Sleep Your Way To an Alternative Legal Career (Really)

“To sleep, perchance to dream.” As usual, Shakespeare got it right, even though he wasn’t talking about lawyers wanting to change careers. He’s good that way, the Bard is, at putting his finger on the crux of the human condition.

business man sleeping on floor

This is your legal career search on sleep deprivation. Any questions?

Without sufficient sleep, we human beings are fairly useless. Our executive brain functions—you know, the ones lawyers use the most?—diminish markedly with just a half hour less sleep. According to a 2008 article in Entrepreneur, “even just a slight sleep deficit [like half an hour nightly] has proven to decrease cognitive functioning, including processing time, ability to perform complex tasks, creativity and memory, . . . [and] loss of coping skills.” Sleep deficits also increase anxiety and weight gain. Immune function declines without enough sleep, too.

Maybe it’s just me, but it strikes me that the ability to perform complex tasks, quickly process information and remember crap might be fairly necessary for lawyers to do their basic work. Creativity is pretty darned important if you are searching for an alternative legal career, I’m thinking. Yet what’s the first thing we tend to sacrifice when pressed for time? Sleep. We have this magical thinking about sleep: we can’t touch or see a tangible thing that is the direct result of sleep loss, so we pretend that the consequences don’t exist.

But in fact, the decline in cognitive functions from sleep loss, like verbal processing, can be seen on MRIs. There are other observational clues, too, short of a brain scan. According to one study, pulling an all-nighter resulted in the same level of impairment as drinking enough alcohol to achieve a .05% blood alcohol level; staying up longer resulted in impairment equivalent to .1%, well past the legal limit in most states.

Sleep Deficits Make Law Firms Hell

Oh, and then there’s the effects of sleep deprivation in the work environment. According to an article on the American Psychological Association website, Dr. David Dinges says that irritability, moodiness and disinhibition are some of the first signs a person experiences from lack of sleep. Sounds like most law firms, doesn’t it, with all those moody, irritable colleagues lashing out because someone forgot a comma?

Then, if you ignore the first signs of sleep deficit, Dinges says that you “may then start to experience apathy, slowed speech and flattened emotional responses, impaired memory and an inability to be novel or multitask.” But hey, you’re billing all those hours for crappy work, so who cares, right?

Plus there’s the adding-insult-to-injury 2009 study by Virtanen and friends: Working more than 55 hours per week, compared to working 35 to 40 hours per week, was associated with significantly increased risk for shortened sleeping hours, difficulty falling asleep, and waking without feeling refreshed. There truly IS no rest for the weary, it seems.

And these studies only contemplate normal functioning, not extra energy for generating a brand new vision for your life.

Less Sleep = Dumber at Work, and Life

As the editor for the journal Sleep points out,

“One of the primary motivations for working longer hours is to increase productivity, yet resultant decrements in the quantity and quality of sleep could end up impairing work performance by diminishing attention and arousal and by impairing memory consolidation and insight formation, the building blocks of learning and creativity.”

In other words, working longer makes you work dumber.

The downside of losing sleep is well documented, yet lawyers (and corporate America, for that matter) persist in acting like they’re immune to being human and needing enough sleep to function competently. It’s completely dysfunctional—only the craziest of zombie lawyers would insist that you could throw back 3 beers at lunch and do any work that afternoon, yet those same zombies absolutely believe they can push entire teams to go for weeks without nearly enough sleep and still get useful work from them. (Yes, I know, crazy zombie clients also believe this.)

To dream, whether it be a new life vision or a new alternative legal career, you need mental energy. Without enough sleep, you won’t have anything left over to dream with; all your available energy will be put into surviving until you can get enough rest and recovery.

Denying the need for sleep is one of the ways many lawyers stay stuck in a job they hate. It’s a really easy trap to fall into in law, with all the swaggering about that many (highly toxic) lawyers you work with do; they brag about the number of all-nighters they pulled during a case, or how little vacation they’ve taken. Those are great ways to hide from an otherwise empty life, but I can’t say I recommend them.

A Really Unsexy Solution

Instead, what I recommend is doing something that sounds really boring: Get enough sleep.

Some of the most effective ways to do that include:

  • Sleep in a cool, but not cold, room.
  • Don’t exercise late in the day.
  • Go to bed at the same time every night, even on weekends.
  • Don’t drink alcohol to help you relax; it disrupts sleep later in the night.
  • Stop numbing out in front of the TV in bed at night, and just go to sleep when you get in bed.
  • Don’t allow your smartphone in your bedroom.

Get 8 hours or so of sleep to start with. You’ll know you’re getting enough sleep when you wake up before your alarm goes off. Some people can truly function optimally on 6.5 hours nightly, but chances are you aren’t one of them. You could just as easily be the one whose body needs 9 hours of sleep nightly.

I know, all these suggestions sound boring and don’t accommodate your life circumstances. But they are what work for many, many people. If you try these changes for a month—and I mean really try them, not just do it once or twice—and still can’t sleep well, it’s probably time to consult a doctor. Or, face the fact that your lifestyle is ruining your sleep and your life.

Sleep is really key for balancing your life and breathing energy into a new career adventure. As the Bard puts it in Macbeth:

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

Sleep on that idea for an alternative legal career. You’ll be glad you did.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches unhappy attorneys on getting the sleep they need to find balance and sanity in their work and lives—especially when they say they don’t have time to sleep. She offers discounted sample coaching sessions to help you explore what basics you need to move toward better work and a better life. Schedule your session today by emailing Jennifer at

7 thoughts on “Sleep Your Way To an Alternative Legal Career (Really)

  1. Excellent point. Sleep deprivation kills quality thinking.

    One of several “I am in crazy land, must get out” moments from a high-paying, high-insanity firm a few years ago was hearing a young equity partner brag about working on a deal that was so time consuming that the deal teams at 2 law firms, one bank and one accounting firm were in the office 24/7, and they’d call for a moratorium around 2 am most nights for everyone to sleep in his/her office.

    He thought that was cool. I thought that it was a sign of poor planning and doing too much too late in the deal. No way.

    I’m at a more humane firm now and no longer spend large chunks of time reviewing deal docs or marking up loan agreements in my bathrobe, at the kitchen table, at 11 pm.

    • His deal adventure almost sounds like fun.

      When I have to write a brief, I generally stay up late. But that has more to do with the fact that I’m most productive in the evening. An ideal day for me would start at noon and end at nine.

      I would get to sleep from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m.

  2. JP – I’m the same on the hours thing. But I have delayed sleep phase disorder, which compounds my night owl tendencies! Melatonin and a light box are my reluctant friends.

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