Lately, I’ve had to accept the truth that I’m a workaholic lawyer.
Even when my to-do list feels overwhelming, I don’t hesitate to take on another matter. Even when I try to set boundaries with my work, I fail horribly.
So, earlier this year, I gave myself permission to take more time away from the office to work on personal projects. I decided the best way to do this was to stop differentiating between “weekdays” and “weekends” and to instead treat them all as days and divide up my tasks however I wished — whenever I wished. The goal was to take a break from the stress of client work to attend to mundane tasks like taking donations to a thrift store.
My plan backfired when my workaholic brain sabotaged me by setting the highest financial goal I’ve ever had for a single month. I was in the office more than ever, spending extra hours, including over the weekend after working a full week. I didn’t get to any of those other projects.
A Candid Interview With a Recovering Workaholic Lawyer
I turned to the internet for help, asking to speak to lawyers who had physically collapsed from overwork or had a heart attack or stroke. (Frankly, I felt so drained I was concerned that one of those three might happen — and I was pretty sure I wasn’t alone.)
Unfortunately, the only responses I received (at least initially) were about lawyers who experienced this and didn’t survive.
Eventually, though, a lawyer who self-identified as a former workaholic contacted me — a law firm owner and plaintiff’s attorney specializing in Social Security disability insurance and veterans’ benefits cases. He was willing to share his thoughts on the condition that he remain anonymous.
Here’s our conversation.
You said you were a workaholic lawyer for 14 years. What did your life look like then and how did your workaholism progress over time?
I think my workaholism was a learned behavior. I remember as a new associate, I’d work about 50 hours a week, usually leaving by about 6 p.m., but I’d come back to work product that was bathed in red ink from my managing partner. At some point, I started staying later to work in parallel, and instead of criticism, we started collaborating. Instead of corrections, he’d pop in and ask, “What do you think about this argument?” on a brief. It dramatically improved my relationship and my career to just start keeping those hours where I’d be in the office until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. every night. By the time I became a partner, and then owner of the firm, it had just stuck. It also meant over the past eight years or so, I wasn’t a present member of my family — at least not to the extent I wanted to be — in the evenings. My wife was a solo parent in picking up the kids, and handling dinner, bath time and bedtime, and it just wasn’t a good fit.
Were there any warning signs that being a workaholic wasn’t sustainable, and did you ignore them?
I don’t know that I ignored the signs, but there was always a good excuse — don’t want to get fired, need to build my relationship with my partners, and finally, “it’s my firm; nobody else will do it.” But they’re all just that: excuses. My firm is also a high-volume practice where we help a lot of people at a really desperate time in their lives, which adds to the internal push to just work more.
What happened that made you reevaluate your priorities?
When I was 41 years old, I was the owner of my firm, and I needed emergency surgery. I was out for about three months and my associates had to keep the firm running while I recuperated. I can’t say that being a workaholic caused my medical problem, but I’m sure my stress and poor diet didn’t help.
How is your life different now?
I started focusing on some projects I was more passionate about while I was recovering at home, mostly software that I designed to implement an agile transformation in my firm. These processes were partly why, despite my belief otherwise, the firm was able to function just fine without my presence, let alone my nonsensical amount of effort. I’m able to work asynchronously and more deeply with less time. As a result, I’m home for dinners, tennis practice, and quality time with my family. My wife and I can throw our kids and dogs in a van and go away for a weekend with little planning.
I’m fortunate in that I work in a primarily contingent practice, where efficiency doesn’t mean billing less time and, as a result, earning less. It’s hard to do this in a billable world — and even harder for associates who have to strive to satisfy unrealistic expectations.
However, life is short, and very few of us will be remembered for our legal work, no matter how important it is to our individual clients.
Was it difficult not to slip back into workaholism mode?
Yes, but only because I naturally dive deeply into whatever I’m working on. There will always be deadlines and pushes when a project absolutely has to get done. The key has been to identify them in advance and give them space, but make sure they don’t stack up. This way, if I am working late because I have an appellate brief due, I am probably taking the following day off, or working from home to make sure I can unplug.
What advice do you have for workaholic lawyers?
Find better ways to work. Understanding where my time was actually going let me identify where I could make changes to focus my individual and management efforts on the things that needed my attention, and to delegate the things that didn’t need my direct involvement. There are many ways to have a better balance.
Let’s Learn From This Lawyer
I’m genuinely grateful that this lawyer was willing to share his experience with workaholism and remind us of the importance of balance. When we are overly involved in our work, we aren’t able to be present for the things and people who matter the most to us.
You Might Also Like:
“You Don’t Need a Holiday to Show Some Love” by Ruth Carter
“Sabotaging Your Practice? Just Stop It!” by Ruth Carter
“Five Ways to Feel Less Anxious and More Balanced” by Jamie Spannhake
“Organize Your Time With a Good, Thoughtful Plan” by Jamie Spannhake
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