Ed. note: Please welcome Elizabeth Adams, who will be covering health and wellness in the legal profession. You can read her full bio at the end of this post.
It’s virtually impossible to get decent advice about whether to go to law school. On the one hand, you have advice from non-lawyers, like your mom, who will promise you that even if you don’t like it, you can do anything with a law degree. On the other hand, you have advice from actual lawyers, who will tell you the exact opposite. I, like many others, made the decision to listen to my mom rather than the many, many practicing attorneys who warned me about the realities of the profession. Although this somehow seemed like a rational choice at the time, I realize, in retrospect, I should have taken the advice of counsel.
It’s true, being a lawyer is hard. Even on a good day it is both extremely boring and highly stressful — a unique combination found in few other jobs. Equally troubling to me, however, is the toll it takes on your body. Indeed, recent studies have shown that sitting as much as lawyers do is bad for the body, and the physical effects of sleep deprivation are well documented and pretty serious. Of course, I don’t need scientific studies to confirm what appears obvious to me on a daily basis. Many lawyers I encounter seem perpetually exhausted and sort of sickly. Some are much worse than that, appearing as if they are in need of urgent medical attention. Lawyers, it seems, are literally dying at their desks…
Thankfully, these lawyers aren’t as frequently encountered at my firm, which, to its credit, does a better job of encouraging healthy habits and a sustainable work-life balance. That said, it has become clear to me that the only way to survive this profession is to take the work-life balance into my own hands, finding ways to maximize the life component and minimize the most unpleasant parts of the work. For me and for many others, this means making the most of my free time through fun hobbies that promote health in both the body and mind.
The purpose of this column is to examine how and to what extent it is possible for lawyers to achieve a sustainable work-life balance with the goal of undoing the spiritual, physical, and emotional damage done at our desks each day. Through this column, I will explore ways to make your work environment more bearable and even sort of pleasant. In addition, I will share some of my thoughts on how to improve your experience of life outside of work, based on my own experience as well as those of other lawyers.
Let’s start with the obvious. There are three things you absolutely must focus on if you want to survive the profession, and which will improve your quality of life overall:
- Sleep. On average, adults need to sleep about seven to eight hours a night to feel alert and well rested during the day. Sleeping less than that can be dangerous. According to WebMD, sleep deprivation is associated with numerous, serious medical illnesses, which include high blood pressure, heart attack, heart failure, and obesity, among many, many others. In addition, getting too little sleep pretty much destroys your ability to do work. Finally, for the men out there, in case you thought the effects of sleep deprivation couldn’t get any worse, think again: according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, sleep deprived men over perceive women’s sexual interest and intent. That’s right. You’re delusional about women. So do everyone a favor — including your female colleagues who are probably creeped out by the way you’re looking at them after that all-nighter — and get some sleep.
- Exercise. Like sleep, the effects of not getting exercise are extremely dangerous. To summarize information provided by the Harvard School of Public Health, failure to get exercise will basically ruin your life. A scarier but related problem is the effect of sitting all day. According to the American Journal of Epidemiology, sitting for a mere six hours can dramatically increase your chances of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and ultimately death. Six hours, people. Just think what is happening to your body if you’re sitting 10 or even 12 hours day. Or don’t — perhaps it’s better not to know. Either way, accept that one of the first steps to surviving your job is to spend more time moving your body.
- Diet. One of the nicest things about working for my firm is that it provides an array of healthy snacks, like fresh fruit and vegetables. As a result, when I find myself overcome by “hanger” — that feeling you get when you are both hungry and angry because you worked through lunch — I can safely binge on fresh berries and carrots, rather than a burger or, worse yet, a bowl of queso (consumed through a straw). If your firm doesn’t provide you with healthy snacks, you should try to bring your own. If this isn’t possible, which I would find hard to believe, at least steer clear of the obvious: high calorie, salty stuff like fast food. Even McDonald’s doesn’t really want its workers eating that crap.
In sum, the best way to start improving your life as a lawyer is to prioritize these three things — sleep, exercise and diet. By making this lifestyle choice you will not only feel better in the short run, but you will increase your chances of surviving the profession in the long run.
Elizabeth Adams (not her real name) is a recent law school graduate, former federal judicial clerk, and aspiring health guru. She currently practices insurance coverage litigation at a mid-sized law firm. When she isn’t sitting at a desk — which isn’t very often — she is following her bliss. At the moment, this mainly involves working toward becoming a certified yoga teacher. Elizabeth’s column focuses on exploring how and whether lawyers can achieve a sustainable work-life balance. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.