I burn my candle at both ends
It will not last the night.
But ah my foes and oh my friends
It gives a lovely light.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
What do you think when you read this? If you’re like many lawyers, you felt a flutter of recognition — perhaps just before you recoiled at the idea that, perhaps your candle won’t “last the night.” It’s just the weak who can’t burn and burn and burn, right?
Sustainability isn’t an exciting word, and most of us don’t see it as something to aim for. After all, we tend to want bigger and better and more, not homeostasis. What does it mean, though, to have a “sustainable practice?”
According to Merriam-Webster, “to sustain” means (among other things) “to supply with sustenance: nourish” and “to keep up, prolong.” And sustainable means, of course, “capable of being sustained” or “of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods.”
How do you nourish your practice? How does your lifestyle support you in keeping up and prolonging your ability to work effectively? My clients have experimented with many different approaches, and the list that follows recounts some of the most successful.
- Discover what’s meaningful to you and focus your attention and practice on that. If it’s client service, you will draw a strength and energy from serving your clients that someone who’s in practice because of the intellectual stimulation won’t experience. Connecting to what matters to you illuminates your purpose. Having a purpose nourishes your practice.
- Delegate. If you can identify aspects of practice that you personally don’t have to fulfill, you’ll increase your energy by passing it along to someone who can handle it. If you find yourself thinking that you’ll spend less time doing it (whatever it is) than teaching someone else to do it, consider whether you’ll save time over the long run if you turn it over, even if it requires an investment of time now.
- Connect. If you enjoy socializing, make sure you have a group of lawyers you join for lunch or drinks or a volleyball game on a regular basis. You’ll increase social contact, have a group of colleagues to use as sounding boards, build a resource for giving and getting referrals, and more. You can even do this online, but consider whether you’d get more out of interacting with flesh and blood colleagues.
- Notice how your body feels when you have adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Just notice. If noticing convinces you that you feel better and have more energy, do something with that knowledge — noticing alone won’t change anything.
- Develop discipline. You can put a schedule in place that will support you. Plan time when you put your calls on hold and get concentrated work done. Set time aside for meeting with your support staff, the lawyers you supervise, and those who supervise you.
- Take time for outside interests. Hike, read, act, whatever… But don’t allow yourself to be one-dimensional.
- Do you live on adrenaline and caffeine? If so, chances are that you’re running from crisis to crisis. Ask yourself whether there’s a way to limit the crunches to times when there’s really a crisis. What feels good about putting out fires? Spending some time resolving this will provide support for making changes that leave you working on a non-emergency basis, which facilitates having more energy. Adrenaline and caffeine are great, but they’re hardly the key to a sustainable practice or life.
Set aside time to check your progress on these and other habits that support you and your practice. Because it’s easy to get sucked into a hectic schedule (with your candle burning not only at both ends but in the middle, too), arrange a relationship that will hold you accountable to whatever adjustments you may decide to make. Consider whether coaching might be the appropriate relationship.