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After the Bar

Personal & Financial

How to Turn Down Your Lawyer Brain Outside of Work

Tom Pack and Katherine Raymond


  • Lawyers who struggle with turning off their lawyer brain may experience work stress that transfers to their personal relationships. It can also make it difficult to separate work from personal life.
  • To turn down the volume outside of work, lawyers can try practicing mindfulness, active listening, and setting reasonable boundaries.
How to Turn Down Your Lawyer Brain Outside of Work

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Consider this scenario: you are having dinner with family or friends, and someone brings up a recent Supreme Court decision that has garnered a lot of media attention. Suddenly, everyone at the table has an opinion about it, but instead of simply enjoying the exchange of ideas unfolding before you, you start scrutinizing everyone’s statements as though you were listening to opposing counsel in court. Your attention latches onto factual inaccuracies and logical fallacies—reliving the LSAT and bar exam in your mind—and you begin to, in effect, depose your loved ones, and it kills the conversational mood.

As lawyers, analyzing and dissecting information is part of our job, but this skill—if left unchecked—can negatively impact our mental and emotional well-being and affect our relationships.

Thinking Like a Lawyer: Why Does the Lawyer Brain Exist?

If you are a year or two into the practice of law, one thing is clear: the primary goal of legal education was not the practice of law but instead the well-known skill of “thinking like a lawyer” or developing what we call our “lawyer brain.” Law school trains us to be analytical and intellectually thorough, to identify legal issues, and to distinguish between facts. All good things, right?

While these skills can generally be helpful in all aspects of life, they can have a negative impact when they transfer into our personal lives in an unchecked way. This was especially true for early-career lawyers in the COVID-19 pandemic, where the physical separation between work and home ceased to exist for a long time and may still be ongoing for some. For lawyers, this lack of separation between work and personal tasks creates a tenuous situation where we may never tell our lawyer brain to turn off.

The Consequences of Having an Always-On Lawyer Brain

Having an always-on lawyer brain has obvious and widely felt consequences for our personal lives. Work stress transfers to our interpersonal relationships, which enhances overall stress. We may be at an important celebration or life event and find our minds wandering to legal issues. Overanalyzing issues in our personal relationships or exclusively taking a problem-solving approach to every interaction can signal that we perceive ourselves as an authority figure in our personal relationships or that we are not really listening to our loved ones. As a result, we risk alienating the people we are close to, invalidating their feelings, disempowering them in our relationships, and generally creating a negative environment.

We need to figure out how to turn off—or at least turn down—our lawyer brain at times. Lawyers make a living through language, but interpersonal, nonprofessional interactions rarely call for the kind of strict scrutiny of language we use at work. When sharing a personal story, your best friend or relative does not want to provide evidence or be critiqued.

Tips to Turn Down the Volume of Your Lawyer Brain Outside of Work

We know how and why we developed our lawyer brain and understand the problems it can cause if left unchecked. But how do we turn down the volume of that lawyer brain so we can be present and enjoy our personal lives with friends and family? The following tricks have worked for us.

Engage in a Mindfulness Practice

Mindfulness is a practice focused on being present with your body and breath and learning how to recognize thoughts as they arise without judgment. (It sounds more complicated than it is!) Mindfulness can strengthen attention and self-awareness and draw you out of the constant stream of reactive thoughts going through your mind and into the present. Mindfulness can also help you to stop judging yourself—for either being too focused on work, or not focused enough on work, or in any of the myriad other ways we tend to be self-critical as lawyers.

The ABA and many state bar organizations have mindfulness seminars (with CLE credit!) and books on the topic. We are also fans of mindfulness apps. While there are many good options, both paid and free, a solid free, noncommercial resource is the UCLA Mindful app. With practice, mindfulness can help you catch yourself with your lawyer brain on to be more present with family and friends in nonwork settings.

Practice Active Listening

While sometimes our lawyer brain can bring clarity to an issue or discussion outside of work, it will often result in an inappropriate response that is not helpful to you or your loved ones. When a legal analysis is not necessary, it is important to listen in a way that allows others to express themselves fully, as this strengthens relationships and builds trust.

If you feel the urge to scrutinize what’s being said from a legal perspective, and your best friend (for example) has not asked for a legal opinion, it may benefit you to opt for active listening instead. Active listening is a way of listening and responding to another person with our full attention while giving feedback to the speaker that we’ve understood what they have said. You can practice active listening by gently reminding yourself to fully absorb what’s being said rather than listening to gather fodder for a rebuttal. Asking open-ended questions, as done in direct examination, can encourage the speaker to delve deeper into their experiences, strengthening trust and making the speaker feel heard. You can also combine mindfulness with active listening —being present and aware of the moment as you listen actively.

Establish Boundaries for Important Moments

To turn the lawyer brain down during personal time, try to set reasonable and appropriate boundaries to build a barrier between work and life. These are very personal and depend on your own priorities and values. But you may consider the following:

  • Establish a cut-off time for checking and responding to emails on a typical workday, barring emergencies or major deadlines.
  • Charge your phone in a room away from your bedroom so you are not tempted to make work the last thing you do at night and the first thing you see in the morning.
  • Leave your email-enabled device in the kitchen at dinnertime or when tucking a child in without exception.
  • If the gym is where you recover, leave the phone in your locker, and focus on your workout.

Setting these boundaries will shift around important deadlines, and you should always keep your team and clients in the loop about when you will be “offline.” But setting boundaries can help you turn the lawyer brain off and be present.

Find Moments of Flow and Immerse Yourself in a Hobby That Resets Your Lawyer Brain

“Flow theory” or “flow state” is described by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a state of complete immersion in an activity. In other words, your lawyer brain is forced to turn off and reset because your mind is completely occupied by other activities that you find inherently rewarding. Choose a hobby that is something you become lost in, and that is challenging. This can be a spin class, yoga, woodworking, cooking, painting, writing—any number of things.

Flow state has demonstrated benefits, like better emotional regulation, increased motivation, and an improved sense of well-being. Accessing flow state is especially beneficial for lawyers who spend a large portion of their time engaged in tasks that are mentally taxing. Once you find a hobby or activity you enjoy and can get lost in, it is important to prioritize it in your schedule as a non-negotiable. We find that putting these items on your calendar and marking them as “busy” can help you from having them scheduled over.

Learning how to achieve personal and interpersonal well-being, both inside and outside of work, is an ongoing struggle for many lawyers. It is worth the time and effort to quiet the lawyer brain to ensure that both your work and life remain productive and sustainable.