.
How do we make choices that will lead to fulfillment? First, we must become aware. Awareness is not just about being aware of our circumstances; it’s about becoming aware of how those circumstances came to be. Lawyers often struggle because we are constrained by our limiting beliefs of how we must practice law. Lawyers may have created habits that hurt their well-being because of those beliefs. Habits are involuntary. We do them instinctually and without thought. However, by paying attention to your habits, you then become consciously aware of those patterns and behaviors and can choose to continue or alter that habit. To overcome limiting beliefs and negative patterns, you must confront unconscious behaviors and patterns to evaluate whether they are beneficial or no longer serve you.
On my own personal journey of self-discovery, awareness has both helped me overcome negative patterns and toxic habits and helped me shift my perspective. I have become actively aware of the things and people that do not serve me and find the power within that I needed to grow and let go. This all starts in your mind, with your thoughts.
Thoughts become things. Your thoughts are powerful. The profession of law can feel overwhelming at times. The demand on our time and energy is high, and we often meet clients when they are at their worst, which can be emotionally taxing for us as well.
How Can We Protect Our Energy and Mindsets?
One way to protect our mindset is to avoid dwelling on the things we don’t want or like, such as the possibility of an unfavorable case outcome. Focusing on the negative only attracts and perpetuates the negative. Instead, change the lens through which you perceive the situation.
For instance, if you are financially struggling in your practice, use that as a sign that you should re-evaluate where you are spending your time and energy rather than making unconscious (or conscious) assumptions that you are a failure. Perhaps you should charge more or you should eliminate a legal service you offer. Removing unprofitable services frees up your time to focus on that which is more rewarding and likely more profitable to you.
Similarly, if you are focused on the possibility of unfavorable verdict, then you are likely to become more anxious. Instead, focus on your desired outcome and the merits of your case. Shifting your focus toward a positive outcome can help alleviate some of the inherent pressures of the job that can lead to burnout or toxic stress. Also, drop the “I can’t” and “I’m not” statements. If you keep telling yourself that you aren’t a good enough lawyer or can’t find time to get things done, then you will never feel good enough and you will never find time. After enough negative self-talk, eventually you will believe and become your lies because that is the reality you have created and the truth about your narrative that you have written.
As a result of our thoughts, we trigger emotional responses, and our emotions dictate our physical and mental state. There are several ways in which you can control your thoughts to elicit a positive emotional response. To achieve your desired emotional state, you can focus on things and people that you appreciate, express gratitude, perform acts of service and create a self-care routine. Practicing these things can lead to greater empathy, self-awareness, creativity, connection and happiness.
Reimagining the Practice of Law
With the growing movement toward do-it-yourself legal services and the relaxed regulations on providers, more clients are turning to online, remote, alternative legal services and legal technicians who are more adequately addressing the needs of the masses. With advances in technology and initiatives to bring archaic practice rules into the modern-day realities of the practice of law, lawyers have untapped potential to reimagine what it looks like to practice law. As lawyers, the time is ripe for us to capitalize on this by utilizing technology and creating more efficient processes and systems. Remote work is the first step toward making that shift.
Mental Health Risks of Remote Work
The pandemic forced law firms to quickly pivot to remote work. Most firms were not prepared for the transition, which not only put strain on law firms but also put strain on lawyers. Even though remote work has become more commonplace in many industries, most lawyers are still accustomed to a conventional brick-and-mortar office environment. Two prominent concerns with this shift from conventional office to remote work are burnout and isolation
One struggle for attorneys learning to work remotely is establishing clear work boundaries. It’s not uncommon for remote workers to work longer hours in pursuit of productivity or to feel like they need to overcompensate for their lack of physical presence. The line between personal and work life can become readily blurred, especially for lawyer parents who may have the added pressures of virtual schooling happening concurrently with their workday.
For the remote worker, it is very important to create and maintain healthy boundaries. Doing so can be supported by set times to turn off notifications, creating a dedicated office space and setting regular business hours.
I have been running a virtual office for over six years, so our operations didn’t change, and I was accustomed to the remote lifestyle. However, now that every interaction I have is remote, I have struggled myself with being immersed in the virtual world constantly. I have found that for conferences and other meetings, I am far more successful when I am removed from my daily routine and not worrying about wrapping up in time to pick up my kids from school. I have had to be very careful to keep all my work within the parameters I had previously established as a virtual practitioner. Doing so can be difficult when you are adding additional remote obligations to your regular workload. It is very important to get adequate sleep and maintain healthy eating habits. Remote work can sometimes drastically alter your daily routine. It is crucial to be cognizant of how you are tending to your physical health because stress can harm your overall well-being and lead to burnout.
Being isolated from the social aspects of the office environment can also impact our well-being. Loneliness is a potential setback of remote work, especially if you aren’t getting much social interaction from friends and family or elsewhere in your personal life. It is important to try to maintain the relationships you have with co-workers for your overall well-being and to enhance your performance. There are a ton of technology tools at our disposal to keep us connected, help people feel like part of the community and foster collaboration, even when the business is remote. Virtual coffee meetups and meditation breaks are a few great ways to bring people together or provide some respite from their computer. Replace the water cooler breaks with Teams chats.
How Remote Work Can Support Mental Health
If one can resolve the issues that arise from remote work, remote work can actually help to alleviate some stress-related issues that arise from work generally. When people have more time to devote to their personal lives, they can more easily maintain overall wellness.
I created my entirely virtual law practice because I had burned out in the traditional law practice model. The traditional model just didn’t work for me. My physical and mental health began to suffer, so I left the practice of law temporarily until I designed and launched my virtual practice. What was appealing to me about practicing remotely was that it allowed me the flexibility to remain meaningfully involved in the profession while fulfilling my personal responsibilities in a way in which I felt good. Remote work allows room for flexibility in work hours and schedules. Having flexibility as to when, how and where I work has had a huge, positive impact on my quality of life. Working remotely allows me to better accommodate my personal health routine and my family obligations. It also eliminates stressful commuting and allows for a better work-life balance.
Remote work was also appealing to me because it allowed me to reach and serve more clients. It has been better for my clients because it is a more convenient way to conduct business, offers fewer interruptions to their day and provides for more efficiency in the process. A greater number of work opportunities are available if physical geographical restrictions are removed, which also allows law firms to attract and hire from a more diverse and competitive pool of talent. Remote workers can also be more productive, as they tend to take shorter breaks, fewer sick days and less time off.
How to Avoid Stress and Burnout
It is as important to take care of your well-being as it is to hit your productivity benchmarks. As more people are adapting to remote work, here are a few ways to avoid stress and burnout.
First, learn to identify when you are burning out. If you are exhausted after a long workday or start losing interest in your job, then you may be experiencing burnout. Not only is this bad for your overall well-being, it can impact your performance at work. You can combat this by practicing regular self-care.
Some remote workers express a feeling of loneliness. Key tells for someone experiencing feelings of isolation are emotional outbursts, declining work performance, withdrawal and persistent sadness. Find ways to connect.
Law firm leadership can play a key role in supporting lawyers with well-being both in the office and working remotely. By educating and talking about mental health at work, the door can be opened for discussion for those struggling with work generally or remote work specifically. This may result in a sharing of solutions that help lawyers as a whole and will provide a layer of safety and validation for the individual. Law firms should consider providing and encouraging teams to take mental health days. Providing teams support in the pursuit of well-being can have significant positive effects for the members of the team and the law firm.