Happy Labour Day Weekend!
As lawyers, most of us associate Labour Day with a great long weekend that wraps up summer with one last hurrah before school and structure—to the extent that structure lessens over the summer—return. We catch up with friends and family, and we organize ourselves for the September to December push. Kids get ready for a new schoolyear. And those kids who returned to classes this week feel that they really need a long weekend after that challenging transition!
But do many of us stop to think about what Labour Day actually is? When I was in elementary school, I got Arbor Day (when grade one students were given a tiny evergreen to take home to plant) and Labour Day mixed up. I liked the one where we got the trees a lot better since we didn’t return to school until after the Labour Day weekend, so a holiday Monday was just the end of two months off.
And because we usually weren’t in school when Labour Day occurred, I doubt that it became a subject of study like Remembrance Day or even Valentine’s Day. I had to do a bit of research about Labour Day’s origins because I had no idea when it was first celebrated and exactly what let to the statutory holiday adults know and love.
Labour Day was first observed as a statutory holiday in 1894, recognizing the role that labour unions played in improving working conditions. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, one of the groundbreaking labour initiatives had been the nine-hour workday! Labour unions ultimately brought about the eight hour work day, but their importance was displaced by World War II, with Labour Day melding into another summertime long weekend.
When I was a junior associate working at a national firm, I worked crazy hours—whatever it took, just like junior associates in demanding workplaces do today. One day, my father suggested to me that perhaps junior lawyers needed a union so that we could improve our working conditions! I was mortified—it was a privilege to have a job like I had, and we just had to do whatever it took to continue to earn that privilege. And I wanted to make sure that no one at my firm would think that I was surrounded by people who thought we needed to unionize because then that I might be deemed to be too much of “flight risk” to bother training and including in good files.
But after several years of “whatever it took,” I became fascinated with something totally foreign to life as a lawyer as I knew it—the lawyers’ version of a forty-hour week. I moved to an inhouse position where we were scheduled to work 8 ½ hour days, earning one flex day every three weeks. I discovered that you could practice interesting law in a collegial environment largely contained between the hours of 8 am and 5 pm (subject, of course, to busy times.) Once I encountered the forty-hour work week and not having to record billable time, I never looked back.
Before I left private practice, I worked on a reduced hours arrangement, where my target was 1150 hours rather than 1800 hours. It was great—this was pre-technological advancements facilitated working from home, but I usually spent one weekday per week with my young children when my files were under control. For my 1150 hours, I was paid 55% of my regular salary which was fine with me as I didn’t go to law school for monetary reasons. I ultimately left because my firms’ policy permitted working on a reduced hours arrangement for three to five years and I didn’t believe I would be returning to full hours in that window.
I have always questioned the assumption that practicing law must involve 50 to 60 hours per week on a regular basis, with more hours during peak time. While it is financially lucrative to practice law this way, it isn’t the only way. We know, intellectually, that this is a path to burnout, among other mental health challenges. Why can’t lawyers simply work fewer hours, taking on smaller file loads, generating less revenue, and earning smaller incomes? Would we be happier? I know I sure was.
Many employers now offer longer-term alternative arrangements. The problem is that law environments thrive on competition. I had trouble watching lawyers who were junior to me, who I didn’t think respect, becoming partners. And we all struggle with the value judgment that accompanies being paid less than other people.
At the Well-Being in Practice Summit last fall, a joint initiative of the Law Society, CBA-AB, ALIA and Assist, one panelist on a panel of lawyers charged with discussing healthier workplace disclosed that they had contemplated whether sustaining an injury—like from a car accident—or a health condition could allow them to remove themselves from an unacceptable workplace or workplace conditions. This resonated with attendees, with many voicing their support for this courageous lawyer and acknowledging their own similar thoughts in the chat box. I, too, had gone down this dark path before opting to try working reduced hours. This is a sign of disempowerment, that we feel that we need something external (or internal!) to allow us to leave.
Making changes can be hard--but those of us who want something different could unite around the concept of the well-being workplace, campaigning for cultures which are supportive and where lawyers are encouraged to pursue happiness while producing high quality legal work.
We know that client needs must come first and that most law firms bend over backwards to show valued clients how devoted they are, and that clients who pay significant legal bills are the music that the legal merry-go-round spins on. This means that some workplaces are not going to adapt to being well-being workplaces, and then sometimes we have to make changes ourselves.
Jumping off the merry-go-round while it is in motion is scary—you could botch your landing and get hurt, and you might not be able to get back on if you change your mind. But you can take incremental steps that will help you either tame the horse you are riding or move on in as safe a way as possible.
Change can start with one step. It doesn’t have to be a big step—and you may find that taking one small step empowers you to make more changes.
This weekend, can you identify one small action you can take that would make your work environment more palatable?
Here are a couple of examples. We know from the National Study on the Psychological Heath Determinants of Legal Professionals that lawyers who are self-assertive and who can psychologically detach from work are protected from some of the harmful forces that pervade our culture.
So, can you:
- Promise yourself that you will turn off your email and text notifications for fifteen minutes at a set time once per week. During that fifteen-minute period, you may want to go for a walk outside, since we know that being in nature is restorative. Or take a bath if it is too cold for a walk. You are the best judge of what refreshes and restores you. Not responding in fifteen minutes is usually acceptable (unless you have been told to be on standby). Eventually, as you get comfortable with the idea of disconnecting for short periods of time, try extending it.
- If turning off your devices for fifteen minutes cold turkey fills you with terror, try setting a timer after you read a text or email for fifteen minutes and not responding until the beeper goes off. You will know what is being asked, from “call me immediately!” or “can you dig through a bunch of files and send me all of a certain type of document?” You can respond to the one that says it is immediate right away, but you can record a .25 in your personal self-care ledger before starting a task that will take an hour or two.
- If there is one thing that could be changed in your workplace, can you plan a respectful yet assertive way to raise this issue? Try to use “I feel” statements when you communicate. The National Study reminds us that being assertive includes being sensitive to the rights and feelings of others, so try expressing a concern in terms of its impact on you. E.g., “I feel frustrated when I show up at meetings on time but the meeting starts late because some people don’t leave their offices until the meeting start time and then pick up coffee on their way to the boardroom. Could we please ask everyone to get their coffee five minutes before the meeting start time or start without people who are habitually late?”
- Or perhaps, “I feel denigrated when X makes comments about all the “sweet young things” they leered at walking to the office. Could we please have a Respectful Workplace refresher, backed up by warnings for disrespectful conduct?”
Perhaps taking one small step will make you feel more comfortable or satisfied, which is great. But it can also be the first step to taking control of your career in a more significant way.
As we celebrate Labour Day with our usual summer long weekend activities, let’s stop to recognize how hard we work. It is also okay to have personal needs and values, so let’s also recognize what we really want in our work lives. Many lawyers are happy in the traditional lawyer practice stream, tipping the balance more on the work side than on the life side, which is wonderful. But if you are not feeling fulfilled, or are experiencing burnout, depression, anxiety or substance use, you can choose to trailblaze your own path. The traditional law path is nicely paved with built-in amenities, so it can be hard to take a path towards the unknown. But the path you forge for yourself is an adventure-- you don’t always know where it will lead but I learned that I didn’t need to know exactly where I was going to end up as long as I was happy along the way.
Do lawyers need unions? Probably not because being independent professionals who have been given a monopoly to deliver legal services in our province, we always have the option of finding alternative employment or setting up our own shingle. But we can learn from the labour movement and empower ourselves to advocate for meaningful work and supportive workplaces.
This weekend, I will be happy for all the lawyers who are happy, in whatever practice setting or style they are in, but I will be thinking about those of you who are struggling, making sure to refresh myself so I can talk to everyone one who wants to make a change.
Lawyers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your despair.
Call us—you don’t have to walk your path alone.