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Knowing when to take a break as a legal professional

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As a modern-day legal professional, technology is an ever-present force in your life whether you like it or not. While digital tech can streamline your workflow, there are numerous downsides to constant inundation with technology. This is why those in the legal industry need to know when and how to take breaks from technology.

But how do you know when you need a break…from tech, work, or both? How can you set yourself up for a successful break from technology? What are the benefits of such a break? And how can you incorporate regular tech breaks into your life on a long-term basis?

How to know when you need a break

Attorney burnout is a widespread problem in the legal profession, as it is for the legal professionals who support attorneys. With long hours and intense job demands, the results are predictable – high stress and exhaustion, often resulting in burnout.

Simply look at the statistics on burnout-related symptoms to understand the costs of this burnout. A 2016 study found that  21% of attorneys are problem drinkers, 28% suffer from some level of depression, and 19% suffer from anxiety symptoms. An attorney survey published in 2020, involving over 3,800 respondents, found that 31.2% felt depressed, 64% felt anxiety, 10.1% believed they had an alcohol problem, and 2.8% believed they had a drug problem.

So how can a legal professional know when they need a break from work and all the stress that it brings with it? Legal burnout can take many forms, but there are common symptoms, such as exhaustion, inability to concentrate, and a feeling of detachment and disengagement from work. As is made clear by the statistics above, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs is another clear sign of burnout.

Other signs of legal professional burnout are more big-picture in nature. You may experience a chronic lack of work-life balance or a feeling of being “stuck.” Your relationships may be deteriorating. Your health may be suffering. Any one of these issues is plenty of reason to take immediate action.

Setting yourself up for a successful break

So how exactly does a legal professional take a break from technology and work? The profession will not get any less demanding because of our personal and mental health needs. Accordingly, it is up to each attorney and legal professional to carve out time for the breaks they need – either short-term breaks or extended ones.

Short-term breaks from work and technology can be as simple as breaks of only a few minutes, taken several times a day. One example of such a method is the Pomodoro Technique, which alternates short periods of focused concentration with very short breaks. The Pomodoro timing is 25-minute work periods alternating with 5-minute breaks, with a slightly longer break every fourth break. This can be the source of constant rejuvenation that many professionals need.

For longer-term breaks from work and technology, often known as vacations, a different level of approach and planning is required. In fact, technology can be standing in your way of completely “unplugging” during vacation, since modern communications technology can make you accessible anywhere.

Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken to limit your technology use and allow you to truly enjoy time off during your vacation, including the following:

  • Formal Notifications: Provide formal notifications to the court and opposing counsel of your time off, such as notices of unavailability of counsel.
  • Email Notifications: You can enable automatic email replies that notify recipients of your time of unavailability. You can also include similar information contained in your email signature.
  • Notify Clients: The key is to provide clients with enough advance notice that they can contact you with any issues they consider pressing. Depending on your client relationship, you may even enforce a strict no-contact rule, where you make clear you will not be responding to voicemail messages or emails.
  • Manage Deadlines: Seek out deadline extensions by agreement with opposing counsel or application to the court.
  • Plan for Backup: Arrange for coverage of any urgent matter that arises during your time off. This could be done as part of a reciprocal arrangement with a colleague where you will return the favor during their vacation time.

Some attorneys may prefer a bit of a hybrid approach, where they do not completely unplug during vacation but instead sharply limit their communications. One example would be reviewing your emails once or twice a day, for a few minutes at a time, while on vacation. This may provide you with peace of mind, knowing you will not be returning to a mountain of unanswered messages, while still allowing you substantial rest and relaxation.

The recovery benefits of a break can more than make up for the “lost” time that results from abandoning the constant press of work. A truly effective break, whether short or long, can leave you rejuvenated, with more time to devote to sleep, exercise and recreation. Not only will this leave you more effective in the short term, it will leave you less burned out in the long term. It could be that this is what you need to truly enjoy the legal profession again, instead of the career change or early retirement you might have been planning.

Author

  • Lindsey Dean leads strategic marketing and growth at InfoTrack, where she is focused on exploring and sharing concepts and ideas in accessible and nuanced ways. She has been a writer and researcher in the legal profession for more than 6 years and has authored reports and articles on eFiling, service of process, trends in the legal support field, and more.