Enjoy the Valleys, But Pedal Through The Plateaus

Lawyers of any seniority—but particularly new associates—worry about where the next assignment will come from.  Sure, there is enough work now, but what about tomorrow?  Or the next week?  How can I possibly make hours? 

That often leads new attorneys to look for work even when they are pleasantly busy, and then that additional work becomes a crush of work which leads to getting assignments done within a hairsbreadth of the deadline.  At worst, it leads to avoidable errors.  At best, even if you never miss a deadline, the constant relentless pace can lead to cynicism and burnout. 

The common advice—and advice I whole-heartedly subscribe to—is to enjoy the valleys.  If you are busy, push through it.  But once you do, you don’t need to set out looking for new work immediately.  Take a few quiet days; catch up on business development; go to the movies.  Whatever.  If you are good at what you do (and if you are conscientious and keeping up on #PracticeTuesday, I bet you are), the work will find you and you will get busy once more.  2,000 billable hours (or whatever your goal is) doesn’t occur in 50 equal weeks of 40 hours each, and you shouldn’t expect it to.   

But there’s an advanced lesson, too, for attorneys who have learned to enjoy the valleys.

Pedal through the plateaus.  If you’ve gone for months or years living on the adrenaline of being incredibly busy and then letting up when the worst passes, it can be hard to keep up a steady pace of work when you have things to do but not deadlines breathing down your neck.   

Suppose you have two full appellate briefs to write in the next month.  That’s doable!  But it’s easy to look at the deadline 30 days away and realize that because you have written a brief in one week when you’ve had to, you can let up or take on more work.  For instance, you might slack off for the first two weeks and decide to write the two briefs in the last half of the month.  Or you might look to take on a third brief to truly fill up your calendar. 

That’s a mistake.  I have no doubt you’ve written a brief in a week when you’ve really had to.  But that’s adrenaline you!  The goal on the plateaus is to keep up a steady pace of work—not too crazy, not too lax—so you don’t have to convert to crisis mode.  But if you’re used to a boom-bust cycle of incredibly busy followed by going slack, that can be difficult. 

I don’t have any perfect advice to fix this problem, because it is one I’ve diagnosed in myself. But here are three suggestions: 

First, work backwards and realize that your final deadlines aren’t your interim deadlines.  Say the brief is due to the Court on the 30th.  Well, that doesn’t mean you finish the draft on the 30th.  The client will need to see it before then.  And the partner will need to review.  And there are cite checks and all the other things that go into a brief.  Make sure when you’re assessing your workload that you have your interim deadlines in mind, as well.  You may discover your valley is a plateau.  Or worse. 

Second, when you’re on the plateau, still work full days.  Come in when you normally do, leave when you normally do, and work in between.  That might mean that you don’t have to work after the baby goes to bed or have lunch at your desk, as you would when you’re crazy.  But still make full days of work full days of work. 

Finally, give yourself goals for even plateau days.  Maybe it is that you will write the Statement of Facts for the brief.  Or the first argument section.  Or whatever.  By setting tangible mile markers, you can keep your plateau weeks from flying by without much to show for them.   

(Rachel tells me she’ll have more on burnout, so stay tuned!) 

2 Replies to “Enjoy the Valleys, But Pedal Through The Plateaus”

  1. Thanks for this timely insight, Sean–August is a month particularly ripe for a work “plateau” posing as a “valley.”

  2. It’s a good time to catch your breath. But it’s also a good time to catch up on marketing you may have put to the side.

    Did your last case pose a tricky legal question, or teach you a valuable lesson? Write something on it!

    Are there events you now have time to attend? Go there!

    Use the time now so you don’t have to squeeze it in when you get busy again.

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