Is work-life balance possible for legal practitioners?

April 1st, 2018
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By Emmie de Kock

Have you wondered why it is called ‘work-life balance’? A scale only balances if objects with the same weight are placed on both sides. Considering that you cannot work or enjoy your life while you are sleeping, it has been suggested that we should rather refer to a ‘work-life-sleep’ balance. Would it not be easy, if we could all commit eight hours to work, spend eight hours by ourselves or others, and sleep for eight hours, every 24 hours? After all, do legal practitioners not each get the same number of hours in a day, in a week, in a month or in a year, to spend as they choose?

Most legal practitioners will agree, that a law practice, by its very nature, does not lend itself well to a balanced work-life schedule that allows legal practitioners to balance their work obligations with rewarding personal or family lives. Although the majority of legal practitioners may even believe that work-life balance cannot exist or is a myth, it is something legal practitioners should strive for.

Why is it important to strive for work-life balance? The main reason to strive for work-life balance is to avoid burn-out and other health issues. In this regard, according to an article by Ana Sandoiu, several studies have shown that long working hours are bad for a person’s health, in particular, with adverse effects on cardiovascular and mental health. According to this article, damaging effects include a higher risk of stroke, coronary heart disease, and mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression (see A Sandoiu ‘Poor work-life balance leads to poor health later in life’ www.medicalnewstoday.com, accessed 26-2-2018).

As a hardworking legal practitioner, you should take care of yourself and prioritise personal time for friends, family and finding and doing things you enjoy outside of work.

If a crime has been committed, it is the job of law enforcement to find the culprits. Similarly, if a legal practitioner struggles with work-life balance, it is the legal practitioner’s job to assess what is causing the imbalance. Be your own detective and consider which of the following aspects may be causing challenges in achieving or maintaining your work-life balance.

Behaviours based on personality

There are hundreds of recognised personality theories and types. Due to the scope of this article, only one personality theory will be referred to.

Take this short quiz by answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’:

  • Are you competitive?
  • Are you ambitious?
  • Are you impatient?
  • Are you aggressive?
  • Do you feel guilty if you take spare time to relax?
  • Do you generally move, talk and walk rapidly?
  • Do you often try to do more than one thing at a time?

If you answered ‘yes’ to most of these questions, you may be a so called Type A personality type. Extreme Type B personality type people are often described as relaxed, non-competitive and are generally more expressive of their feelings.

According to Saul McLeod ‘Type A personality’ (www.simplypsycology.org, accessed 26-2-2018), Dr Meyer Friedman and Dr Ray Rosenman were cardiologists who developed the ‘Type A and Type B personality type theory’ in the 1960s, while conducting research on the potential risk of heart disease of 3 154 healthy men between the ages 39 and 59 over a period of eight and a half years. This theory relates to contrasting personality types on a continuum, with extreme Type A and B individuals at both ends. Researchers’ findings were that twice as many Type A personality individuals developed coronary heart disease. In this regard, the behaviour of a person with a Type A personality makes them more prone to stress-related illnesses.

Interestingly, similar studies conducted on women revealed a less major difference between Type A and B personality types, and subsequent health risks.

Most legal practitioners are degrees of Type A personality types, which means that certain of their behaviours are driven by personality traits ascribed to Type A personality types, based on this particular personality theory. Strong Type A personality legal practitioners may thus be driven to work harder, and possibly lose work-life balance more easily.

Work addiction 

Once you have decided that you want to be a legal practitioner, it is easy to fall in love with law. Is law not great? Does it not give you great satisfaction to know the law and solve problems for clients? Is it not super to complete a case successfully? It is wonderful to be a legal practitioner and enjoy being engaged in important and stimulating work.

However, if you have been a legal practitioner for a few years, the thought of ever leaving private practice, or retiring one day, can create anxiety. Legal practitioners become addicted to working, because they initially like –

  • helping clients;
  • making a difference;
  • learning continuously;
  • making money; and
  • being part of a profession.

Qualifying as a legal practitioner gives status, identity and structure, which is sometimes difficult to find in other areas of life. Work could become an extension of self to such an extent that self-worth or self-esteem derives from it. Personal interests and relationships fall lower on the priority list and you may feel like you have little or no control over your private life.

Due to the nature of work legal practitioners do, and the impact legal practitioners’ input have on their clients’ lives and businesses, it is easy to become over-responsible. This could lead to feelings of guilt, perfectionism or obsessive compulsive working, which could lead to exhaustion, continuous stress and eventually burnout. Are you working more than 50 hours a week? Do you work regularly over weekends?

According to Prof Adrian Furnham, the originators of the concept ‘workaholism’ pointed out the similarities between the workaholic and the alcoholic. In this regard, these experts indicate that both, inter alia, neglect their families, personal relationships and other responsibilities; both feel better when partaking in the addictive activity; both indulge to numb or avoid certain feelings; both can show physical withdrawal when away from their preferred activity; and both deny the problem (A Furnham ‘What is Workaholism?’ www.psychologytoday.com, accessed 26-2-2018).

Prof Furnham further points out that workaholism mostly affects ‘white-collar workers’, as you are unlikely to come across, for example, a car attendant or shelf packer who suffers from work addiction.

Like any addiction, workaholism is ‘treatable’ and manageable and possible to overcome. The first step, however, is to acknowledge the problem and to commit to a plan to change certain habits and behaviours, even if it brings discomfort and anxiety at first.

Technology

Due to technology, which includes, e-mails, WhatsApps, SMS, and Skype, communication between legal practitioners and clients could easily become instant and non-stop. This may raise expectations of clients and can place additional pressure on legal practitioners who do not set boundaries.

Although these new technologies brought many benefits, they have also brought about new negative behaviours. An example, relates to the term FOMO (fear of missing out), which was coined in 2004. In the context of social media, FOMO was initially used to refer to the fear of missing out on fun events. However, in the context of a law firm, the term FOMO could perhaps refer to the anxiety a legal practitioner can experience when disconnected from means of receiving and sending communication to and from clients, opposing parties, or staff. In this regard, excessive use of WhatsApp or social media could become time wasters and end up being addictive.

Ask yourself the following:

  • Does your firm have a clear ITC policy for legal practitioners?
  • Do you limit the use of staff technology?
  • Do you manage your clients by setting technology boundaries?
  • Do you find yourself staying longer at the office to catch up on e-mails and social media?
  • Do you find yourself taking longer to tackle difficult work using e-mails or your cell phone messages as excuse?

What if you are a Type A workaholic suffering from FOMO?

The nature of a legal practitioner’s job is not likely to change soon, although new technologies may assist to work faster. A strong Type A workaholic suffering from FOMO may be resistant to change and deny having any problem. However, if such a legal practitioner would like to be happier and improve work-life balance, there are a number of ways to regain or create balance. Here are some tips:

  • Resolve and commit to making changes. Start with small changes. Believe that you have the potential to change any of the behaviours listed above. They are just habits, which have been formed over time and are perhaps encouraged by your work environment or social influences. Behaviours can change if you really want them to.
  • Similarly, when going on a diet, sometimes our ‘willpower’ is just not enough to help us make necessary changes successfully. Sometimes we need a non-judgmental empathetic person, to make us aware of other options, and support us through such a process. Professional coaching may be a very good support for work addicted and over-worked legal practitioners. Professional coaching is a process, which could assist legal practitioners in setting goals, designing action plans and keeping the legal practitioners accountable to themselves, in changing behaviours which are preventing a healthy work-life balance. Professional coaching could also allow legal practitioners space to explore options to improve processes, systems and marketing, to save time and money.
  • If you experience continuous high levels of stress, over a long period of time, feel over-exhausted, or burnt out, you may develop anxiety disorder or clinical depression, which is best treated by a psychologist and/or psychiatrist. Seek help if you continuously feel overwhelmed.
  • Take care of your body. Make time to exercise to reduce stress. Do not skip meals. Try to eat healthily. Limit alcohol. Drink lots of water. Aim to sleep at least seven hours every night. Visit a doctor (general practitioner), if you suffer from severe stress or stress-related illnesses.
  • Plan and commit regularly to do something fun outside of work to look forward to. Plan a holiday.

Conclusion

It is wonderful to be a legal practitioner who enjoys being engaged in law and helping clients. However, as legal practitioners’ careers progress and their practices grow, pressures and responsibilities are likely to increase as well. It is easy for legal practitioners to develop behaviours and habits to keep them longer at the office and in front of their computers. Due to the nature, performance pressures financial pressures, unpredictability, and often urgency of legal work, most legal practitioners are likely to struggle with work-life balance at some point in their careers.

The aim of this article is to encourage legal practitioners to regularly create opportunities for balance, to take care of themselves, and to consider external help to destress and change continuous unhealthy work behaviour patterns.

Emmie de Kock BLC LLB (cum laude) (UP) is a coach and attorney at Emmie de Kock Coaching and Consulting in Centurion.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2018 (April) DR 17.

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