“Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” – William Faulkner
I received my shiny red Lawyers Diary in the mail today. It’s always exciting to rip off the protective cardboard mailer revealing the brand new book, embossed in gold with my name and company. Back when I was practicing law, many lawyers would stack them on their shelves, as a written record of each year gone by. I had quite a few on my shelf. It’s been a while since I ordered the book, but now that I am in practice of a different kind, I found I needed the resources it held. As I cracked open the book, stiff spine creaking, and sniffed the new page smell, I began to think about the purpose of the book and what it represents to lawyers.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it is called a diary rather than a calendar. While it is used primarily as a calendar (or was prior to the age of the interwebs), to keep appointments, track court dates, and quickly locate information lawyers frequently need, it is also a place to write notes, keep time, and to otherwise log our actions over the course of a year. I think this is why many lawyers do not just throw them out each year. A glance back through an old diary can bring back memories of cases past, the frenzy of trial preparation, and the exhilaration of a great win or the tragedy of a disheartening loss. It reminds us of what we have done and with whom. Those events stand as accomplishments. We are proud of that, so we display our Lawyers Diaries proudly upon our shelves.
But looking back through these old books, with their stuffed pages chocked full of hearings, depositions, meetings, marketing events, and the like, is also a reminder of how much time we have devoted to the profession. It begs the question, how much time did I have left? Did I spend any time doing anything else? Such extra-work activities are most often not tracked in the red book, so it can be hard to say. But I have known at least a few lawyers who would put kids’ birthdays, anniversaries and other important dates in there so as not to commit the unpardonable act of forgetting. And I have known quite a few lawyers who have been so caught up in work that they forgot any way.
The inevitable point is that lawyers live on the clock. We track our time and bill it to the client in six-minute increments. Six minutes. Point 1. Think about that. That’s about a minute longer than your average television commercial break. If you’re an Olympic marathoner, you can run a mile and a half. But for most of us, when you think about it, there’s not much you can do in six minutes. Yet, lawyers must account for each six-minute increment – an endeavor that can be stressful and frustrating. Anyone who has tried to re-create a month or even a week of time can attest to how easy it is to lose six minutes.
For most lawyers, billable hours are a fact of life. The pressure to account for time and bill it is immense. Although we get used to tracking time in point ones and point twos, doing so comes at the cost of losing perspective on how much time that really is. If we take a half hour break, that’s a point five not billed and therefore lost. We then have the feeling of being behind, of having wasted time. The pressure to track small increments of time leads to increased stress, and increased stress leads to decreased efficiency, and inevitably, to lower quality work product. And it can be incredibly difficult to sustain such an exacting pace day after day. There is a reason why they call the random day off a mental health day. And anyone who takes one can attest to feeling reinvigorated upon return from one. It’s just that lawyers rarely take them. Don’t even get me started on vacations.
The reality is that we need to take breaks. We need to waste more time, not less. The lawyer culture does not yet appreciate this need. The focus remains on squeezing every last point one from every last lawyer. And as a result, many good lawyers burn out. In order keep lawyers healthy and committed and motivated, each must have a chance not to work, to let time stretch out, so that ideas can marinate, so that inspiration can percolate up from within. The mind works so much better that way. It becomes more efficient. It is better for lawyers and ultimately for their clients. So, go on. Stop reading this. Get out of here and relax a little. Take a walk. Breathe.
Andrew D. Kang, JD, LICSW, is a former attorney turned licensed psychotherapist. His practice, Boston Professionals Counseling, LLC, focuses on helping attorneys and professionals with the issues they face and is located in Boston, Massachusetts. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.bostonprofessionalscounseling.com