Booked: Why Busy Lawyers Must Learn to Say No

The old saying goes, “If you want something done ask the busiest person in the room.” Many of us have been that person at one time or another, or felt a pang of guilt or envy because we weren’t. As lawyers we are expected to burn the candle at both ends. Successful lawyers not only do their work and handle their cases, but are also active in their community and profession. As every rainmaker knows, the key to bringing in new business is contacts and visibility! However, what is seldom mentioned is that the price of this success is often organizational burnout, stress, anxiety, and depression.

Of all the mindless behaviors a lawyer can engage in this is by far the one I am most guilty of. I became a lawyer because I wanted to be of service to others, so for many years when someone asked me to join an organization, board or accept an appointment, my immediate and unqualified response was, “Yes!” Well it didn’t take long for those 10 to 12 hour days at the office to be followed by hours of lunch, evening, and weekend meetings. Before long nearly every minute of my days, weeks, and weekends were booked. I was the busiest person in the room  – and I was miserable!

An inflection point occurred a year or so ago when several prominent lawyers in my community unexpectedly passed away. I recall reading their obituaries, which were impressive by any standard. They were filled with good deeds and professional accolades. Both men had achieved professional successes I was aspiring to, and I felt a subtle pang of envy. Then it occurred to me to look into their causes of death, since the obituaries didn’t say. A little investigation revealed the heart breaking truth, both men who were at the peaks of their careers, had the same cause of death: suicide.

Yes. I had been envying the overworked, overextended, and over stressed lives of men who themselves saw no escape from their burdens save death. That was the last time I envied the busiest person in the room, or in that case, the busiest person to have left the room.

We will never know why those men decided to take their lives. But I know I saw a future I didn’t want. I was overextended, miserable, and suffering from organizational burnout. My burdens were heavy, and it never felt like I would have enough time to do it all. I was miserable, and for the most part I had chosen to be that way. I said yes, when I wanted to say no. I gave time and energy, when I had none left to give. I had packed my life with obligations, and squeezed out every opportunity for joy.

I’m still in the process of making room for joy, but it started with learning to say, “No.” Now I try to reserve my yeses for things that bring me excitement. I put recreation in my calendar and make it immovable, because each of us owes our life the duty of joy.

Lawyers Need New Idols

Mindless Lawyers abound in the legal profession, but none are more revered than the workaholic. They are the ambitious associates willing to sacrifice everything to make partner, the mid level workhorses who never take lunch, and the septuagenarian partners who will retire when they’re dead. Other lawyers who fall short of their zeal talk about them with a mixture of awe and envy. They are the lawyers many of us aspire to be, and the cause of much human suffering.

If you want to understand the psychology and soul of a profession, look to its idols and role models. Yes, our profession includes great leaders and humanitarians; selfless public servants and social justice crusaders. But these leaders belong more to the public as a whole than to the legal profession in particular.

The more influential idols and role models for the workaday lawyer have their oil paintings hanging in law office lobbies and board rooms. They are the founding and managing partners of mid to large sized firms, who set the culture and standard for their organizations. Stories float around the water cooler of how they once billed 300 hours in a month, and slept in their office two to three days a week. These are the myths and legends to which young lawyers are told they should aspire, and the standard by which they are judged.

These are the old myths and idols the legal profession must put to rest. The world is changing, and hard work is now less important than being smart and creative. There is a surplus of lawyers, and automation is making many of the routine low skill jobs done by entry level associates obsolete. Document reviews that once took ten associates a week can now be done in the same time by a single skilled lawyer equipped with the right software. Thus, the success and profitability of law firms is increasingly less dependent on living in the office than the efficient and creative utilization of technology.

We need new myths and idols in the legal profession, that match technological trends and nurture human thriving. So instead of revering the lawyers who sleep in their offices, our role models should come to be the lawyers who efficiently meet their clients’ needs while living good lives that nourish their passion and creativity.