On asking for help

One day when I was a junior (but not brand new) associate, I logged into Westlaw, took one look at the search bar, and started to cry. On the one hand, I cry often. On the other hand, I love Westlaw, and crying is not my typical reaction to seeing a soothing blue screen full of databases ready to be searched. After all, I didn’t even cry when, after I steadfastly refused to install Westlaw Next for years, Westlaw finally just stopped supporting Classic and forcibly migrated me to the new system (I’m still bitter). In any event, when my reaction to opening Westlaw involved tears, I knew something was wrong.  

It wasn’t hard to figure out what that “something” was. This episode came after my busiest year at the firm, the only year in which my annual billable hours were substantially closer to 3,000 than 2,000. Before I go on, let me be clear: yes, it was brutal, but because of the experiences I’m about to relate, I learned an exceptional amount that year, grew leaps and bounds as an attorney, and forged deep bonds with some wonderful people. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

See, that year, I’d been part of the on-site teams for two long, messy trials, each in a different city far from home. After returning from the second one—a grueling, 5-week slog with aggressive opposing counsel and a disappointing outcome—I rejoined a team working on another colossal matter that was also gearing up for trial (happily for me, that one never made it).

Trials in the kinds of patent cases I worked on can be massive productions. We’d often have dozens of asserted claims across multiple patents, multiple generations of accused products, thousands of exhibits, a lengthy witness list (including live fact and expert witnesses and many more appearing by deposition), complicated demonstratives, and a boatload of messy legal issues to keep track of all at once. Just preparing three such cases for trial in a year was utterly exhausting; and that’s even before considering the weeks spent in war rooms until 2 or 3AM, only to return a few hours later to set off for a full, intense day of court.

For matters like these, and especially at firms like mine, the trial prep process starts months ahead of time and almost inevitably becomes contentious somewhere in the middle of exhibit lists and objections, deposition designations, jury instructions, motions in limine, and Daubert motions. And that’s even before figuring in the witness-related prep work (direct and cross) and drafting opening statements and closing arguments. My hours were bad during the trials (as they should have been), but they were almost as bad in the months leading up to them. And no one stopped it.

See, here’s the thing about law firms, especially big ones. For the most part, they just aren’t designed to be proactive about looking out for people. Sure, they can keep tabs on the number of hours each lawyer puts in, and at some point, when an attorney’s billable hours cross an arbitrary or very high threshold, a representative of The Firm may come to her office and have a chat.

But even hardworking, diligent people have very different tolerances for how many hours they are comfortable working in a year. Some of this is due to personality, but another important factor is that some attorneys may be balancing significant obligations outside of the office (for example, being the primary caretaker for a child or a sick parent). In other words, while some people can be perfectly happy and healthy billing 2800 hours in a year (I know; I’ve met them), for others, 2300 may feel like a serious stretch. A single number on a computer program can’t reveal how an attorney is experiencing those hours—whether she’s cheerfully putting in weekend time on a project she asked to join on top of her already-full load, or whether she’s truly in distress and feeling overwhelmed. Combined with everything else that’s on a busy practice manager’s plate and the reality that sometimes firms (or departments) are just so busy or profitable that the more junior attorneys work the better, the truth is that it’s sometimes hard for firm administration to catch a problem before it becomes a problem.

But here’s another truth, which is just as important: if you’re working at the right kind of place—which, I understand, is far from guaranteed—then when you speak up for yourself, you will get what you need, and usually quickly. In my case, I went to my partner mentor, an attorney I’d known since I was interviewing for a summer position and with whom I’d worked extensively, including on one of that year’s trials. I was at the end of my rope, and I’m sure I cried in his office.

His response was immediate and encouraging. He told me he’d been there, encouraged me to take care of myself, starting with taking a few days off, and then offered to help me scale back my caseload for a little while. Almost before I’d gotten back to my desk, I’d started getting emails reflecting his actions on my behalf. (And I did, in fact, take a few days off.) In some ways, reshuffling work from one attorney to others is easier to accomplish at a large firm. I won’t say that it’s because the associates are fungible, not exactly, but there are always enough people to whom the baton can be passed in a pinch. This may not be the case everywhere, though you’d be surprised at how often there may be some play in the joints that didn’t seem possible before.

In any event, the lesson is this: even if a good firm cannot (or does not) detect potential or actual issues and offer to address them before they escalate, it will nevertheless be eager to provide relief and support when it recognizes a problem. This has been the experience of friends and colleagues not just at my former firm, but also at many others (and it has been confirmed through personal conversations with some of our own #AppellateTwitter mainstays).

Some of you may be thinking that firms can and should be more proactive in monitoring and, where necessary, altering, attorney workloads. That’s fair—employers can always do better. You may even know of firms that have figured out an effective method of early intervention; if that’s true, so much the better, and I’d love to hear about it in the comments or over on Twitter.

By the same token, I imagine other readers may be skeptical that a firm really would jump in to lighten the workloads of attorneys in distress. Isn’t this law firm gig supposed to be about squeezing as many hours as possible out of as many attorneys as possible for maximum profit?

Well, no. Again, not if done right. Even setting aside any notions of compassion or decency (which, friends, is a pretty big carve-out), law firms don’t want dedicated associates to burn out. Why would they? Burnout means immediate departure, and usually one with bad feelings about the firm. Good associates are busy because they are in high demand. But keeping them too busy increases the likelihood that they’ll leave sooner, and firms want to keep good associates. So really, preventing premature burnout is in their interest, too.

But even if your firm doesn’t jump in to help you when you finally ask for help, then you’ve learned some valuable information—and you might want to start forming an exit strategy. Similarly, if, even after reducing your load, you find your work depleting or unfulfilling, you might decide that having that job at that particular moment in time simply isn’t worth it for you. And that’s OK too.

Here are some tips on how (and when) to ask for help and avoid burning out:

First, try not to let things get to a crisis point, either with respect to your own mental health or a looming client deadline. During those high-pressure times, it’s particularly difficult to effectively ask for help, either because you may not be able to communicate as clearly about what you need, or because there may not be enough time for someone else to jump in and pick up the ball before the looming deadline (and we’re in the client service business, so sometimes things just have to get done).

Second, work on preventing a crisis by saying “no” when necessary and appropriate. There are some tips about how and when to say no in this (long) Twitter thread. Yes, part of it is “earning the right” to do it (perhaps by cheerily paying your dues). But there is some point beyond which even a first-year attorney shouldn’t have to go (either in terms of sheer number of hours or if serious family obligations or mental health issues are in play).

Third, pay as little attention as you can to what others are doing. Many law professors (including me) tell 1Ls not to obsess about what their classmates are doing and instead to focus on figuring out which study strategies and habits are effective for them. Similarly, just because the person in the office next to yours is already in her office when you arrive in the morning and is still there when you leave doesn’t mean that you’re not doing your job well. You don’t know how efficiently that person is working, or what her goals are, or what else she has going on outside of the office, or how she experiences the hours she works. Just because someone else can stomach one 300+ hour month after another doesn’t mean you should, too.

Fourth, starting early in your career, develop mentors who know the quality of your work and who will go to bat for you when you need it. Whether you are assigned a mentor through a formal program at your firm or you just find a partner whom you trust, a good mentor is not only essential to your professional development, but can be a lifesaver on burnout-related issues. Really good mentors will be invested and attentive enough to anticipate problems before they arise, and to check in proactively with their mentees about workload and morale. But even if your mentor doesn’t manage to preempt a problem, having someone reliable to turn to once you realize that something is wrong is crucial; bonus points if the mentor is in a position to effect the necessary change within the organization to get you the relief you need.

Finally, take care of yourself. This can look different for different attorneys, but carving out space for your family, your friends, and yourself is incredibly important. For example, you might choose one day of the week—mine was Saturday—when you just don’t work unless there’s some true emergency. Or you might determine that, no matter what, you need to spend time with friends or exercise or meditate or paint or read silly things on the internet for a certain number of minutes a day or a certain number of times a week.

I’ll close with a brief programming announcement. For tomorrow night’s #PracticeTuesday on Twitter, we’ll be starting a bit later than usual (7:00PM EST) because we have a very special guest host: @JeenaCho. Jeena is one of the co-authors of The Anxious Lawyer and an #AppellateTwitter regular who writes powerfully about resilience, work/life integration, and wellness for attorneys. Jeena will lead a #PracticeTuesday discussion about avoiding, recognizing, and addressing burnout. It’s sure to be informative and engaging; please join us.

One Reply to “On asking for help”

  1. Firms operate–without anyone raising an eyebrow–in a world where billing (not just working) 40 hours a week, every week, is the norm, and no one is entitled to a vacation unless it’s made up on the back-end (or credited on the front) with excessive workloads.

    How unquestioned is this dogma? Even the *minimum* billable hours you posit in this post are around 40 billable hours a week, every week, for the year, no? That means no vacation at all for someone working more than a full-time job–because people put more into work than they can bill–unless she packs extra weeks’ worth of work into a year. That should not be life, for a lawyer or any other laboring person. The paradigm needs shifting.

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