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ANALYSIS: Lawyers, For Well-Being, Put Your Oxygen Mask on First

May 5, 2021, 9:01 AM

As we observe the second Well-Being Week in Law of the pandemic era, it bears repeating: Self-care is imperative. Surely we’ve all heard the old adage that you can’t care for others—be they family, friends, or clients—if you don’t care for yourself. And while the lawyer in us can argue against that statement, we have to acknowledge that the more damage we do to our own well-being, the harder it gets to stay effective, both professionally and personally. So, what can you do to care for yourself? Take a vacation.

There are numerous articles floating around about how law firm associates don’t take enough—or hardly any—of the paid vacation time that they are allowed. But instead of discussing how the billable hour should be abolished (finally!), or listing the affirmative steps firms could take to encourage lawyers to disconnect for a solid week or two, let’s take a different tack in the debate, and talk about what you can do to take your vacation out of the realm of the impossible and into the attainable.

Put Your Mask on First

Remember what it was like to travel via airplane? If it has been a while, let’s refresh your memory. Before takeoff, and after the refresher on using the seat belt, flight attendants impress upon you the importance of putting your oxygen mask on first—before helping your children or other travelers. There is a very good reason for this: You can’t help anyone else if you’ve already passed out. Applying that same reasoning to well-being, you can’t competently (and, thus, ethically) serve your clients if you aren’t well yourself—physically, emotionally, and mentally.

Consider how taking a vacation—one that doesn’t involve working or being tied to your phone/tablet/computer—can help restore you personally. Then, think about how you can better serve your clients and stand out as a lawyer in your firm or organization by being rested, focused, and efficient. And remind yourself how building well-being can help you avoid becoming another burned-out, dissatisfied lawyer.

Secure the Mask Firmly

You want a snug fit. So it can’t easily be pulled away. (OK, the analogy is a bit of a stretch, but you see where we’re going with this.) Several steps can be taken to maximize the likelihood that your vacation will not be taken away from you—which is effectively what happens when you feel you have to work during it.

Schedule early. It takes time to get everyone on board with your vacation plan. (Yes, that was another airplane reference.) Letting your team and your colleagues know well in advance when you will be unavailable allows you to avoid conflicts in schedules and ensure that your projects are staffed while you are out. If you are concerned about how the partnership will respond, remember that they are people too and they take time off themselves. They may just need a reminder of how you will return refreshed and ready to tackle that next assignment.

Set expectations. Whether it’s with your direct reports, supervisors, or clients, setting expectations regarding your availability is paramount. Doing so establishes a good line of communication, sets the tone for your time off, and lets all relevant parties know what to expect in terms of results. You can do this by communicating often about your plans, and doing so through multiple avenues—discussions, emails, shared calendars, team workspaces, etc. Remind the relevant individuals on a regular basis (including, but not exclusively, at any regularly scheduled meetings). And, since lawyers are busy and apt to forget about your vacation time, ensure that the appropriate support personnel are part of the conversation.

Ensure coverage exists. Don’t just say you will be away and unavailable. You need to work with your colleagues and clients to ensure that your projects will continue to progress in your absence. This means bringing others on your team up to speed on your work, providing written guidance where required, and ensuring others are invited to and prepared to lead meetings as necessary. You may even want to have others take point on certain tasks or meetings under your supervision before you leave. That way you can avoid hiccups while you’re gone. So plan early!

Anticipate problems. Create a contingency plan to deal with anything that requires immediate attention during your absence. Clients are often sympathetic, as they too are made up of people who take vacations. If the client knows you are off, they will likely ask someone else in your organization for whatever they need in your absence. Make sure you have a colleague tasked with handling situations that arise, and that the client knows who that is. Don’t rely on your out-of-office message to do the communicating for you. And one more thing: Be sure to reciprocate when it’s your colleague who needs a break.

Breathe Normally

The thought of stepping away can be stressful. Like breathing through an oxygen mask, this may be a totally new experience for you. But truly taking time to recharge will reap dividends. It’s similar to the decision we face when we are up against a deadline. Is it better to pull an all-nighter, or to get some rest and be ready to be super-focused and efficient the next day? The best choice is usually the latter one. We need to think of vacations in the same way.

Tom Hanks’s character in “A League of Their Own” says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.” We’ll spare you some of the movie context, but his sentiment is spot-on. Why take a vacation if you’re just going to work, and be resentful for having to do so? Isn’t it better to tell yourself, “I need a vacation and this will benefit me, our clients, and the firm if I can take a real break and come back refreshed and ready”?

And be mindful of what taking a break means. It doesn’t mean doing all the household chores you’ve been putting off because you’re working so much. Running errands and doing yard work, while important, aren’t going to help you recharge. So save those for another time.

Take a real vacation, disconnect, and see if that doesn’t improve your outlook, and possibly your work product, when you return to work.

Oxygen Is Flowing to the Mask

Finally, flight attendants assure you that oxygen is flowing even though the bag attached to the mask doesn’t inflate. This is a key point.

Lawyers’ jobs are intense and stressful. It’s not hard to justify taking the time for yourself. The hard part is actually doing it without feeling you are being disadvantaged or even punished for doing so. This is something that will come with practice, so expect a little discomfort the first time. And rest assured that oxygen is flowing.

At the end of the day, we all need to make a choice. Many have chosen to continue the slog and end up dissatisfied. Why not try putting yourself first instead, and see how it can positively impact your life, and your work?

Everyone can find free, related well-being content on our In Focus: Lawyer Well-Being page.

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