My lawyer clients sometimes arrive at my office complaining about their awful work hours. They talk about how worn out they are, how they pulled all-nighters, came in on weekends, etc.
Other times they come in with a different complaint – there’s nothing to do.
Why would that be a problem? Couldn’t they just relax a bit and catch their breath?
No. Because at big law firms, no one is ever supposed to admit there’s nothing to do.
The big firms endlessly remind you of their ridiculous demands for “billable hours” – but they never so much as whisper that they might not always have sufficient work to keep you there that long.
If you’ve ever attended a partner’s meeting, you’ll know the rainmakers aren’t just sitting around gossiping about associates. They’re pressuring one another – and especially the young partners – to cultivate clients and drum up work.
One more secret: partners hog the work during dry times. That’s why associates feel the drought so severely.
The real issue here isn’t that workflow is variable at law firms. It’s variable at any business. That’s the way the world works. Of course there will be downtime.
The problem is that this reality isn’t acknowledged at law firms. That creates an atmosphere, at least for associates, in which rest, downtime, slow-downs – whatever you want to call it – are never permitted to happen. There’s no work – but the associates cannot enjoy that situation and catch their breath. Instead of resting, you switch from one intense pressure to another. Instead of having too much work and being exhausted – you’re exhausted with worry.
When there’s nothing to do, an associate is placed in a quandary.
No one admits it and says, “Hey, it’s slow this week – why don’t you take a couple days off?” That doesn’t happen at law firms.
Curiously, it does happen elsewhere. When I was in the business world, it was considered a matter of course to grab your coat and head home if things were slow. People respected the work you did, and there was no point in “face time.” If things were slow, you took off.
A friend of mine who worked at McKinsey consulting for years told me they had a phrase for these periods. You were said to be “on the beach” for a few days or weeks, while the partners drummed up business. It was acknowledged that this was the case, and no one expected you to do anything but rest up and be on call for the next project.
Law firms are different. Here is a culture that abhors rest above all else.
You are not supposed to admit that you have nothing much to do. You are supposed to conjure up something – some matter/client code, no matter how dubious – to bill something to. That’s what billing codes like “professional reading” are for. There should be a contest for the most ridiculous euphemism for “sitting around not doing much.” I’m sure there are some whoppers out there.
Downtime is important – especially in the American economy, where you already have little official vacation time. Other “semi-recreational” outlets – business lunches, conference weekends, “trainings” and afternoons spent cruising the internet – tend to pick up the slack.
Too many lawyers feel like they have to spend the slow times sulking guiltily in their offices, avoiding the hallways for fear of being spotted looking not-busy by partners or secretaries.
This is bad for everyone’s mental health.
You, like everyone else, need to do a bit of conscious regressing sometimes – to let yourself play, and allow your mind to wander. Otherwise, feelings of deprivation can build up and lead to anxiety and depression.
“Regression in the service of the ego,” as the psychoanalyst Ernst Kris termed taking a little downtime, might mean heading down to the gym, or savoring a long lunch with a colleague or friend. It might even mean – gasp – leaving early and catching dinner and a movie, or taking a half-day to hit a museum. Sometimes it’s the simple things that make all the difference – like enjoying your weekend and taking it for granted your phone won’t ring – without feeling like you’re doing something wrong.
Lawyers need to support one another’s right to rest. When I was at Sullivan & Cromwell, I witnessed plenty of lunch-room braggadocio about how many thousands of billable hours everyone had racked up. It would have been nice, for a change, to hear someone talking about a dinner they’d gone to with their family, or a cultural event they’d enjoyed, or a good book they’d found time to read.
There is more to life than work work work.
There’s play. You need to rest sometimes. Everyone does.
[Editor’s note: this piece is part of a series of columns created by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.]
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