Do you ever feel stressed? Overwhelmed? As if it’s impossible to meet all of the demands you’re facing at any given moment? Although most of our society seems to have those feelings at least some of the time, anecdotal evidence suggests that a significant number of lawyers experience them frequently. And perhaps it’s no surprise, given the pressures of practice and the urge that most of us have to maintain some kind of life outside the office. And as we advance in seniority, the volume and complexity of our activities (professional and personal) are likely to intensify, not to decrease.
In thinking about all of the balls most lawyers have in the air at any given time, I came to a realization: being a lawyer is a lot like playing a game of Twister®! Consider the “circles” a lawyer has to touch on a regular basis:
- The client circle: delivering excellent and timely client service;
- The team circle: coordinating with colleagues and staff who assist you (and whom you assist) in providing client service;
- The administrative circle: billing, reviewing mail, and keeping up with all of the tasks around your office;
- The business development circle: attending networking functions, writing articles, speaking, attending “social” functions with clients and potential clients;
- The skills development circle: reading advance sheets, legal and business news articles, and blogs; staying abreast of what’s going on in your area(s) of practice;
- The in-office social circle: chatting with colleagues and staff, which keeps you in the loop and creates the goodwill necessary to get things accomplished; and
- The career advancement circle: making sure you’re advancing the way you want to in your career, which may include time spent with a mentor.
When you figure that a lawyer has to keep one hand on the client circle at all times (very often including time spent outside the office), one hand on the team circle most of the time, a foot on the administrative circle throughout the workday, and another foot sliding back and forth between the other circles, it’s no surprise that lawyers often feel frazzled and overstressed.
And don’t forget the personal game of Twister® going on in the background! Those circles include:
- The self-care circle: sleeping, exercising, eating, grooming, and so on;
- The relationship circle(s): connecting with a spouse or significant other, dating, hanging out with friends, etc.;
- The commuting circle: a twice-daily necessity for most of us;
- The family circle: especially pressing for parents or children of aging parents;
- The relaxation circle: vacations, reading, playing sports, or whatever refuels your batteries;
- The housework circle: laundry, housecleaning, etc.;
- The financial circle: paying bills, dealing with investments and taxes, researching and making financial decisions;
- The spiritual circle: attending a house of worship, spending time in nature, inspirational reading, etc.; and
- Many, many other circles depending on your interests.
Now, think about playing Twister®: if you’re in reasonably good shape, in a reasonably good mood, reasonably flexible, and playing with people you like and trust, it’s a lot of fun! Sure, it’s physically challenging, and it can even be mentally challenging to figure out how to balance while moving from one circle to another. Under the right circumstances, it’s a stretch (in the most literal sense) and it’s a good way to pass some time.
But imagine trying to play if you’re in a bad mood or feeling pessimistic. Imagine what it would be like to resent the game or the person giving directions everytime you had to stretch out to another circle. Or, worst of all, what if you didn’t even want to be playing Twister® and got yourself into the game just because you’d attended the party and everybody expected you not only to play, but also to be great at playing and to enjoy it? And if, to add in some serious pressure, people were counting on you to manage every stretch and to maintain every pose flawlessly, with no complaint? Yech. Recipe for disaster.
I see two ways in which the practice-as-Twister® presents serious challenges to lawyers. First, in the preparation for the game: wanting to play, being flexible, knowing the rules and the techniques, having the physical and mental strength to maintain some pretty uncomfortable poses for a time, and choosing to play with trustworthy and talented people. And second, being forgiving enough to recognize that sometimes, it just isn’t possible to touch all of the circles required at the same time and checking to see how important each circle really is. The preparation part is critical, but let’s focus on the second part for today.
Lawyers often feel they’re going to collapse as a result of trying to put enough time in each of the Twister® circles. The balance becomes too difficult to maintain, because unlike a game, the practice of law deals with serious requirements… It isn’t just a red circle, it’s your client’s business (or life), or your own business, or the health/happiness/wellbeing of your family or yourself. The stakes are high, and most of us intend to show up ideally to meet every demand. And sometimes, that just isn’t possible.
Do you ever feel as if your mind and body are rarely occupying the same circle – worrying about home when you’re at work and worrying about work when you’re at home? Do you wish that you had more time for important activities like planning your future, or more time for “selfish” pursuits like working out? How often do you say out loud, or even just think to yourself, “Well, I’ll get around to it one of these days,” even though you know it never happens?
Too many lawyers feel trapped in their game, unable to satisfy all of the demands they face and yet unwilling to make a change. Maybe you’ve been there, or maybe you’ve tried the common tactics – work harder at “time management” (but the cleverest systems fall by the wayside, crushed by the burden you’re shouldering), contract for the help you need (but no PR agent will make new business contacts like you can, and does your spouse really want a substitute partner?), or just cope with “reality” and recognize that life isn’t perfect (perhaps anesthetizing the voice that reminds you of all you want out of life with another glass of wine or a brownie, even though you know the voice won’t go away – and yet you fear that it might)…
It’s time for real change.
So push the “pause” button for a minute, and consider these questions.
What do you want? Just for a minute, release the expectations that your partner, your parents, your children, your colleagues, your friends, or even society at large may have of you, and ask what you really want from your life. What values do you want to express in the way you live? If family is your top priority, how will you choose to honor that? If work is at the head of your list, how does that square with your behavior?
What would your life look like if you honored your priorities? What changes would you have to make? And how would you go about making them?
When would you make the changes?
Whether you engage in career/life satisfaction reflection on your own or you work with a coach or some other assistance, these are the kinds of questions you’ll examine. You’ll find your own answers — and they won’t be like anyone else’s. The solutions to the traps in which lawyers can find themselves are as varied as the attorneys in practice. With guided exploration, strategic approaches to overcoming the obstacles that face you, careful attention to designing an environment that support you in making the changes that you desire, and being held accountable for what you say you want to do, your success is almost guaranteed. And you’ll find your own way to play Twister®… And find satisfaction in it.