Vacation Memos, Climbing Trees and Being Like Engineers: Stress Management Tips from the CBA Well-Being Conference
This week, I was fortunate to travel to Toronto to attend the CBA Well-Being Conference where I was speaking on a panel about initiatives assistance programs can implement quickly and affordably. I worked with a lawyer from the Canadian Medical Association to present what we were each doing—this is why I was focusing on who has more stress among lawyers, doctors, residents and articling students in Closing Corner last week. (We will provide the answers to the questions from last week’s Closing Corner in next week—this week, we are honouring Remembrance Day.) It was a great conference, and gathering together with so many lawyers (in-person and virtually) committed to well-being was wonderful.
I want to share three takeaways that are resonating with me most, now that I am back home and am considering how to apply what I learned to the everyday work Assist does.
First, I had the pleasure of hearing Keynote Speaker recently-retired Chief Justice Strathy formerly of the Ontario Court of Appeal. Lawyers across Canada have been talking about Justice Strathy’s meaningful article about stress and litigators for about a year now, and Justice Strathy is as compelling in person as he is in writing.
He shared so much of his wisdom with the conference, from reminding lawyers (and educating younger lawyers) that we can and should take vacations where our files are handled by a colleague to whom we write a vacation memo, outlining the status of our files, to changing the way we view mental health and well-being in law. It was nostalgic for me to think about vacation memos which were the norm when I was in private practice—you equipped someone to handle your files so that you could have an uninterrupted holiday, and it worked. In those days, I took vacations on the assumption that no one would track me down unless something truly momentous happened. My colleagues covered my files with support from my assistant, and I came back refreshed and ready to fight another day.
Vacation memos had two added benefits. First, you didn’t want your colleagues to know about your mouldering dog files, so you actually took steps to clean them up before your holiday—we all have a bit of pride that we want to preserve. And secondly, we were forced to look at our files honestly and objectively once or twice per year and make sure that we knew whether our strategy was still viable.
The fact that we are now reachable through smart phones and emails, and that we have access to all of our files and documents, does not mean that we should forget about the old vacation memo/don’t call me unless my office is on fire system. Just because we can be reached doesn’t mean that we should be contacted. I am now up to four memorable points from the conference because this wasn’t one of the original three—but wouldn’t it be great if law firm management resurrected this structure, encouraging lawyers to turn off their devices and to trust their colleagues to handle matters in their absence? And wouldn’t it be wonderful if sole practitioners rallied around each other to cover vacations and emergency absences?
But Justice Strathy’s comment that made my Top Three is one that I thought I was the only lawyer well-being advocate making: that a lawyer who has been successfully treated for a mental health or addiction issue is not only as capable of practicing law as they were before, but that they may be “safer” from a risk management point of view because they have greater awareness of how they respond to stress and how to cut if off at the knees.
As a lawyer who has struggled with stress, anxiety and depression, I am attuned to my physical, emotional and mental responses to stress. When I was a younger lawyer, I tried to deflect the impact stress was having on me through denial. If the little voice in my head started telling me that my personal stress meter was ratcheting up, I denied that it was happening. I refused to face the fact that my stress level was causing me harm because I was terrified of what could happen if I acknowledged it and then had to deal with it. I knew that this might entail taking time off work for counselling appointment or, even worse, a medical leave. I could not let that happen—there was just too much to do!
Denial is not an effective long-term stress management strategy, and I believe that my attempts to shut down my awareness merely caused stress to manifest itself in more harmful ways. I had to learn this the hard way. To borrow a line from an old song, “Yes, I am wise, but its wisdom born of pain.”
My wisdom born of pain alerts me when I begin to experience stress at potentially harmful levels, and my rational brain remembers the strategies that I have been taught. I stop what I am doing and work through my stress management strategies. And then I self-monitor to determine if I am able to keep stress at an acceptable level or whether I need to move to a higher level of response, like meeting with a counsellor.
I truly believe that those of us who have navigated the white water of a personal well-being crash are better able to avoid subsequent crashes than when we allow denial to chart our course. Learning how toxic stress affects us and what we can do reduce its impact causes us to be more resilient and more empathic, traits that law managers should want to see in their people.
Having this statement made by Justice Strathy makes it resonate more powerfully. The more people communicate this position, the stronger it will become. So, next time that someone in your workplace talks about lawyers who have taken mental health leaves as not being strong enough to practice law, please tell them that what these lawyers have learned will make them stronger. And your colleague doesn’t have to take my word for it--you can cite Justice Strathy!
The second takeaway that I want to share came to us from Doron Gold, a lawyer-therapist in Ontario who, for obvious reasons, is well-regarded in the lawyer well-being world. I was tickled pink that he follows what we are doing in Alberta! He used a metaphor that beautifully sums up what we do in law: we take fish who are really good at being fish and try to make them climb trees. The fish that we choose are really good at being fish—they excel at being fish. So, we throw them into a new world of tree-climbing and then seem to be surprised that they feel underconfident, perhaps having imposter syndrome, and that they don’t all perform well.
Some fish may adapt to climbing trees, but aren’t there other ways fish can add value while being true to their innate fish-ism?
I often felt like a fish trying to climb trees as a young corporate lawyer. Almost everything I was doing felt foreign to me, but I mimicked the behaviours of the fish who seemed to be successfully climbing and eventually I become decent at it. But what contribution could I have been made if I had been encouraged to be something that fit my skin a bit better?
When we graduate from law school and enter legal practice, we are shown a particular way of being successful fish—i.e., how to climb trees--and those who are successful in learning to climb trees form an elite group. Whether we think that our personal contribution to law, and to society in general, is best achieved through trying to climb trees or not, we are told to climb trees. Many of us fish who do not thrive while trying to climb trees leave law altogether, feeling like they just weren’t cut out for it. Instead, if we broaden our view about how legal services can be delivered, we may discover ways of engaging with incredible talent and stemming the loss of people with potential from our profession. And we may prevent distress associated with being a fish out of water (in a tree of all places!) when fish can practice law in a way more akin to their natural strengths and values.
The final point that I would like to share from the conference came from Dr. Nathalie Cadieux, the lead researcher in the National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants for Canadian Legal Professionals which was released last fall. Dr. Cadieux is an incredible resource person for those of us in law who are seeking to make our profession more sustainable.
Many lawyers focussed on the finding in the National Study that pressure to achieve high billable hour targets was associated negatively with our well-being. This finding doesn’t mean that billable hours are inherently evil, or even that targets like 1800 hours per year are evil. Dr. Cadieux jokingly suggested that we could learn to be more like engineers. I will let that comment settle for a few minutes while you pick your jaw up off the floor. Why on earth, you are saying, would we want to be like engineers?
I, too, was a bit taken aback by this comment, until she clarified her reasoning. Dr. Cadieux is currently studying lawyer behaviour, but she has also studied other professionals. She said that engineers also have billable hour targets that are as high or even higher than lawyers but, unlike lawyers, their billable hour targets are not a source of stress to them. I have to admit that I have never felt like I wanted to be more like an engineer but maybe they have an applied math way of viewing targets that is different from ours. And maybe they don’t have to separate their time out in point ones. I am also curious if engineers’ targets are primarily for internal allocation purposes as opposed to billing third parties, and whether their rates are viewed as being as high as lawyers.
There is more for us to learn about why another well-educated profession has similar targets but experiences less stress from these targets. I will see if I can find any information to share about this that doesn’t involved calculus!
In the meantime, let’s consider that Dr. Cadieux’s study indicates that billable hour targets for lawyers begin to cause stress when they rise above 1200 hours per year. I remember being told when I started my career in Big Law that you had to bill as many hours per week as most people work. We were entitled to 4 weeks of vacation, and 1800 hours spread out over 48 weeks per year is 37.5 hours per week. I wasn’t someone who lived to work—I wanted to have downtime to explore other interests—but this structure made it impossible.
Twelve hundred billable hours per year equates to 25 hours per week if you take four weeks’ vacation, a reasonable goal. To bill 25 hours per week, you probably work 35 to 40 hours per week. I had a billable hours target of 1150 (plus 50 non-billable hours) when I worked on a reduced hours basis. I was able to achieve this target with four reasonable days in the office (roughly 8 to 5) and had time and energy for my young family. Why is this viewed as undesirable in our profession?
I thought that we went to law school because we wanted to work smartly. To me, this meant being able to produce excellent work products using our brains that got us into and through law school. But working smartly, producing quality work so you can go home early and enjoy other interests, is not the name of the game in law. If anyone had told me that law wasn’t about using our brains but having dogged physical stamina—not one of my strengths—I would have turned down my law school acceptance. I am sure that it is a source of stress to others in our profession as well as me that we got to our first law jobs, relying on our brain power, only to find out that we were expected to work insane hours in order to succeed, i.e., we were told to climb trees.
I truly believe that practicing law can be done by focusing efficiently and effectively on producing quality work in less than 50 hours per week. I believe this because I managed to do it, since 1993. If you are looking at law firm expectations and are realizing that you do not want to, or cannot, climb those trees, you are not alone and you can find interesting and fulfilling work. And the more that we band together to reinforce the notion that we can be excellent lawyers without high billable hour targets, maybe we can effect change to law culture and reduce the incidence of negative mental health outcomes in our profession.
Talk to us at Assist if you want to explore how you can be the lawyer you want to be instead of the lawyer that your employer wants you to be.