Unbilling Happiness: A Lawyer’s Checklist

Lawyer wellbeing is in crisis mode—especially in family law. I hear about (and experience) it all the time. There was a discussion in my law practice group this week about our happiness. As lawyers, we rent our time to handle clients’ worries. With each .1 increment (6 minutes), we bill our worry. Clients seek us out during challenging times, which contributes to the high rates of depression, anxiety, and, in extreme cases, suicide within our profession.

Our spare time often goes towards fending off clients, courts, and other lawyers. Amidst this, we struggle to allocate time for family, friends, children, and our cherished yet neglected passion projects.

I began my family law practice in 2016 after enduring several years in a grueling law firm environment, where narcissistic partners exploited associates for unrealistic billable hours, only to flaunt their lavish vacations funded by the efforts of overworked and unappreciated young lawyers. This, of course, on top of navigating the emotional turmoil of client divorce and custody battles.

In my first year of practice, I grappled with setting boundaries, a common challenge in family law. Clients’ heart-wrenching stories, opposing counsels’ tactics, and judges’ fatigue added to the drama. Around this time, I discovered the 4K Weeks Calendar, which estimates the remaining weeks in an average lifespan. (I have lived 1,998 weeks, leaving 2,578. Feels like a midlife crisis might be around the corner.)

Determined not to spend my remaining time overwhelmed by stress and adversarial encounters, I envisioned a life filled with travel, painting, and writing. I’m actively shaping a career that nurtures my creative and legal interests.

I hired a business coach to establish firm boundaries around my time and availability. Now, I don’t work after 5 PM or on weekends, and I close when the courts do.

Each January, I schedule travel weeks for the year. Since 2017, I’ve traveled extensively: Spain, the Netherlands, the UK, Mexico, and Costa Rica in 2017; Costa Rica (twice), Germany, the UK, Argentina, and Japan in 2018; and India, France, the UK, New Zealand, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam in 2019. Since 2021, my travels have taken me to Southern France, Italy, the UK (including Scotland twice), Japan (a second time), Greece, and Mexico (Cancun). This Christmas, I’ll be in Mexico City.

Breaking from the monotony of legal practice was initially challenging, but it soon became a liberating norm. I encourage others to start with a single week off and assess how it goes.

I share my travel experiences not to boast but to inspire. With proper planning and adherence to set boundaries, it’s possible to restructure a busy practice. Commit to your travel plans by booking tickets immediately, and consider traveling with friends for mutual encouragement and accountability. I’m always appreciative to hear that my travels inspired colleagues to take much-needed time off.

As the new year draws near, it’s the perfect time to plan your travels and local activities. I write this to encourage you to try it out for the next year. Commit to workshops or conferences to avoid slipping back into the usual office grind. Beyond travel, here’s a checklist that has effectively made my practice manageable since 2016:

  1. Set Clear Expectations with Clients: Include your business hours and communication protocols in the Fee Agreement. Don’t answer afterhours unless it’s an actual emergency. Schedule send your emails during business hours.
  2. Morning Routine Before Emails: Avoid checking emails first thing in the morning. Start your day with a personal routine; for me, it’s journaling with coffee, a walk, and light chores.
  3. Schedule Meeting-Free Days: Allocate days without meetings to focus on deep work like briefing, trial prep, or administrative tasks.
  4. Adjust Your Hourly Rate and Client Load: Increase your hourly rate and set a maximum number of clients. Stick to this limit.
  5. Be Firm with Billing: Strictly manage retainers and billing. Letting receivables pile up means losing out on both funds and time.
  6. Learn to Say No or Postpone: There will always be boards to join, volunteer opportunities, and meetings. Choose a couple of important causes and decline the rest.
  7. Invest in a Paralegal: Hiring a paralegal is crucial. I realized their importance after years without one and now consider them indispensable.
  8. Refer Out When Necessary: Resist the temptation to take on more clients due to fear of work drying up. Refer cases to others when it’s more practical.

Recommended Links:

  1. 4K Weeks Counter: https://app.4kweeks.com/
  2. Colorado Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being Final Report (2021)

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