Category Archives: communication

Attorney Burnout: The Benefits of Purposeful Breaks (and how to take them)

Burnout refers to a state of mental and physical exhaustion, coupled with cynicism (depersonalization) and inefficacy (reduced personal accomplishment). Although several factors contribute to burnout, overwork is most directly related to exhaustion, which is the key element of the syndrome. Jam-packed schedules, filing deadlines, client revenue requirements, and lack of  boundaries are some of the reasons lawyers are prone to work overload.

Taking purposeful breaks from work is not a panacea for burnout. It is, however, an essential step to avoiding and alleviating the syndrome, regardless of the multifaceted causes that include more than work overload.

Common Excuses for Not Taking Breaks

A report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research notes that the United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee paid vacation days and paid holidays. Yet even those who get paid vacation days do not use it all. According to a Project: Time Off report, a majority 52 percent of employees in the United States reported having unused vacation days at the end of the year. The study adds that in 2017, the average American took just 17 days of paid vacation.

Common excuses for not taking breaks — especially extended vacations lasting at least a week — include:

1. I don’t need it

When you are functioning, checking items off your priorities list, and getting through your day, you may conclude that you don’t need time off.  You might not realize that you could be a lot more productive and effective if you took a break and then came back rested and refreshed.

This excuse is based on fear of using up time off when you’re not in crisis mode and could need it later due to a real crisis.

2. I have too much to do

Whether you are a solo practitioner with your own practice or a partner at a big law firm, you have difficulty getting away from work when you feel there is too much to do. Lack of delegation of tasks and responsibilities or failure to get appropriate support often leads to counterproductive overwork.

The fear is that the business will cease to run or succeed or that your team cannot function without you. You might also worry that your practice and colleagues may very well be able to do without you, even if it’s just for a few days.

The Project: Time Off study reported that employees with concerns that they would seem less dedicated or even replaceable if they took a vacation were less likely to use all their vacation time (61% leave time unused, compared to 52% overall).  Those who felt their workload was too much to take time off were also less likely to use all their vacation time  (57% to 52%), as were those who felt there was a lack of coverage or that no one else could do their job (56% to 52%).

3. I can’t afford it

Billable hour requirements or client revenue goals is a primary reason for not using vacation days or time off. For a solo lawyer, taking a vacation often means missing out on new business opportunities to add to the cash flow. Lawyers at larger firms also have similar concerns due to stiff competition with other lawyers and firms. The fear of losing prospects and clients causes many to stay close to the office.

Planning for a vacation might also bring financial worries, especially when it involves rest and relaxation at a retreat, sightseeing in exotic places, bringing your family, or other types of getaways that are quite expensive.

4. I don’t want to lose momentum

When you’re in the midst of a major work project or you’re about to start one, it can be hard to step away from it. You get accustomed to the high stress and don’t know how to relax and stop obsessing about the goals and objectives you want to meet. Defaulting to old habits and routines around work often feels more comfortable than exercising relaxation skills that have not been used in a long time.

There is fear that taking a break means quitting or giving up. There are also concerns that a mountain of work will be waiting for you to clear out when you get back.  You might even feel lost and confused when you take a break from work and have no urgent action items or measurable results to consider.

Ways to Overcome Excuses for Not Taking Breaks

Excuses for not taking breaks can be overcome with these practices:

1. Prioritize self-care

To boost employee productivity and well being, organizations need to encourage vacations and even make it mandatory. Individuals also need to prioritize self-care and recognize that burnout prevention involves taking the time to recharge.

Use time blocking methods to get your most important work done within a set time frame, instead of allowing it to expand without limits. Also known as time boxing, this involves setting an appointment (with yourself) to do a single, high-cognitive demand task or a batch of similar, low-cognitive demand tasks in a specific time block.

Avoid unnecessary, agendaless meetings that only involve information sharing that can be otherwise accomplished through more efficient means. Declare certain hours as quiet, focus time when you should not be interrupted and other hours as time to have discussions, answer questions and address concerns.

Set appropriate boundaries. If your boss approaches you with another project, remind her of your list of priorities and discuss which should take precedence. Either she will tell you which is most important or find someone else to take on the new project.  Respectfully push back if she tells you that they are all priorities. Ask for specific due dates instead of settling for “ASAP.” Taking on too much will backfire in the form of missed target completion dates, poor quality work, and inadvertent errors.

Taking extended time off to recharge can create its own stress for lawyers, who are used to hustling and working hard. Yet taking a break is necessary for sustaining progress and creating desired results over the long haul, as well as boosting productivity in the short term.

Working obsessively and compulsively does not necessarily make you productive and can actually lead to burnout. Treat self-care as a vital component of being productive and sustaining diligence.

2. Plan ahead for your time off

There will always be more work for you to do, no matter how hard you push through and try to clear things off your desk. Instead of waiting for the perfect time to take a vacation – when all the to-dos are done, all files are closed, and all deadlines are met (which never happens) – plan ahead for it.  Treat it like an important appointment or commitment that must not be broken. Just be practical about when you take it and how long it will last.

Ask yourself what you need to do to make it happen by a set date. The first step is choosing your most important and urgent projects to tackle or complete before you go on vacation. Use the priority matrix (urgent + important; important but not urgent; urgent but not important; not urgent + not important). Decide on which ball you can drop for the time being and pick up later or drop altogether.

The next step involves notifying your clients about when you will be on a break; whether you will be responding to inquiries and, if not, who will be in charge of responses; the status of their case; and how time-sensitive issues that may arise while you’re gone will be handled.

Another step is to delegate tasks and responsibilities to others who can do the job well if not better than you. If you’re a solo lawyer with no full-time staff, you can turn to a reliable independent contractor or virtual assistant to handle certain types of tasks, such as responding to general inquiries.

Provide your assistant with a case list containing  client contact information, status of the matter, and potential issues that may arise. Have an outlet (e.g. telephone call or email) for them to reach you in real emergencies and define parameters for what constitutes an emergency.

Solo practitioners can seek help from another solo lawyer to cover emergencies and issues that cannot wait to be handled until they return. Lawyers with colleagues can keep their team members informed of ongoing projects. Do necessary prework, such as drafting the legal discussion for a motion that can be readily completed by another qualified person who has access to the client files.

Taking things off your plate doesn’t mean you won’t be needed within your practice or by your organization. It simply frees you up to focus on more urgent and significant projects that better leverage your skills, expertise and time.

3. Shift your money mindset

The classic 40-hour work week and the pressure to spend more than that at work have trained lawyers to measure their value accordingly. However, true value does not lie in the time you spend on a matter. Rather, it results from the unique benefits you bring and the positive difference you make with your service.

To fully unplug and recharge,  you will have to refrain from taking on new cases, performing consultations or engaging in client work while you’re on an extended break. A short-term revenue loss may result, but you will make up for it after you return with renewed energy created by a much needed break.

You also don’t have to go in debt to enjoy a vacation.  Choose the one that is right for you and fits your budget. You could just spend a few days exploring recreational sites, eating at the much-talked-about restaurant, hanging out at the nearby cafe or going for a long nature walk in your own town.  You could stay at home and read a good book or relax on your couch watching your favorite movie. The point is to stay away from the office, put work aside, and ignore emails and social media.

4. Systematize your law practice

Law firms need to systematize their processes and procedures so the absence of one lawyer does not dramatically affect business operations and client service. Systematization is often overlooked by solo lawyers and small firm lawyers who tend to keep most of their knowledge in their heads instead of in their business records.

Systems may include an office manual documenting the various business functions at your firm, a detailed checklist for your most common types of cases, and template letters for following up with prospects and closing out client files.

The key systems you need to set up, consistently use, and extensively document include:

Operations management system. e.g. setting up operations procedures and administrative processes around business functions, instead of around people.

Calendaring, scheduling and tickler system. e.g. recording important hearings and meetings and setting reminders for due dates and deadlines.

Client file management system. e.g. providing steps for running conflicts checks, opening new client files, closing files, and destroying old files.

Client communication system. e.g. having a policy for responding to telephone calls, emails and other communications from clients; providing a script for resolving a billing dispute.

Client service and retention system. e.g. creating templates for repetitive letters and emails; providing step-by-step procedures and checklists for  routine matters; preparing written instructions and answers to FAQs for clients.

Client attraction and acquisition system. e.g.  implementing a specific process for responding to online and telephone inquiries from prospects; developing a policy for post-consultation and post-meeting follow-ups with prospects.

Case management system. e.g. using online software like MyCase or even an Excel spreadsheet to manage cases and track the status of each.

Billing and invoicing system. e.g. using Quickbooks or other financial software to monitor income and expenses and automate invoicing to clients.

Firm management system. e.g. providing a written office manual that contains contact information for key personnel; location and account numbers for business and trust accounts; passwords for computer and voice mail; location of business documents such as leases, service contracts, and business credit cards.

Contingency management system. e.g.  creating a succession and transition plan or an emergency handbook for dealing with unexpected practice interruptions.

Systems help you prepare for practice interruptions, whether due to a planned vacation or due to unexpected illness.

Why You Need to Take Breaks

Taking purposeful breaks creates the following benefits:

1.  Increase Engagement at Work

Psychologists Christina Maslach, PhD, and Michael Leiter, PhD define people’s relationships to their jobs as a “continuum between the negative experience of burnout and the positive experience of engagement,” in their article, Early Predictors of Job Burnout and Engagement.

These pioneers in burnout research note there are three interrelated dimensions of the burnout-engagement continuum: exhaustion-energy, cynicism-involvement and inefficacy-efficacy. Burnout and engagement are opposites. Engagement is an energetic state of active involvement and increased efficacy.

When job demands exceed your resources and depletes your capacity, you are more prone to burnout. Resting, recharging and refueling between particularly stressful events – such as meeting a deadline or arguing at trial –  helps you avoid burnout and better engage with your work.

2. Enhance Multifaceted Skills

Breaks are necessary for deep thinking and reflection. Real productivity does not come from taking action all the time and operating on autopilot. By stepping away from work, you are more likely to gain a fresh perspective on challenging projects and develop new ideas for complex problems.

Exhaustion results in memory loss, lack of focus, and reduced executive function and self-regulation skills. By re-energizing your brain with necessary breaks, you become more focused, respond better to stress, and make smarter decisions. You also develop your creativity, analytical ability and problem-solving acumen.

3. Improve Productivity

Working harder and longer leads to diminishing returns on output and progress, which interferes with goal accomplishment and quality of work. 

One Stanford University study , The Productivity of the Working Hourspublished in The Economic Journal, found that once you work up to 50 hours in a week, you hit diminishing marginal returns. Your output rises at a decreasing  rate and falls to almost nothing after 55 hours.  In the long run, excessive work hours are counterproductive. 

Maintaining a sustainable workload not only reduces your vulnerability to burnout, but also gives you more energy to do high-quality work and provide diligent representation.

4. Learn to Relax

The intense work culture in Japan led to the invention of the term, Karōshi,  in 1978 to refer to the rising number of people suffering from heart attacks and strokes attributed to overwork. The term was used to describe “occupational sudden death” and translates to “death by overwork.”

In general, lawyers are used to dealing with high-pressure situations and gain their self-identity and self-worth from their work. When your life is organized and structured around your work, it’s a big struggle to step away from it. Learning and practicing how to relax is critical to alleviating tension, slowing down and avoiding burnout.

Taking a break helps you recognize that your work is separate from you. It is not the same as quitting or being lazy, but is an active process of reflection and learning.  Sometimes you have to push hard, but you risk getting burned out when you operate in hyperactive mode all the time. Developing your relaxation skills helps you to mindfully manage and combat stress.

Taking Breaks is Necessary to Avoiding Burnout 

A break from work can include mini-breaks throughout the day (e.g. 5 minutes for every 25 minutes of work; one-hour lunch break), a weekend off or three-day weekend; an extended vacation lasting at least one week; or a sabbatical or leave lasting at least one month.

In a given day, purposeful breaks may involve alone time (e.g. meditation, reading a calming book); interaction with nature (e.g. looking out the window; sitting on a park bench); social connections (e.g. chatting with a colleague; having lunch with a good friend); relaxation (daydreaming, sketching, listening to music); and movement (taking a walk, tai chi, stretching, doing jumping jacks).

Rest through purposeful breaks is essential to improving engagement in the workplace, which is the opposite of burnout. By letting go of the excuses and instead implementing steps to take time off, lawyers will be better equipped to avoid  burnout and keep the fire in their belly to do their best work.

For more information, read the related article, Attorney Burnout: The High Cost of Overwork. 

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This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance. 

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Attorney Burnout: The High Cost of Overwork

Being truly productive is not about filling your time with more work and plugging away at your to-dos without breaks.  Still, managing a heavy caseload and working beyond office hours are expected and even glorified in the legal industry.

Overwork is considered a badge of honor when it is equated with dedication, responsiveness, and a can-do attitude. But when mounting stress pushes you into the downward spiral of burnout,  it is impossible to make meaningful contribution and perform at your peak. The fire in your belly fades out and the inner drive gets replaced with indifference and disillusionment.

Knowing the symptoms helps you spot burnout and take action to alleviate it. Understanding the effects of overwork and other contributory factors is key to preventing and stopping burnout. Recognizing the consequences of burnout makes you less likely to ignore the telltale signs.

What is Burnout?

There is no clear definition of burnout. More often, it is discussed in terms of its common symptoms. Although burnout is typically linked with chronic stress, they are not the same. Burnout is at the extreme end of the stress continuum.

In the 1970’s, psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger coined the term and referred to it as “a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life.”

Christina Maslach, psychologist and creator of the leading burnout measure, the Maslach Burnout Inventory™ (MBI), describes burnout as a syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic, job-related stress. She notes that burnout is “a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion marked by physical depletion and chronic fatigue, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and by development of a negative self-concept and negative attitudes towards work, life and other people.”

In the 10th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10), burnout is given its own code (Z73.0) and is referred to as a state of vital exhaustion. Burnout, however, is not recognized as a medical diagnosis in part because its symptoms overlap with those of more widely studied conditions, such as depression and anxiety disorder,  as well as physical illnesses.

While there are questionnaires to self-assess burnout, there are no official methods to diagnose burnout or whether the symptoms are caused by something else.

What are the Common Symptoms of Burnout? 

Warning signs of burnout include emotional symptoms, such as feeling overwhelmed, forgetfulness; inability to focus; feeling empty or depressed; chronic anxiety; increased irritability; intolerance of others; and withdrawal from friends and family. Physical symptoms include headaches; indigestion; nausea; sudden weight loss or gain; and getting sick more frequently. Among the behavioral symptoms are insomnia; alcohol dependence; and substance misuse.

Maslach’s 3 key dimensions of burnout

Maslach and her colleagues found that burnout has three key dimensions:

Emotional exhaustion is overwhelming exhaustion that includes low energy, depletion and fatigue. It is feeling emotionally drained by interpersonal contact and being overextended and exhausted by one’s work.

Depersonalization refers to cynicism and detachment, i.e. a negative and excessively impersonal response toward clients (recipients of one’s services or care)  and various aspects of the job. It is usually associated with irritability, loss of idealism, withdrawal and other negative shifts in attitude.

Reduced personal accomplishment is a sense of inefficacy and a feeling of ineffectiveness in producing the desired results. It refers to a negative self-evaluation of professional competence. It is linked to depression, low self-esteem, low morale, and an inability to cope.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory™ evaluates the three dimensions with a 22-item survey using a 7-point Likert scale for responses.  An answer reflects both the frequency and intensity of feelings and may range from “Never” to “Every day”.

The Emotional Exhaustion subscale includes nine items, such as  “I feel burned out from my work,” “I feel fatigued when I get up in the morning and have to face another day on the job,” and “I feel I’m working too hard on my job.” Higher scores on this subscale correspond to higher degrees of burnout.

The Depersonalization subscale includes five items, such as “I’ve become more callous towards people since I took this job,” “I worry that this job is hardening me emotionally,” and ” I don’t really care what happens to some recipients.”  Higher scores on this subscale correspond to higher degrees of burnout.

The Personal Accomplishment subscale includes eight items, such as “I feel I’m positively influencing other people’s lives through my work,” “I feel exhilarated after working closely with my recipients,” and “I have accomplished many worthwhile things in this job.” Lower scores on this subscale correspond to higher degrees of burnout.

Freudenberger’s 12-stage model of burnout

Freudenberger described the development of burnout in 12 stages, which do not necessarily occur in order and might not all be experienced in every case:

1. Compulsion to prove oneself (excessive ambition; obsession with proving worth)

2. Working harder (inability to switch off; taking on more work)

3. Neglecting needs (lack of social interactions; unhealthy diet; irregular sleep)

4. Displacement of conflicts (roots of problems are dismissed; feel threatened by disagreements)

5. Revision of values (work becomes the only focus; life becomes one-dimensional as family, friends, hobbies, etc. are neglected)

6. Denial of emerging problems (intolerance; inflexibility in thoughts and behavior; cynicism; aggression)

7. Withdrawal (hopelessness; reduced sense of direction; use of alcohol and drugs for stress relief)

8.  Obvious behavioral changes (odd shifts in behavior and emotional outbursts, which concern friends and family)

9. Depersonalization (devaluing self and others)

10. Inner emptiness (feeling empty and anxious; addictions develop)

11. Depression (feeling lost and uncertain; pessimistic outlook on the future)

12. Burnout syndrome (mental and physical exhaustion that can be life-threatening; medical attention becomes critical)

As psychologist Cary Cherniss notes, burnout begins with a mismatch between your work demands and your resources to deal with these demands (stress). It progresses to the immediate, short-term response of anxiety, tension and fatigue (individual strain). Then it sparks changes in attitude and behavior, such as greater cynicism and detachment (defensive coping). Paying attention to the early warning signs is key to staving off the more severe symptoms and full-on burnout.

What are the Causes of Burnout? 

Both the workplace environment (external factors) and your individual traits and personal habits (internal factors) contribute to  burnout.

Workplace factors

In their book, The Truth About Burnout, Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter identify six factors in the workplace that fuel stress and trigger burnout. They are:

1. Work overload. Organizational restructuring, downsizing and budget cuts force individuals to work more with fewer resources.  Billable hour requirements and other financial demands push lawyers to work longer even when they ought to take a break and recharge.

2. Lack of control over your work. Having autonomy — such as the freedom to determine your own priorities, set limits, and solve problems creatively — is critical for workplace motivation and engagement. When you have little or no control over which tactics and strategies you use, and when you execute them,  it’s much harder to influence the outcome and derive satisfaction from the work you do.

3. Insufficient reward. Meaningful rewards come in a variety of forms.  They include high pay, good benefits, recognition from peers and supervisors, and the feeling that you make a difference for your organization and your clients. In the high stakes legal industry,  lawyers are harshly reprimanded and called out for mistakes and failures, while their diligence and successes are often taken for granted. If your work is not met with appropriate reward, burnout is more likely.

4. Lack of community. When there is minimal support from colleagues and supervisors, unresolved conflicts, extreme competitiveness, and intense isolation within your workplace, there is a higher propensity for cynicism and detachment.

5. Absence of fairness. Trust, openness and respect are necessary for a workplace to be perceived as fair. Inequities in the workload or pay structures, favoritism in promotions, biased evaluations, and failure to appropriately resolve disputes can lead to burnout.

6. Conflicting values. A mismatch between your organization’s values and your personal values makes it hard to align priorities and goals. Inconsistencies between the organization’s stated objectives and its daily actions also create frustration, discontentment and negativity.

Individual traits and habits

Common personality traits or tendencies among lawyers, which tend to cause burnout, are:

1.  Perfectionism. Deadline-driven work, complex laws and rules, and ongoing changes in procedures and policies are some of the factors that encourage perfectionism. This involves setting impossibly high standards and rejecting any work product short of perfection. Unrealistic expectations, aversion to mistakes and the overvaluing of flawless performance can steer you toward burnout.

2. Conscientiousness. Prioritizing work and clients’ needs over self-care and personal commitments is prevalent among lawyers. The ability to make a difference  can lead you to say yes to unreasonable requests and never-ending demands. Overtime, your conscientiousness and sense of service can begin to feel more like self-sacrifice, deprivation and martyrdom.

3.  Achievement orientation. High achievers tend to have lower resilience to stress and setbacks. They obsess about meeting goals no matter the costs, and find it difficult to discuss their weaknesses and accept constructive feedback. Due to their strong desire to excel, they are generally hypercritical of their failures and fall easily into comparison traps.

4. Workaholism.  Many lawyers work beyond the standard 40 hours per week,  e.g. 50 to 80 hours, because they are workaholics. They have an extreme internal drive, are excessively hard workers, and are addicted to work. They work compulsively and excessively, beyond what is required to meet organizational goals or their own financial needs.

What are the Consequences of Burnout?

Burnout has far-reaching consequences on lawyers, their organizations and the industry as a whole. They include:

Ethical Missteps

ABA Model Rule 1.1 (Competence), which is reflected in Rule 1.1 of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, instructs lawyers to provide competent representation, which “requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”

Rule 1.3 of the MRPC (Diligence), which mirrors the Model Rule, states “A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.”

Rule 1.4 (a), MRPC (Communication) and the Model Rule, requires lawyers to promptly inform the client of key decisions and circumstances and obtain informed consent; reasonably consult with the client about the means to accomplish objectives; keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter; and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.

These and other ethics rules are more likely to be broken when you are experiencing fatigue, cynicism, detachment and hopelessness due to burnout.  Your capacity to meet the demands of your profession and needs of your client are depleted by burnout.

Intense fatigue, for example, makes it much harder to keep up with the workload, track and meet deadlines, analyze and apply complex laws, and respond promptly to client’s questions and concerns. Your cognitive abilities and creative problem solving skills are not as sharp as they could be when you are burned out.

Excessive depersonalization of clients strips your ability to show compassion and address highly sensitive issues.  Too much distancing from your work can lead you to overlook critical aspects of a client matter.

Feeling ineffective and helpless discourages you from exerting effort and exploring ways to solve problems. Your interest and focus wane when you think what you do makes little or no difference.

Health-Related Problems

Emotional depletion and mental fatigue often lead to serious health problems. Burnout has been linked with physical consequences, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cardiovascular disorder, chronic pain, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, severe injuries and shorter life spans. Burnout is also associated with psychological effects, including depression and anxiety disorder.

Impaired Relationships

Burnout can lead to withdrawal from family and friends as well as more interpersonal disputes. Work-family conflict, for instance, arises when obligations at work take time and energy away from family-related responsibilities.  Negativity, lower energy, irritability and increased frustration affect your ability to maintain relationships with colleagues, team members, supervisors and partners.

Substance Abuse 

Stress is a known contributor to alcoholism and drug addiction. In a 2016 study titled, The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, researchers found that more than 1 in 5 lawyers said they felt their use of alcohol or other drugs was problematic at some point in their lives.  The study found that attorneys in the first 10 years of their practice experience the highest rates of problematic use (28.9%), followed by attorneys practicing for 11 to 20 years (20.6%).

Alcohol or drugs is sometimes used to numb out, relax, or cope with work-related stressors. Some drugs, such as cocaine, also serve to increase mental alertness. Self-medicating to deal with burnout leads to drug addictions and substance abuse.

Dysfunctions and Reduced Productivity in the Workplace 

Burnout and its related symptoms prevent you from getting the most important things done efficiently, effectively and in a timely manner. Cynicism or negative attitudes toward the organization, clients and colleagues reduces commitment to the workplace, job satisfaction, and quality of service. It also contributes to communication breakdown and low workplace morale. Emotional exhaustion and physical fatigue lower productivity and increase absenteeism and tardiness.

In addition, the growing sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment often causes burned out lawyers to quit their jobs, close their practice, or shift to another profession or vocation altogether. Heavy workloads, inadequate rewards and job dissatisfaction, which are part of the burnout culture, are among the reasons for high turnover rates. The organization incurs significant expenses when recruiting and training lawyers to replace those who leave.

Overwork Comes At a High Cost that Does Not, in the Long Run, Outweigh Any Possible Benefit

Prolonged exposure to stress (e.g. excessive workload), combined with the workplace environment and personal characteristics and tendencies, make lawyers vulnerable to burnout.

Burnout not only impairs your personal health and productivity, but also affects the outcomes of your organization in the form of subpar work product, decreased client satisfaction, and a higher propensity for legal errors and ethical missteps.

The high cost of overwork, which is a requisite for burnout, means you must take purposeful breaks daily, weekly, and yearly – no matter how busy you are. The heavier your caseload, the more recharging and refueling you need to avoid running on empty.

For more information, read the related article, Attorney Burnout: The Benefits of Purposeful Breaks (and how to take them).

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This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance. 

SUBSCRIBE           CONTACT

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Deadlines & Daily Habits: Why Time Blocking Works

Time blocking (or time boxing) is an essential productivity technique that involves setting an appointment (with yourself) to do a single, high-cognitive demand task or a batch of similar, low-cognitive demand tasks in a specific time block.

It allows you to prioritize important, deadline-driven or time-sensitive matters, make progress on growth-based projects, and communicate with clients and prospects without giving them 24/7 access to you. Ultimately, time blocking leads to strategic deadlines and productive habits that help you get important tasks done well and on time.

Here are three reasons why time blocking works:

1. Develop laser-like focus

Because a time block is a pre-planned, distraction-free period for tackling your most important tasks (MITs) or one big thing, it gives you the opportunity to practice the skill of concentrating on cognitively demanding, high-value work without giving up easily.

Instead of jumping from task to task or giving in to urges to check social media or surf the web, you learn to sit with discomfort and stay committed to the task at hand.

Focus, however, requires willpower – the mental energy to resist short-term temptations to make long-term gains. And willpower is a limited resource. With time blocking, you  build daily habits that move you forward and get you unstuck, without relying too much on self-control.

Time blocks allow you to hone in your efforts on a single big task that must be done, or a batch of low-value tasks that will accumulate if you ignore them too long. Decision fatigue is reduced when you know exactly what task you need to tackle, how long you should spend on it, and when to break from it.

By routinizing and batching low-level tasks, you reserve your energy, attention span and concentration for complicated tasks that require laser-like focus.

2. Produce higher-quality work

Time blocking gets you in the zone and increases flow – the mental state in which you are absorbed in and fully involved in the task at hand – by reducing distractions and minimizing interruptions.

When you invest your cognitive abilities on a complex task ( instead of scatter your attention on busy work), you make fewer mistakes, notice significant details, and produce more creative, higher-level work. Time blocking encourages you to postpone mindless activities and time wasters so you can attend to your more important and/or urgent work.

3. Speed up progress on priorities

Time blocking encourages conscious choices in which you say yes to essentials (do list) and no to non-essentials (don’t list)

Rather than overcommitting or succumbing to endless obligations, you set clear boundaries and realistic expectations with others.

If you habitually reply to emails and text messages within 5 minutes of when you get them, the sender will come to expect the same or similar response time for all correspondence. If you answer every telephone call regardless of what time they come in and what you are doing, you teach the caller that their problem always matters more than your own. If you keep an open office so anyone can walk into your office at any time, observers will conclude it’s fine to interrupt you regardless of what’s on your own agenda.

Being highly responsive makes you procrastinate on taking action on your own, highest priorities. By having time blocks for when you meet with clients and colleagues, take telephone calls, and respond to emails, you set appropriate boundaries that allow reasonable access to you without compromising your most important work.

Time blocking minimizes multitasking (time suck) and maximizes single tasking (time saver)

The ability to multitask is generally viewed as a valuable skill in our pseudo-productive world. Performing two or more tasks at one time seems to be the way to go when time is short and you have many things to do. But as Dave Crenshaw points out in the The Myth of Multitasking, the most you can do is “switch tasking” (switch back and forth between two or more tasks) and “background tasking” (do two or more mundane tasks like listen to the radio while you drive or watch TV while you exercise.)

The human brain is a sequential processor: It cannot pay attention to more than one thing at a time. Multitasking is not possible when (1) at least one of the tasks requires focus or effort to complete, and (2) the tasks involve similar types of brain processing.

Constantly shifting your attention makes you feel busy, but actually makes you less productive. When you stop what you’re doing to attend to an interruption, distraction or another completely different task, you are left with a  cognitive residue that takes about 15 to 25 minutes to clear up so you can refocus on the initial task. Multitasking (or switch tasking) is very different from taking deliberate breaks for necessary rest or taking time to let ideas percolate and incubate.

Background tasking is fine when you couple a primary task with a low-concentration or mindless activity. You can take a walk with a colleague while you discuss a work issue during your lunch break. You can listen to classical music while you organize your receipts for tax filing. You can catch up on the latest episode of your favorite podcast while you do the dishes.

But when it comes to your high-concentration, most important tasks, the best way to complete them in less time and with greater ease is to single-task. Focusing on one task at a time typically leads to better results.  

Time blocking reduces procrastination (time suck) and encourages deliberate action (time saver)

Classically defined, procrastination is the act of delaying or postponing action to a future time.  Neil Fiore, author of The Now Habit, defines procrastination as “a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision.”

In certain situations, delaying a task purposefully and strategically can work to your benefit. Sometimes you do need to reflect on things, allow ideas to percolate, gather and synthesize information, clarify your intentions, and determine your ultimate goal before you take action. This is known as strategic procrastination.

In other cases, delaying action on an important task while you work on other tasks to build momentum.  This is called structured procrastination.

Dr. John Perry, a philosopher at Stanford University and author of The Art of Procrastination, notes that despite being a habitual procrastinator, he is very productive most of the time. He notes:

The key to productivity is to make more commitments – but to be methodical about it. At the top of your to-do list put a couple of daunting, if not impossible tasks that are vaguely important sounding (but really aren’t) and seem to have deadlines (but really don’t). Then further down the list, include some doable tasks that really matter. With this appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.

Perry suggest that instead of working on your most important task first, you start a different task on your list that needs attention. By making other tasks just as important, you can make it easier to tackle the most significant.  Structural procrastination is supposed to motivate you to do difficult, important and time-sensitive tasks, as long as they are a way of not doing something more important.

But there are side effects. Strategic procrastination works only if you start the project early and give yourself time to develop and test ideas. It should not be used to complicate simple things that can be done quickly and doesn’t require a lot of thought. Preparation, which includes building expertise on the topic and mindfully reflecting on ideas, is key.

Structural procrastination works only if you eventually get around to doing your most important task. It should not be used to permanently avoid your main priority by un(consciously) engaging in low-leverage, shallow work instead of high-value, deep work.

They are ineffective as overall productivity strategies. Relying on strategic procrastination or structural procrastination benefits you in only some situations. You are not always creative under pressure, especially when all or or most of your work occurs when the deadline looms. You are likely to end up with mediocre results, high stress, and undeveloped solutions if you start the work too late and don’t have an adequate incubation period to develop ideas and insights.

Time blocking prevents you from delaying or postponing tasks that should not be put off to a later time.

Time blocking takes advantage of Parkinson’s Law (i.e. work expands to fill the time allotted)

Simply put, you will use up all the time to complete a task when given a certain amount of time to do it.

Think about a lawyer billing by the hour with no deadlines. Compared to a lawyer who charges a fixed fee for a specific matter, a lawyer who bills by the hour will likely do more work than is necessary to fill or exceed the minimum billable quota, as long as the client is willing to pay for it and remain a client.

By setting specific time blocks to tackle and complete a task, you learn to reduce perfectionism, ignore trivial details, simplify the steps involved, and work more productively toward a desired outcome.

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In terms of improving diligence (Rule 1.3), developing competence (Rule 1.1) and communicating effectively (Rule 1.4), time blocking works on multiple levels. It takes practice to use it consistently, but once you do, you will benefit from increased focus, higher-quality work, and more deliberate progress on your most important tasks.

To learn more, read the related article, Deadlines & Daily Habits: How Time Blocking Works.

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This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance. 

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Deadlines & Daily Habits: How Time Blocking Works

Exercising reasonable diligence, providing competent representation, and clearly and timely communicating with clients are critical professional responsibilities. When these ethical duties are neglected, lawyers are vulnerable to missing deadlines, producing sub-par work product, getting angry telephone calls from frustrated clients, and being reported to the bar disciplinary agency.

How do lawyers combine the essential skills of diligence, competence and communication to get important tasks done well and on time? How do they resist distractions, minimize interruptions, clarify their focus areas, and make purposeful progress on their highest priorities?

One essential productivity technique is time blocking. Also known as time boxing, this involves setting an appointment (with yourself) to do a single, high-cognitive demand task or a batch of similar, low-cognitive demand tasks in a specific time block.

Here are the 5 steps to implement time blocking to get essential tasks and projects done, while weeding out the non-essentials:

1. Do a brain dump 

The feeling of overwhelm comes with having too many goals to reach and carrying around too many ideas in your head.  By recording your to-dos, intentions, and plans in a notebook, on a sheet of paper, or in an electronic app like Evernote, you can capture all the things that occupy your thoughts.

Pick a certain day of the week (e.g. Sunday morning or Friday afternoon) to list out the stuff  – small tasks, big projects, short-term goals, and long-term projects – that take up mental space. Strive to get everything out in one session, although you may add items to the list sporadically, as they pop into your mind.

The brain dump is the first step to figuring out what to prioritize and get done within a certain time frame, as well as what to delegate, defer or drop altogether.

The process will also help you organize your projects and break them down into small, manageable steps (next actions) toward the desired outcome. If your list includes “write legal brief for X matter,” jot down the individual tasks involved in completing it. These include reviewing the file, narrowing down the legal issues, creating an outline, doing a first draft, and revising and editing to produce a final draft.

By capturing the steps it will take for you to reach an objective effectively, you can start to organize your projects, create a concrete action plan, and begin to make progress through time blocking.

2. Prioritize

The brain dump leaves you with random priorities. You then need to decide which are your must-dos and, on a daily basis, focus on the three most important tasks (MITs) or the one big thing that will make the most noticeable difference. Narrowing down your top priorities gives you room to deal with emergencies, delays, interruptions, and distractions outside your control. 

The Priority Matrix – also known as Eisenhower’s Urgent-Important Principle – is a useful tool for prioritizing significant, time-sensitive projects, building necessary knowledge and skills, and letting go of the distractions. It distinguishes between importance and urgency. Important tasks contribute to long-term accomplishment. Urgent tasks require immediate attention.

The system includes four different quadrants that enable you to prioritize tasks based on their importance and urgency. It reminds you that not every task is created equal and you may decide whether to tackle it now or defer it.

The Priority Matrix involves putting your tasks in one of four quadrants:

QUADRANT 1: Important + Urgent.

 

Examples: filing a legal brief by the deadline; appearing for a court hearing; attending a scheduled appointment with an important client

Significant, time-sensitive projects

 

 

 

 

QUADRANT 2: Important, But Not Urgent (at least not yet)

Examples: writing and publishing an article; preparing for a presentation; taking a course in your field; evaluating your work

Knowledge learning and skills development; planning and strategizing; mindful reflection and purposeful breaks

 

QUADRANT 3: Urgent (usually to someone else), But Not (always) Important

 

Examples: dealing with your boss’ last-minute request, attending an impromptu meeting, handling a colleague’s need to “pick your brain”

 

Time-pressured distractions and interruptions and random communications (like telephone calls, emails, text messages)

QUADRANT 4: Not Urgent, and Not Important

 

Examples: checking social media, surfing the web for news and videos, online shopping

 

Mindless activities and time wasters

 

3. Schedule priorities like appointments

After deciding on your top priorities (big rocks), your growth-based projects (pebbles) and recurring tasks that may become emergencies if you neglect them too long (sand), you next set a focused block of time to deal with them. Schedule the time blocks on your calendar at the start of your day or at the end of your day.

Be sure to match the task with your energy level, personal circumstances, and external environment. For example, do your deep work when your mental clarity and attention span are at its peak, you have the fewest interruptions, and you have access to a quiet workspace (or can at least choose your background noise).  Shallow work can be done when your energy is low (e.g. afternoon or end of day), you are more distraction-prone, and your workspace is noisier and more chaotic. 

Estimate how long a task will take and strive to carve out the ideal amount of time to spend on a particular activity. For complicated tasks that require deep thinking and high concentration, you could start with an hour and work your way up to two or three hours as you build your focus muscle. For shallow tasks, limit the time you spend on them to 25 minutes.

The Pomodoro Technique is one way to develop the skill to concentrate on one task at a time. First, you identify the task to do. Second, you set a timer (typically 25 minutes).  Third, you work on the task only until the timer goes off.  After the timer rings, you check off your task. And if you give in to interruptions and distractions (e.g. checking emails, getting a snack), you reset the timer. 

If you have fewer than four check marks, take a short break (5 minutes), then go to step 2. If you have at least four check marks, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, and do the steps all over again.

Studies show our ultradian rhythm allows our brain to focus for 90 to 120 minutes before it needs a break. So take purposeful, necessary breaks that involve stretching, hydrating, and calming your mind. Engage in rest and reflection that truly allow you to decompress and reset. Go outside for a walk, meditate, read a funny story or listen to instrumental music. 

4. Eat the frog before the candy

In Eat That Frog, author Brian Tracy writes, “Your ‘frog’ is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it.”  He writes:

The first rule of frog eating is this:

If you have to eat two frogs, eat the ugliest one first.

The second rule of frog eating is this:

If you have to eat a live frog at all, it doesn’t pay to sit and look at it very long.

If you have two important tasks, start with the more difficult one. And take immediate or prompt action rather than mull over it for too long. Tackle your major task – the one that’s high-value but you’ve been postponing – first thing, when your willpower is at its peak.

Be intentional about when you check your emails, watch online videos, scroll through web pages, and engage with social media. Make it as hard as possible to reach for your digital devices at any time of the day. Avoid them first thing after you wake up (when you ought to be gearing  for your most significant projects), and right before bedtime (when you ought to be winding down and clearing your mind).

You don’t have to respond to emails, telephone calls and text messages as soon as they come in or within second or minutes. By end of day or next day is usually more than enough in most cases.  Go online during chunks of predetermined time blocks on your own schedule. That way, you stay responsive and connected without being bombarded by digital distractions throughout the day.

Before you start high-focus tasks, close your web browsers and keep your smartphone out of sight – preferably in another room – with the Do Not Disturb mode on. (If you’re expecting a truly important call, you can set your phone to have it go through.)

While you’re engaged in deep work, stay away from social media, online news feeds and other digital distractions that clutter your mind. If you feel the urge to go online, remind yourself that your time block is for real work or purposeful breaks. 

To reduce digital temptations altogether, remove automatic alerts, like the pop-up messages and sound alerts you get each time a text, or email comes in. Disable push notifications from social media.  Try online filters and website blockers like FocusMe (paid service), Freedom (paid service) or StayFocused (free service for Google Chrome users).

Another way to tackle your MITs or one big thing is to theme your days. Set aside a day to concentrate on a high-cognitive demand task, such as writing an article, studying and analyzing a complex issue, following up and communicating with important clients, and making progress on a particular matter.

Block out time for your miscellaneous, low-cognitive demand tasks that require attention. Batch similar activities like replying to random inquiries from prospects and responding to requests for information or updates from clients.

5. Review whether actions reflect priorities

Do an honest assessment of your daily actions to determine whether you’re addressing your real priorities or just getting distracted with busy work.

Keep an activities log and record when you did each task and how much time you spent on it.  Are you investing more time than necessary on low-cognitive, shallow work that contributes little to your success? Does the task appropriately align with your energy and focus levels?  Have you been doing your MITs or one big task first thing or do you procrastinate on what you really need to be doing? Are you overscheduling and failing to build margins or leave white space in your calendar?

Tracking your time raises awareness of how much is spent on the meaningful versus the meaningless. It gives you a visual cue of important areas that need your attention. It motivates you to drop time wasters and energy drainers that steer you away from your preferred path. You learn to rework your plan and modify your scheduling to keep yourself accountable, stay on task, and make progress on the most important matters.

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By taking the 5 steps to time blocking, you get to work on your important, high-value tasks, free of distractions and interruptions, without neglecting the routine, low-value tasks. In effect, you set strategic deadlines and cultivate productive habits that enable you to get the right things done effectively and efficiently.

Time blocking helps you develop long bouts of focus on complex problems and increases your flow state. It encourages you to batch small activities into restricted time blocks, instead of having them eat up your precious day.

Use time blocking to make steady progress and avoid procrastination  on significant, time-sensitive matters (Rule 1.3, diligence); build knowledge and skills and prepare adequately for representation (Rule 1.1., competence); and communicate clearly and deliberately with your clients (Rule 1.4, communication).

To learn more, read the related article, Deadlines & Daily Habits: Why Time Blocking Works.

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This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance. 

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Neglect and Non-Communication: Reducing Mistakes that Lead to These Common Ethics Violations

mistakesLearning from your mistakes and knowing how to handle them are essential to being a great lawyer with a great reputation. Having the skills and systems to reduce mistakes is equally (if not more) important for lawyers who are bound by the rules of professional conduct.

Although human error is unintentional, it can lead to neglect of client matters and failure to communicate with clients, which carry serious repercussions and are among the most common ethics violations.

Neglect of Client Matter (Rule 1.3)

Rule 1.3 (Diligence) of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC) states, “A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.”

Failure to act diligently and promptly on client matters can result in missed deadlines, subpar work, and irreparable harm to clients. While neglect can be due to a lawyer’s willful actions, it often results from conflicting priorities, faulty calendaring systems, and mental health issues that fuel mistakes.

To act with diligence and promptness, you need to prioritize, focus on important (and not just urgent) matters, and take regular steps toward meeting client objectives and deadlines.

The comment to Rule 1.3, MRPC, states, “A lawyer’s workload should be controlled so that each matter can be handled adequately.” Be willing to turn down cases, delegate tasks or talk to your supervising attorney when you suffer from work overload.  When there’s no way to keep up, your withdrawal from a case when it will not harm the client’s interest is certainly an option.

Postponing tasks, especially when they are boring or difficult, is human. But procrastination can lead to neglect of client matters and ultimately, ethics complaints and disciplinary action.  Setting up and using calendaring/tickler systems that work for you and mitigate against poor work habits are therefore critical. Your systems should allow you to keep track of filing deadlines and create timelines for specific action steps.

Having  a master list of all your clients is helpful. Maintain case notes describing the current status and next steps to be taken in each client matter. Review and update case status reports regularly to prevent oversight and to prompt necessary follow-ups. Create backup processes for dealing with client matters in emergency situations, such as when you are unable to work due to illness.

If you suffer from anxiety, depression, chemical dependence or other mental health issues, seek counseling and professional assistance. Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) is a good place to start. It provides free, confidential peer and professional assistance to Minnesota lawyers, judges, law students, and their immediate family members on any issue that causes stress or distress.

Attending to client matters without proper pacing, effective systems, or necessary help, can seriously affect your daily functioning and make you more susceptible to making mistakes.

Failure to Communicate with Client (Rule 1.4)

Rule 1.4 (Communication) of the MRPC imposes a duty to communicate with clients. A lawyer shall promptly inform the client of any decision or circumstance with respect to which the client’s informed consent is required. A lawyer must “keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter” and “promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.”

Your understanding of what “reasonably informed” and “promptly” means could be different from that of your client. The client might expect you to pick up the telephone whenever he calls, and immediately reply whenever he shoots you an email. Being overwhelmed with multiple priorities makes it harder to provide prompt communication, much less instant responses.

Schedule regular telephone calls or status update meetings with clients to minimize impromptu requests for information. At the outset, you also need to set reasonable expectations concerning attorney-client communication. Describe your telephone and email policies, including how often you check your messages and how promptly you respond.

Even when you do not have ready answers to questions, inform the client that you are looking into the issue and give him an estimate on when he can expect to hear from you.  When you’re unavailable, enlist help from your receptionist, administrative assistant or paralegal to respond to clients (without providing legal advice).

Rule 1.4 also requires the lawyer to explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation. Language barriers between the lawyer and client in practice areas such as immigration law and family law are often problematic. Communicate through a professional interpreter, a bilingual paralegal, or even a trusted relative or friend of the client who is fluent in both languages. Keep in mind that miscommunication is possible, particularly when critical information gets lost in translation.

If you and the client agreed to take certain steps in a matter, send a follow-up letter or email describing the action plan. Have the client confirm he understands the status of the matter and the steps to be taken, preferably in writing. Documented communication helps to ensure you are both on the same page and provides an opportunity for the client to make clarifications and corrections.

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Minor or technical rule violations caused by mistakes instead of malicious conduct are still subject to disciplinary action, such as admonition or stipulated probation. When they are part of a pattern of misconduct or combined with egregious misconduct, the disciplinary consequences are higher. Moreover, neglect and non-communication (even when they are not due to willful misconduct) often harm the client’s interests as well as your overall reputation.

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This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance. 

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Photo by: Nicolas Nova