Is it possible for trial lawyers to achieve work-life balance? Much has been written about the unhappiness of lawyers. From crushing work hours to needy or ungrateful clients, many experience burnout and seek alternative careers. The problem seems particularly acute for trial lawyers who face the zero-sum game of winning and losing. And yet, trial lawyering can be a noble profession and a pathway to personal fulfillment, with the right perspective and approach.
If you are a trial lawyer, consider the following perspectives and strategies that can lead to greater fulfillment, both at work and in your personal life:
Envision the type of client you want. Perhaps it’s a catastrophically injured accident victim. Maybe it’s the victim of discrimination or harassment. Consider the possibility of defending businesses in a variety of insurance or commercial cases. It’s good to know your intellectual interests, but you also must consider the attributes of the people you will serve. You serve people, not ideas. This is a precursor to developing a marketing strategy aligned with your personality and interests.
This is a corollary of point #1. Just as there are ideal clients, there are well-meaning people you must send elsewhere. If you’ve been in practice for any length of time, you may know what I am talking about – those with unreasonable expectations or those who insist on inundating you with daily calls and voluminous emails. Intaking people who drive you to distraction for months or years before trial may be the biggest happiness destroyer.
Professional isolation should be avoided at all costs. Whether you call yourself a plaintiff or defense lawyer, you need to plug into a network of colleagues. Plaintiff and defense bar associations are a top consideration. If nothing else, do it for the continuing education. But better yet, get inspired by other trial lawyers. Learn what they’ve done to gain a winning edge. Learn from their mistakes. Get excited about what you do for a living by being around those who are.
In a previous article, I suggested that true trial lawyers are like British barristers who approach cases with a trial-oriented mindset. They are unlike “case brokers,” who view clients as a mere commodity or “discovery litigators” who can handle depositions and motion practice but are afraid of the courtroom. Once intake skills have been mastered, you’ve got to have the willingness to take cases to trial. There is a clarity of purpose about this kind of practice. Your opponents know you mean business. They respect that. In turn, you’ll respect yourself.
So much of the pathway to happiness is eliminating needless timewasters. Your intake process should be systematized. You should have a forms library and a research database or filing system. Your case information should be stored in two ways:
If you want to attain a work-life balance, you need to prioritize your personal life by putting it on the calendar. I’ve had trial lawyers tell me it’s been four or five years since they’ve taken a vacation. That’s not a badge of honor! It’s lost time with spouses and children that can never be recovered. Insist on a vacation at least once a year. Schedule time at least once a quarter to reflect on what’s working and what’s not. Do periodic personal retreats. Have a date night. Have a life outside the office. But don’t just say that at a philosophical level – put it on the calendar and guard it.
For me that means finding a daily and weekly place for God in my life. The problem with so many trial lawyers with oversized egos is the tendency to forget that one day we are here and the next we are gone. The world does not orbit around us. While the trial-lawyer profession can be financially rewarding, I believe the greater satisfaction comes in the recognition that it is in service to others – especially in the pursuit of justice. Whether you see that in religious, spiritual or other terms, ultimate happiness recognizes the broadest perspective.
We are responsible for our own happiness. As a trial lawyer, taking that responsibility means intentional strategies, tactics and a life perspective. Consider these approaches as you define happiness for yourself.