Bar News - February 15, 2017
Board Perspective: Practicing Law is Hard: Thoughts of One Old Lawyer
By: Peter E. Hutchins
News Flash: Practicing law for a living is hard. But you knew that. Just to become a lawyer is to endure four years of college, three nerve-wracking years of law school, a bar exam, mountains of student loan debt and the search for your first paying job.
Once employed, reality sets in. A lawyer must attract, retain and satisfy clients who they hope will pay their bills. The lawyer must develop the practical skills of lawyering, deal-making, negotiation and client relations. He or she must learn both substantive and procedural law and understand how to apply both law and rules efficiently and properly to maximize the result for the client. And, in most cases or transactions, there are other lawyers fighting just as hard to maximize their client’s result at your client’s expense.
In private practice, no one gives you anything. Nothing is free. You have to earn it through hard work, focus, preparation and judgment. Technology helps, but it also raises expectations and quickens the pace of practice. Things that could reasonably take weeks to complete years ago are now expected to be accomplished in days if not hours. Time management and life balance can seem to be pipedreams. Others seize control of your calendar, your time and seemingly your life – courts, opponents, clients and partners. Overhead must be carefully balanced with revenue. Staff must be hired, trained and paid. You must find and pay for any help you need, including experts, computers and insurance.
All this is made more difficult and stressful by the bureaucratic regulation of the profession by regulators with little or no experience practicing law, serving clients, running a practice, or making on-the-spot, life-altering judgments.
Vacations are shortened or postponed. Social and family events are interrupted. Even during rare times of relaxation a lawyer’s mind is often elsewhere, knowing that every hour of leisure is an hour not spent at work. Guilt sets in. Sometimes fear. Stress and anxiety in varying degrees are constant companions. These problems can become chronic and debilitating, sometimes resulting in addiction, illness, marital problems or worse. Small wonder that law school applications are down, lawyer anxiety and health problems are rising.
There are only three solutions: 1) leave the profession and do something else; 2) find a less stressful or demanding job within the profession; or, the one I chose, 3) constantly work to maximize the enjoyable parts of your practice and minimize or block out those things that cause stress and dissatisfaction. Here are a few things I’ve tried over the past 33 years:
- Know what you do well and stick with that;
- Don’t take on more than you can handle;
- Try to like your clients and enjoy helping them;
- Develop friendships with fellow lawyers you like and trust;
- Find a professional organization where you can make an impact and help achieve positive goals for the public and justice system;
- Try to cooperate with opposing counsel;
- Monitor your emotional and physical health – make time for exercise, family, vacations and regular medical appointments;
- Get enough sleep;
- Recognize and maximize your most productive times of day;
- Don’t expect or demand things for free – no such thing;
- If you become overworked and need help, ask for it;
- Reach out to experienced and competent lawyer friends or partners for advice;
- Get ahead of deadlines, don’t ever wait until the last minute;
- Control your calendar and don’t create an impossible schedule;
- Be honest with clients about delays or your workload – they will appreciate it;
- Hire good staff, make them part of your team and reward them for good work;
- Be honest with everyone – it will help you sleep at night;
- Don’t let naysayers and critics get you down – if you know you are right then why waste time and energy worrying about them;
- Get involved in community activities that provide an enjoyable diversion;
- Remember that as a practicing lawyer you are the most important cog in the “justice machine;” and the best hope for your clients;
- Don’t let anyone else control your schedule, priorities or life;
- Learn to say “no;” and
- No matter how far you’ve walked down the wrong path, turn back.
Yes, practicing law is hard. It’s not for everyone. That’s okay. Most of us can’t fly jets, either. If you are in it for the long haul, however, there are ways to maximize the enjoyment while minimizing the hardships and stress. Try a few of the above, or come up with your own – and never ever let ‘em get you down!
Peter E. Hutchins practices personal injury law in Manchester, NH and is the current treasurer and a past president (2001-02) of the NHBA.