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Law Practice Magazine

The Management Issue

From Overwhelmed to be in Control: Creating a Sustainable Workload for Legal Practitioners

Tracy Lalonde


  • With heavy workloads in the legal profession, strategies are needed to maintain a sustainable workload and prevent chronic stress.
  • Overwork traps, such as the illusion of catching up, underestimating task time and the myth of sole capability, contribute to feelings of overwhelm and should be recognized and avoided.
  • The ASAP mentality and always-on pressure exacerbate stress levels, highlighting the importance of managing client expectations.
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Many studies report that heavy workload is the number one cause of burnout. But let’s be candid. You don’t need research to tell you that. You’ve likely experienced it at times throughout your career, whether you’re a veteran or newer to the profession.

The question becomes what to do about it. The answer isn’t as simple as declining work, though. For the record, that is an option. Likely, the better question is how to contain it so you can truly enjoy what you do rather than always feel overloaded, overwhelmed and stressed.

In this article, we’ll spend time identifying some unrealized practices or behaviors that may have contributed to your overloaded state, and then we’ll offer strategies for a more sustainable workload. You may find that many of the tips in this article are common sense but not always common practice.

Overwork Traps

Falling into certain traps can exacerbate the feeling of being overwhelmed. These are habits or thought patterns that feel like they’re helping you but can actually make your workload worse and push you toward stress and burnout. Recognizing and avoiding these traps is the first step toward creating a sustainable workload.

The Illusion of Getting on Top of Things

It is easy to think that if you just put in some extra hours today, maybe stay late or work through lunch, you'll catch up and have a lighter day tomorrow. The intention to "get on top of things" can occasionally be beneficial. However, when this practice becomes the norm, it results in prolonged overwork and diminishing returns on health and efficiency.

It’s important to recognize the warning signs:

  • Consistently working late. If the extra hour or two at the end of the day becomes the norm, it’s a red flag.
  • Weekend work becoming routine. When your weekends are just extensions of your workweek, that’s a sign that the balance is off.
  • Never-ending to-do list. An extensive, running task list makes you feel like you’re never “done” for the day—or maybe ever.

Underestimating Time

A common pitfall many legal professionals encounter is underestimating how much time tasks will take. This isn't just about being optimistic; it's about facing two main issues.

First, when facing new or unfamiliar tasks, estimating time can be tricky due to a lack of experience. Second, not accounting for the myriad interruptions that can occur throughout the day often leads to overly ambitious plans and subsequent frustration.

Why does this happen? There are a few possible reasons:

  • The optimism bias. It's human nature to hope things will go smoothly, which can cause you to underestimate task durations.
  • Lack of experience. When dealing with tasks you haven't tackled before, it's challenging to gauge how long they'll really take.
  • Not accounting for the impact of interruptions. In a perfect world, you would work uninterrupted. Emails, calls and unexpected issues constantly demand your attention. When you don’t account for these interruptions in your daily to-do list, your day always extends.

The Myth of “Only I Can Do It Best.”

The misconception that you are the only one who can achieve the best outcome for a particular task is a familiar trap for many who strive for excellence in their legal work. This belief not only inflates an individual's workload but also stifles the team's growth and development. We cling to this myth for a variety of reasons:

  • Perfectionism. A desire for everything to be done perfectly can lead you to believe that only you can meet these standards.
  • Control issues. A lack of trust in others to handle tasks to your satisfaction can make delegation feel risky.
  • Identity and worth. Sometimes, your sense of professional identity becomes entwined with being the go-to person, which can make it hard to let go.

ASAP Mentality

Client service is a critical component in the legal profession. You get an email or a request, and instantly, you feel the pressure to respond. This is the "ASAP Mentality" at work, pushing us to act fast in the competitive world of legal services. We are led to believe that we need to answer right away, fearing that if we don't, our clients will find someone who will.

But let's take a step back. How often does a client walk away because they didn't get an immediate response from you? You're so wired to react instantly that you might not be seeing the real picture. Could your rush to respond be more about your own fears than your clients' actual expectations?

If you learn to recognize—and more importantly, manage—this mentality, you could see a significant reduction in your stress levels. It's not about completely abandoning prompt responses or undervaluing your clients’ time—let's be clear about that. It's about understanding when it's truly necessary to race the clock and how you can better negotiate timelines. Don't you think your stress management could be a whole lot better if you did that?

Can you imagine what your workday would look like then? Instead of juggling tasks and emails like hot potatoes, you might get the space to breathe, strategize, and most importantly, focus on quality instead of only speed.

Always-On Pressure

ASAP mentality extends into the feeling of always-on pressure. In a world where being connected 24/7 has become the norm, it’s easy to see how this expectation can sneak up on you. It starts with your own assumptions about availability and the fear of letting someone down. This can spiral into a cycle of stress, where you're glued to our devices, anxiously awaiting the next ping.

But here's a thought: What if you actively discussed availability and response times with your clients? Setting clear expectations can ease the burden of feeling like you need to be on call all the time. By establishing realistic boundaries for communication, you not only relieve your own stress but also foster a relationship based on mutual respect and understanding of each other's time.

Strategies for a More Sustainable Workload

Here are some strategies to manage your workload more sustainably.

  1. Add in time for interruptions to your daily to-do list. Plan your day with some room for possible interruptions. This will enable you to accommodate unexpected situations without putting your entire schedule off track.
  2. Define "done" for the day. Avoid a never-ending to-do list by defining what constitutes a successful workday for you. Understanding when it's time to disconnect can prevent overworking and enhance your work-life balance.
  3. Break down tasks. Instead of facing dauntingly large tasks, break them down into more manageable subtasks. This way, you can tackle them sequentially and feel more accomplished.
  4. Delegate 30 percent of your tasks. Effective delegation can free up a significant portion of your time. Aim to hand off at least 30 percent of your tasks, allowing others on your team to contribute and grow.
  5. Communicate and negotiate deadlines. Deadlines aren't always set in stone. Communication with your clients or supervisors about what is realistically achievable can prevent unnecessary stress and enhance the quality of your work.
  6. Establish clear expectations with clients for response times and availability. Rather than defaulting to an ASAP mentality, engage in open discussions with your clients to set clear expectations about when you're available and the timelines for your responses. This preemptive approach can relieve stress and pave the way for improved productivity and client relations.

Maintaining a sustainable workload involves strategic planning, efficient execution and clear communication. By implementing these strategies, you can transform being overwhelmed into being in control. You'll likely find that these small changes can hugely impact your workload, stress levels and overall job satisfaction. Remember that it's not just about working hard but also about working smart. By doing so, you can create a balance that empowers you to enjoy your legal career instead of feeling overburdened by it.