April may be the cruellest month, as TS Eliot wrote in The Wasteland, but January feels like the longest month, especially with the intense cold spell that put our electricity grid in jeopardy recently and we were asked to conserve power wherever we could. I could cope with curling up under a blanket with a book with one lamp on, but not sitting in the dark! Thankfully, the polar vortex lifted, and we were spared blackouts.
This January, I signed up for the Institute for Well-Being in Law’s conference—perhaps a bit on the unenthusiastic side because it is January, and the days are short-- but I came away energized and excited-- and I want to share my three top learnings. I will be seeking ways of incorporating the first two into my life and into Assist programming, and I will be learning more about the third.
The conference’s keynote speaker was Dr. Laurie Santos, the creator of Yale’s [free online] Happiness Course. There were so many valuable takeaways from her remarks, but in order to avoid plagiarizing her work, I want to share my thoughts on just one of her Top Insights (and I urge everyone to learn more about her course!) Her tenth tip for happiness is Become Wealthy In Time, Not Money. Research has shown that beyond lifting people to reasonable lifestyles, acquiring more money does not pay happiness dividends. If you are unconvinced of this, please check out Professor Larry Krieger’s research on lawyers and happiness where money was found to have only a slight impact on subjective well-being (the technical term for happiness in research!)
As a person who is in the last segment of their career, I see retirement as that golden spot on the horizon where I will have time to do anything that I want with enough carefully stewarded financial resources to fund this for many years. The retirement model that the financial industry promotes is to sock away our money, ideally in their products, so that we can have the lifestyle we want when we exit the workforce. But is this the only model?
As lawyers, we tend to follow a progression that starts with having no money and no time (law school, articling, the first years of practice as we pay down debt and perhaps buy a house). As our careers progress, we hope to earn a better-than-decent income, leading us into the no time but some money phase, before reaching the spot where most of us spend our career: money but no time. We look forward to retirement as the way to have both money and time.
In my experience, most lawyers tend to focus on what we don’t have: we don’t have enough time to do the things we want to do, and there is always someone who has more money, resources, cars, boats, houses, vacations—you name it—than we do. And I have yet to meet a lawyer who doesn’t bemoan their lack of time for the things they want to do. This reflects a bit of the negative mindset that is part of lawyer thinking, but unfortunately while the ability to foresee negative outcomes makes us good lawyers, it also raises our risk for mental health challenges.
So, my take on Dr. Santos’ Become Wealthy in Time, Not Money insight is that we have to shift our mindset a bit, to recognize that we can take steps to feel wealthy in time, and then we have to give ourselves permission to value time over money. This is a challenge I faced about six years into my practice when I had my first child. The four months away from the office (the longest maternity leave offered to lawyers in my firm at that time) helped me to connect with my internal value system which had somehow gotten tucked into a back pocket while I pursued my career goals. Requesting a reduced hours arrangement took me off partnership track (and I was up for partnership the following year in a rigid up or out model) but it was a trade-off I happily made, and I spent about twenty years working in alternate models before returning to conventional full-time employment. Of course, this had an impact on my family’s financial position, but children grow quickly, and I have never regretted these choices.
But you don’t have to make great sacrifices to increase your time affluence. We are rarely able fund our entire retirement with one good year, and you don’t move from time poverty to time affluence with one big step. First, Dr. Santos suggests that lawyers can buy time by purchasing services to free up elusive time while reframing our mindset about maximizing time over maximizing money. It is very difficult to have a career that demands all of your time while still doing your own lawn maintenance, cleaning, cooking etc. Contract out what you can so that you can enjoy the time you reclaim.
Dr. Santos also urges us to make good use of the time we have. We all have small pockets of time that arise periodically—a meeting concludes early, or a matter settles, say. These small bits of time have the wonderful name “time confetti” and we can choose to deploy our time confetti for happiness activities or waste them. She suggests preparing a time confetti wish list so that you can make the most of time confetti when it arises. If you have five free minutes, you can call a friend, do a mini mindfulness activity or do jumping jacks in your office. If you deploy your time confetti to do something you enjoy or that energizes you, your subjective sense of how you spend your time is shifted.
I don’t know about you, but when time confetti lands in my life, I tend to pull out my phone which magically sucks all potential joy from my time confetti. Before I know it, I have lost ten minutes (or more) instead of five and I am chastising myself. One easy strategy that I am trying to use is to queue up a song that makes me feel happy. I haven’t invested time in creating playlists, but I can see this on my horizon so I can take mini-breaks with music I love!
Power of Point-Ones
I also enjoyed a presentation on Building Your Rest Ethic involving simple strategies for renewal. As lawyers, we tend to focus on our work ethic, but a rest ethic is important too. We allow our quest for perfection, our drive for productivity, and our inner critical voice to shut down our need for rest and renewal. How many times have we heard someone say, “I’ll rest when I’m dead?”
It turns out that rest is essential to our resilience and growth. As lawyers, we work hard. We use the time-worn phrase “law is a marathon and not a sprint.” But law often means not only completing a marathon, whether in the form of a trial or a deal but starting another one the next day! Successful distance runners train for marathons, and the way that they train involves short run days and recovery days—they don’t run 42 kilometres every day. So, we have to reframe the way we think about rest. As Brene Brown says, “It takes courage to say yes to rest and play in a culture where exhaustion is seen as a status symbol.”
Presenters Amy Johnston, LCSW, and Ashleigh Frankel (a Canadian lawyer) suggest approaching rest mindfully using 7 power principles:
- Point Ones
But I want to focus on the power of point ones. As lawyers, we are used to measuring out our days in six-minute increments, and generally, we come to resent this. But you can use point ones for good!
According to the National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Canadian Legal Professionals, Canadian lawyers with billable hours targets bill about 68% of the hours they work, so we know that we are at the office considerably more than the time it takes to produce billable work. Over the course of a day, we “lose” time to a variety of issues—interruptions, nutrition and bathroom breaks, conversations. We could, however, start devoting a point one, so perhaps one-thirty-sixth of our billable time each day, to a rest activity. This is different from time confetti, where we have found time: this is a conscious strategy of taking point ones to do something with purpose.
The presenters lump possible point one activities into mental, emotional, physical and spiritual activities. Over time, you can focus on an activity that is tied to an area where you want to grow, but you can start with whatever works for you. Here is a short list of ideas to help you kick off your point one plan you can try for six minutes:
- Mindful breathing
- Technology break
- Listen to music
- Do jumping jacks
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Go outside
- Perform an act of kindness
I would love to bring these presenters to an Assist webinar…. Watch for more information.
And if you think you are up for a point three activity, may I suggest Assist’s free online mindfulness session from 12 to 12:15 each Tuesday?
Mindful Business Charters
There are some things we can do for ourselves to increase our happiness, and I like time confetti and point-ones as small bites we can all take to improve our subjective well-being. But there are also strategies that we can employ more broadly within our workspace which may necessitate a culture shift at both an employer and professional level.
We know how high rates of distress are for Canadian legal professionals and how much higher our risk is than the general population:
|Major depressive disorder
|Generalized Anxiety Disorder
(Since beginning practice)
(Since beginning their practice)
(Through their lifetimes)
It is becoming increasingly imperative for us to do something, as the National Study also shows low rates of commitment to our profession among younger professionals. There is no question that clients drive some of the unrelenting pressure lawyers feel to be available 24/7. It is difficult for firms to provide reassurance to juniors and students that they can turn their devices off because the reality is that a client might need something—law is a business and if a firm doesn’t provide what the client wants, the client may walk.
So, I was fascinated to learn abut Barclay’s Bank Mindful Business Charter and US Bank’s Well-Being Guidelines for Outside Counsel Relationships.
This is how Barclays’ Mindful Business Charter introduces itself:
"The intention of the Mindful Business Charter is to remove unnecessary sources of stress and promote better mental health and well-being in the workplace. We recognise that there will be times and transactions when long hours and stress cannot be avoided, but this isn’t always the case, and we want it to become the exception rather than the rule. In this way, the Charter is brave and commercial. It recognises that we cannot remove all sources of stress, nor will change happen overnight – but as a business community we have a responsibility to try to do things differently. "(https://www.mindfulbusinesscharter.com/the-charter)
Both inhouse counsel at the two banks and their outside counsel discussed how they work together to reduce friction where they can. They talked about associates in outside counsel firms being able to designate non-negotiables and cited an example where a partner asked the client not to contact an associate that evening because they had a personal event. Wow!
As an old corporate lawyer, I know that Barclays is the kind of client law firms would give their collective eye teeth for. When I was in private practice, we couldn’t bend over far enough or fast enough to accommodate client requests. If we are feeling cynical, we can speculate that Barclays and US Bank negotiated preferred (i.e., reduced) billing rates in exchange for the privilege of working under a Mindful Business Charter, and one person expressed the view in the live chat that they didn’t want their firm or a client to know their non-negotiables, so you can’t please everyone and you probably can’t get it perfect the first time, or even the first ten times, but these are not reasons not to try.
I scrolled through the list of firms who are signatories to the Mindful Business Charter and was pleased to find both Canadian law firms and international firms with Canadian offices. I am looking forward to hearing how these arrangements are working in practice, and how we might be able to scale them to smaller firms.
So even though its January, and I had to try to squeeze a week of work around a three-day conference, I am excited, energized, and optimistic.
It’s important for us to keep talking about lawyer well-being both at an individual level and at an employer/cultural level. We need to celebrate the small steps like enjoying time confetti and building in point one rests, and we need to cheer on the design of more humane working arrangements. If you have experiences you want to share about activities or initiatives you have tried, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and, if I receive enough stories, I will share stories on an anonymized basis. The time to take charge of your happiness is now, and there are many tools and resources to set you up for success.