A legal recruiter explains why cultivating interests outside the office is essential for sustaining a long, satisfying and successful career.
It’s not intentional. Few even notice that it’s happening. Slowly but surely, many lawyers give up their outside interests as they become singularly focused on work. That’s not surprising — being a lawyer is a demanding job.
Lawyers may be getting paid better than ever but are time-poor, and outside interests tend to be among the first things to go when you’re feeling stretched thin.
That’s a big problem.
Being happy and successful at work is much harder if you don’t have a life outside of it. While it may not seem possible in the short term to make time for anything beyond work, cultivating and prioritizing outside interests will help you build a sustainable legal career over the long term.
Why It’s So Important to Have Outside Interests
In her book “Overwhelmed,” Brigid Schulte sums up the problem many face when it comes to making space for a rich life outside the office: “That’s so indicative of where we are in our culture right now, that you can actually forget what it is to have something you like to do that’s not a) tied to work and b) productive.”
When working with lawyers evaluating their career options, I get an up-close-and-personal view of how easy it is to get stuck in a routine, be always on, and feel like every moment needs to be billable. To sustain the motivation to put in the long hours required to get ahead as a lawyer, you need something to look forward to outside of the office to act as a counterbalance.
In this sense, outside interests aren’t just helpful distractions from the rigors of work. They help fuel a successful career.
- Outside interests can make you more productive at work. When there’s something that you want to do outside of the office, it makes you more efficient with your time spent at the office. Sure, if you’re getting more done in less time, that may mean a few fewer billable hours each week. But if you’re delivering just as much value while doing the things that allow you to sustain your career, you’ll be far better off in the long run. After all, who cares how many hours you bill this year if you burn out? And that’s not a trivial risk.
- “Detaching” helps prevent burnout. According to a survey conducted by Bloomberg Law, attorneys reported feeling burnout in their jobs 52% of the time during the fourth quarter of 2021. Among those who said their well-being had worsened, an “inability to disconnect from work” was cited as the No. 1 problem they face. Another primary benefit of outside pursuits is they can be a forcing function for detaching from work. Studies show that pursuing hobbies outside of work as a means of detaching can reduce stress and the risk of burnout.
- Having outside interests can also help expand your network, leading to new business and career opportunities. Many hobbies are not solitary pursuits. Joining clubs, organizations and classes outside of the law firm bubble allows you to meet new people who share the same passion. And it’s those kinds of serendipitous encounters that often result in unexpected opportunities.
- Outside interests spark passion. Speaking of passion, given how hard you’re working, you may not be feeling particularly passionate about your job at the moment. Many lawyers follow their passion to law school but become disillusioned when the reality of practicing law is far different from their idealized version. That’s the bad news. The good news is you may be better off pursuing your passion outside of work. Several studies show that doing something you are passionate about outside of work rather than in it benefits your career and personal life.
How to Make the Time for Outside Interests
Notice I didn’t say “find the time” for outside interests. If you want to realize the benefits outlined above, you must accept the corresponding trade-offs. You can’t just find the time. You have to make it. And if you do, some emails will stack up while you’re away. There may be a few fewer hours billed each week. And that’s OK. In fact, that’s the point. Spend a bit less time in front of the computer today so that you can spend a lot longer practicing law throughout your career.
Here are a few ways to help make that happen.
Be excellent at what you do.
If you want more autonomy at work, do excellent work. If you’re a junior associate, begin taking ownership of your projects. Do work at a high level of quality and complete it by when you said you would. This will help you build trust with those you work for. And that trust will earn you the freedom to check out from time to time to pursue outside interests. Wharton professor Adam Grant calls this earning “idiosyncrasy credits” — a form of goodwill that comes from being excellent at what you do.
Commit to staying accountable.
It’s easy to default back to work if you have nothing holding you accountable for pursuing an outside interest. It’s hard to stay on track, even with an activity you enjoy, if you’re relying on discipline and willpower alone. As an alternative, once you decide what you want to do, make a financial commitment such as paying for a class or commit to engaging in an activity with a friend at a set time each week. That way, if you don’t show up, it’s not just yourself that you’re letting down.
Have a shutdown routine.
One of the biggest obstacles to pursuing outside interests is that the line between work and personal life has blurred. This is especially true when working from home. If work never really ends, you can’t detach yourself from it for long enough to work on a hobby. That’s why it’s so important to establish a shutdown routine, especially on days when you’re going to spend time on your outside interests. For example:
- Spend 15 minutes going back through your email to ensure nothing was missed.
- Check your calendar and to-do list so you can plan out your priorities for the next day.
- Tidy up your physical space.
These simple steps will give you peace of mind that you’re on top of your work, which in turn allows you to step away at the end of the day to enjoy outside activities.
What About the Boss?
The elephant in the room is the critical role law firm leaders play in helping (or not) their professionals build a life outside the office. Given all the mental health, productivity and career benefits, there is a solid case to be made that pursuing outside interests is good for the bottom line. But that’s an article for another day.
Until then, remember that humans are creatures of habit. The more that work becomes an all-consuming habit, the harder it will be to break that habit. Build a life outside the office now so you can find ways to detach, which is essential for sustaining a long, satisfying and successful career as a practicing lawyer.
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