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Avoiding the Overwork Trap as an Independent Lawyer

For many entrepreneurs, including independent lawyers, the overwork trap looms large

overwork_trapIf you started a small law firm after leaving Big Law in an effort to achieve greater work-life balance, you are not alone. Big Law has a reputation for demanding schedules and overwork for a reason. According to Harvard Business Review:

“Big Law attorneys are notably unhappier than most other lawyers, for a variety of reasons. Far and away the most common one given by the Big Law refugees who have founded New Law companies is the desire for work-life balance.”

For many lawyers, “New Law” means independent law practice: A chance to run a firm your way. However, running your own firm also means you are now a business owner. Sadly, many business owners fall into the overwork trap, which means your quest for work-life balance goes out the window. So how do you avoid it?

Make Life Part of Your Firm Culture

If you want real work-life balance, you need to think about what “life” means to you (and your employees, if you have any). Family schedules, child care, commute times, time for hobbies and outside interests may all factor into your small law firm’s “life” equation.

When you understand the “why” behind the work-life balance you seek, you can build appropriate policies and accommodations into your firm’s culture.

According to HBR:

“New Law firms offer attorneys two very different types of alternative schedules. The first is genuine part-time work that can be done from home. This is popular both with lawyers who self-identify as stay-at-home parents and with those who have second careers… The second is full-time flex: 40 to 50 hours a week (but no more), worked from home, with completely flexible hours and the ability to be show up for dinner and vacations with your family. A lot of men want full time flex, alongside many women.”

Whether or not you employ staff, you can consider variations on that theme. You can apply these alternative work arrangements if you have an office, co-working space or work from home.

Decide now which life moments carry the most weight and importance to you, and make time for those. Business can wait, but life can’t. Schedule blocks of “life” time into your calendar, if you need to, until it becomes second nature.

Set Boundaries

As a business owner, it can be so tempting to be available to clients at all hours of the day. Especially as you try to build a client base, you might overextend yourself in the name of good customer service.

However, keeping your phone on and your email open all the time never really gives you time to enjoy the life part of your work-life balance, does it? Do yourself a favor and set strict business hours. Communicate those to your clients and let them know that you will respond within a business day.

Yes, during critical phases of cases, you might need to take a call or answer an email, but work diligently to make those moments the exception and not the rule.

While it might seem counterintuitive, protecting your time will give you space to recharge and to provide better customer service in the long run. You can’t give your best if you’re completely spent.

Give Your Full Attention

At work, during work hours, focus on work. In your personal time, focus on yourself, your family, your pets, your hobbies, etc.

When you jump back and forth between work and personal projects, you can never feel fully connected to either one. On the other hand, allowing yourself to focus on the present moment, you experience something called flow. You know you have found flow when things seem to go smoothly, when you think clearly and you feel energized. That feeling, both at work and at home, can help you feel more balanced in your whole life.

Allowing yourself to overwork sets you up for future burnout. To find real work-life balance, you need to give yourself permission and time to rest and take a break from work.

If you would like to work alongside fellow independent lawyers who share your desire for work-life balance, contact us. We have built a collaborative community for lawyers in Denver at two central locations, and we offer both co-working space and private offices. 

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