Jumping Without a Parachute: The Lawyer Approach to Getting Shit Done

When the work starts to pile on, lawyers not only fail to put on their oxygen masks, they head for the cabin door, rip it open, and jump out. From 5,000 ft. And then they wonder why they end up drained, dispirited and depressed about their jobs and their life.

What lawyers envision their 80-work weeks achieving . . .
What lawyers envision their 80-work weeks achieving . . .

You think I’m engaging in just a teeny bit of hyperbole? Possibly. But I swear there is a secret lawyer code of conduct that requires adherence to this routine. Nearly every lawyer I know instantly shifts to this behavior when they get that big, time-suck of an assignment, or when that looming deadline breathes down their neck with noxious, warm fumes. Yeah, been there, done that.

5 Steps to the Loony Bin

So in case you never got the secret memo, here’s what you do:

Step 1: Immediately start working much longer hours. Ignore any fatigue or feelings of being overwhelmed. Do not let yourself slack off. You have shit to do, and lots of it!!

Step 2: Within a few days, and certainly within a week, slow down or stop any exercise. You don’t have time for that kind of self-indulgent luxury.

Step 3: At the same time you’re scaling back or stopping your exercise, also start skipping lunch. Or at the very least, do not under any circumstances take a break and leave your desk for 45 minutes to get lunch and let your mind rest. You can make a quick pit stop by the vending machine, but that’s it.

Step 4: Do not allow yourself breaks. Breaks after working for an hour or 90 minutes are ridiculous. Only lily-livered weaklings need frequent breaks. You have urgent client emails to answer, a motion to draft, a trial to prepare for, or a deal to run. You don’t have .3 billable hours to waste on non-productive things like breaks. You begrudge your bladder trips to the bathroom, even if you do bill for them by thinking about your work before, during and after that trip.

Step 5: Cut off all contact with friends and any family you don’t actually reside with. You don’t have time to waste on frivolous things like relationships. If they really love you, they’ll just have to understand you’re going to disappear into a black hole for weeks on end. That’s the way it is in law.

If this way of dealing with pressure isn’t ringing a bell at all, you probably should stop reading. The rest of you need some ideas for coping better.

When 40 Hours = 80 Hours (The Old/New Math)

As I’ve written about before, this embrace of working 80-hour weeks as a tool to get more done is a fool’s errand. There’s a ton of research (outlined in this excellent article) that shows working 80-hour weeks for 3 or more weeks is no more efficient that working 40-hour weeks for the same period. Because your brain is tired, you make increasing numbers of mistakes, that you then have to go back and correct. In other words, that 3 weeks of high stress gets you to exactly the same place, work-wise, as 3 weeks of work sanity.

. . . how the 80-hour work weeks usually turn out.
. . . how the 80-hour work weeks usually turn out.

In fact, the New York Times ran an op-ed recently, Why You Hate Work, talked about precisely this issue, in the context of accountants. Accountants, like attorneys, get measured by billable hours. Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath, the consultant authors, persuaded management of an accounting firm to let a subgroup of accountants, during tax season, work differently than the billable hours model. The subgroup

  • Worked, uninterrupted, for 90 minutes, then took 10- to 15-minute breaks;
  • Took a full hour break in the late afternoon, when people tend to run out of steam anyway; and
  • Left as soon as they had accomplished a designated amount of work for the day.

I imagine many of you are salivating right now at this Nirvana-like work environment. But did it work?

Resoundingly, yes:

With higher focus, these employees ended up getting more work done in less time, left work earlier in the evenings than the rest of their colleagues, and reported a much less stressful overall experience during the busy season. Their turnover rate was far lower than that of employees in the rest of the firm. (emphasis added)

But, just like law firms, the accounting firm’s management would not change its ways. “We just don’t know any other way to measure them, except by their hours,” one leader told us.

I have a whole rant about law firm culture and the reasons why it’s so difficult for lawyers to embrace creative solutions to the huge problem of billable hours, but I’ll save it for another time. Suffice it to say that despite lawyers’ emphasis on evidence in their work, they won’t let facts loosen the grip that fear has on them when it comes to confronting change.

4 Simple Things

What creates happier and more productive workplaces? It’s actually not a big secret; the studies have been around for years. (Dan Pink wrote a whole book about it, Drive.) As Schwartz and Porath point out, employees are vastly more satisfied and productive when 4 core needs are met:

  • Physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work (in other words, taking breaks);
  • Emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions (and not getting yelled at for a misplaced comma after pulling an all-nighter to get a complicated pleading done);
  • Mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done (aka, autonomy); and
  • Spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

In my practice, I work with people on all these issues. Some are more challenging for lawyers than for other professionals.

Physical. Taking breaks is almost completely within your control. It’s fear that drives you not to, for the most part. I don’t mean fear that someone will fire you or take other negative action because you took a break. Nope, it’s that fear that if you don’t keep pressing on relentlessly, you won’t get done in time. So fight your fear with the facts (overwork leads to poor productivity and mistakes), and take some stinking breaks. And go home at a reasonable hour. (Hint: 9pm is not reasonable, nor is it early.) Your brain will thank you.

Emotional. The emotional component is often the least within the control of most lawyers, because it is so tightly related to the culture/toxicity of a workplace and the people lawyers answer to. Even so, you can work on things that will help your life overall, such as developing more optimism, being more resilient in the face of setbacks, and living in the here and now (rather than brooding over past wrongs). A great place to start working on these is with Dr. Martin Seligman’s classic Learned Optimism, and mindfulness meditation.

Mental. While law firm culture definitely intrudes here, there is work that can be done on the mental focus front. Lawyers don’t have to have their email set on updating every minute. Phone calls can actually go to voice mail, and texts can be responded to in a few minutes, when you’re finished with a sentence or paragraph.

With some work on setting boundaries with colleagues and clients, lawyers can create the time they need for focused work. Often, though, the cultural expectation is to be instantly available, and fighting that can be difficult. Too frequently, it’s a choice between meeting that expectation or suffering a bad review.

You can do more than you think, though. When you start working with a new partner, colleague or client, consciously train them. (You unconsciously train them by responding instantly.) Take at least an hour to respond to an email. Tell them you check email twice a day so you can focus on doing excellent, focused work for them. THEN STICK TO THAT.

Spiritual. For many lawyers, the hardest happiness factor to master is the spiritual one: feeling connected to a higher purpose. That doesn’t mean that you need to feel closer to the Divine to find meaning in your work. It does mean, though, that you need to feel there is a worthwhile purpose to what you are doing. It has to matter to you. It doesn’t—and probably shouldn’t—need to impress your parents, church, colleagues or friends. Nice if it does, but beside the point. It’s about doing something that makes your life feel meaningful and worthwhile. For lawyers, purpose could look like

  • Helping people when they are vulnerable, such as in a divorce or a landlord/tenant dispute;
  • Contributing to economic vitality by drafting agreements for entrepreneurs;
  • Defending the oppressed by fighting for them when employers mistreat and abuse them;
  • Bringing order to chaos by making sure that people don’t game the system and get payouts from an insurance company when they didn’t suffer any real harm; or
  • Ensuring business owners don’t overpay their taxes, so they have more money to contribute to the community and economy.

What the purpose is doesn’t matter (unless your purpose is to oppress and exploit the weak—then we probably need to talk). What matters is that there is a purpose to your work, outside of earning you a paycheck. That purpose is something that’s bigger than you alone, and that you find intrinsically important. Bringing happiness to others, creating new things, and creating harmony and cooperation are purposes that apply to work outside law, for the most part. If your purpose takes you outside of law, so be it.

You can start to discern your purpose by taking an instrument like the VIA Character Strengths and Values. You’ll find out what your top values are. Aligning your work with 3 or more of those values usually leads to much more satisfying work.

Reclaiming your happiness at work won’t happen overnight. But it can happen, if you commit to taking care of yourself. Every journey starts with that legendary single step. So instead of jumping out of the plane without your parachute, close the door, step back, sit down, and find your oxygen mask. Then actually PUT IT ON. And breathe. Your brain, and all the rest of you, will thank you.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who pesters clients to engage in exquisite self-care when the going gets rough. If you need help with that, schedule a discounted sample session by contacting Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.


  1. Train a partner to wait an hour for an email response? Only check email twice a day? Some partners just won’t stand for that.
    But yes, I totally relate to the 5 steps you identified, and I probably would have been a much happier lawyer if I’d maintained my dietary intake, sleep, and rest, not to mention exercise.

  2. I know an hour may be a lofty goal. But it’s not impossible. You know there are always those people in law firms who actually do this kind of thing, and no one understands how. The how is training and setting expectations early and often. As a first year, it’s probably going to be pretty difficult, so maybe you start with 15 minutes. As you prove your worth, you can start pushing that up, incrementally. When people know they can count on you for quality and coming through, they’ll put up with a lot. Even if they are dysfunctional assholes.

  3. Well said. If I never hear another lawyer brag about how few hours of sleep he gets or how her family takes vacations without her or how he dragged himself to the office sick as a dog it will be too soon. If I were to hire a lawyer, I would want to know she gets at least 7 hours of sleep and has some time to relax each day so creative thoughts have a chance to come into her head. My best ideas usually occur to me in the shower or on the treadmill. In 22 years of lawyering, I don’t think I’ve ever had a great idea come to me while I was sitting in the office. But go out for a little walk, and the ideas start to flow.

    • Discerning, I think I may love you. I hope you are in a position to influence those around you to move toward better lawyering through a better life and lifestyle.

What's your take?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.