Presidents Column: Unplugging – We All Need To Do It!


Unplugging: We all need to do it

This column was originally slated for the April edition of Headnotes. Then the pandemic hit.  Our mental health is under assault now more than ever with lawyers largely working from home and dealing not only with financial and job pressure, but also with educating kids, cooking, and cleaning. Even with all of these factors and added responsibilities, lawyers still are expected to be on call at all times and working efficiently and profitably. This existence is exhausting, frustrating, and very stressful.  With all of these stresses, I want to focus on one that predominates in both before and during the pandemic—the inability to unplug.

To contrast our current work environment, whether in the office or at home, when I began practicing law back in the Stone Age (1980), written communications between lawyers went like this:

  • I would open the mail and read a letter;
  • I would dictate a response on my dictaphone (yes, we had those in 1980);
  • My legal assistant would type the letter and give it back to me;
  • I would revise the letter;
  • My legal assistant would type the revisions; and
  • I would proof the letter again before sending it to opposing counsel.

Several days later, I would receive a response, and the process would repeat itself.

In the late 1990s, email became our primary mode of communication.  Now, the entire process took just minutes—sometimes seconds.

The next innovation was the Blackberry—a device that meant lawyers always were on call.  Lawyers became addicted; the Blackberry became known as the Crackberry. Although iPhones and Androids eventually vanquished the Blackberry, this concept of always being on call remains with us today.

Before the Blackberry, when lawyers really were off the clock when they went home, their evenings were spent with family or non-legal activities. Lawyers could recharge their batteries in preparation for the next day at the office.

As part of our Project 2020 strategic planning process, we surveyed our members and received 550 responses.  Two of the questions were: “What are the three most significant challenges you face in your practice-setting?” and “What are the most significant challenges facing Dallas-area lawyers?”  By far, the largest number of responses complained about a lack of a work-life balance.  Here are a few examples:

  1. “Always expected to be available.”
  2. “No time for anything.”
  3. “Balancing work/life-making time for myself.”
  4. “When I am at work, I think about home; when I am home, I worry about work.”
  5. “Need it now mentality of today’s world.”
  6. “Finding enough hours in the day.”
  7. “The myth of work-life balance.”
  8. “STRESS.”

Lawyers have told me that they sleep with their phones! They truly feel they are expected to be on call 24/7/365. Otherwise, they will be replaced. Facing these pressures, it is no wonder lawyers burn out, quit the practice of law, or perhaps even develop substance-abuse problems.

The statistics about substance abuse and suicide rates among lawyers are alarming. A 2016 ABA study reported that 21% of licensed attorneys are problem drinkers, and 28% struggle with depression. And these problems increasingly afflict the youngest members of our profession.  Of lawyers in their first ten years of practice, 32% are problem drinkers, 46% suffer from depression, and 11% have suicidal thoughts. These are much higher rates than in the general public.

So, what can we do?  We asked Jillian Jones Hill—a lawyer and a clinician with the Brain Performance Institute—for tips to help lawyers unplug.  Here are her suggestions:

            Designate times to deal with email. Too often, we get stuck in a cycle of checking and responding to emails as they come in—even for lower-priority emails that don’t require an immediate response. Designate chunks of time throughout your day to deal with emails (for example, designate the last ten minutes of each hour to email maintenance).

            Block off time for single-tasking. Toggling between multiple tasks simultaneously results in shallow thinking. And multi-tasking triggers the release of the hormone cortisol, contributing to chronic stress. Select a specific objective that can be accomplished within a designated window of time with focused effort. Even with limited chunks of distraction-free work, you will accomplish more than you would have in longer periods of toggling.

            Take brain breaks. Attorneys have a unique relationship with the “just push through” mentality. Many attorneys engage in a game of one-upmanship in which they wear as a badge of honor how many 14-hour days they have worked in a row, how few vacations they have taken, and how little sleep they get every night.  But these practices are toxic to brain health and inhibit reasoning, problem-solving, and integration/application of information necessary to the practice of law. Proactively build in cognitive downtime throughout the day. Start with a practice called the 5×5—five minutes, five times throughout your day of cognitive downtime, when you are not actively pushing your brain toward any one task and are not taking in more information. This means no technology! Take a walk around the office, get some fresh air, or sit quietly in your office with dimmed lights. Stop whatever task you are doing at least five minutes before a meeting to let your brain recharge. Drive home in silence to allow your brain to cycle through racing thoughts.

            Practice digital detox in other areas. If you simply cannot unplug without stressing, start looking for ways to reduce your digital connectedness.

  • Down-select the amount of information coming in. Don’t click on every link, watch every video, read every article.
  • Reduce environmental distractors in the workplace. Turn off TV/music while working.
  • To enhance focus and improve single-tasking, close extra windows/tabs on your screen when working on a specific task. Minimize your email screen and silence your notifications.
  • Set aside designated times to check social media or engage with apps and games. Avoid the temptation to immediately engage with technology during free time. Use those activities as a reward you engage in at certain intervals throughout your day.

            Adopt a healthy lifestyle, including plenty of exercise, proper nutrition, enough sleep, practicing mindfulness, and finding a sense of purpose.

In time, the growing mountain of research on how constant connectivity, immediate responsiveness, and the idea that “more is more” negatively impact our cognitive performance and mental health should resonate with law firms. Until then, each of us must take charge of our own health and commit to adopting brain-healthy habits to build the resilience needed to cope with the demands and pressures of the legal industry.

If you or someone you know is having problems, there are wonderful resources available through the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program and the DBA Peer Assistance Committee.  TLAP is anonymous, so please help someone who needs it.  You could save a life by doing so!