Junior Lawyers: How to Work and Study Sustainably
Wellbeing in the workplace is a hot topic at the moment, not least because insurers are increasingly evaluating the culture and practices of firms, due to their causal link to claims. You may have heard terms like ‘burnout’ and ‘presenteeism’ which are seemingly synonymous with the legal profession – but how can you stop these potentially-career-limiting situations from arising?
Studying at any stage of your legal career can be as demanding and stressful as full-time work – and can be especially challenging when you are working at the same time! Your studies are important and provide the foundation for your future success as a lawyer. It is therefore important that, despite the additional pressures you may have, you make sure you dedicate enough time and attention to them.
A study-schedule is a tool you should utilise with discipline. Plan your week or month ahead with plenty of dedicated time for the subjects you are studying. Be sure to remain realistic with your plan: leaving no time for breaks, hobbies, exercise or chores will lead to you feeling overwhelmed very quickly and may make you doubt the effectiveness of your schedule.
An effective support system is also important. Have honest conversations with your friends and family about the constraints on your time and volume of work required so that they have an understanding of where your focus needs to be. This can help prevent misunderstandings or a sense of being pulled in too many directions. Having a buddy-system with fellow students can also help; they will be able to understand the unique pressures you are under and can help support your learning by offering other perspectives or insights.
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If you are working in conjunction with your studies, be sure to speak with your employers about their study-leave policy; some offer paid or unpaid leave, especially around exam time, that can help alleviate some of your time-pressures at the most strenuous points of your studies. If you find you are really struggling with balancing everything, then consider seeking additional help: this could include working with a tutor for your more challenging subjects, identifying a mentor at work who can support you, or speaking with professional coach or therapist to identify barriers and/or create effective coping strategies.
As a junior lawyer you will undoubtedly be trying to make your mark at your firm by impressing your superiors with your work ethic and willingness to assist where needed. However, this approach can often mean you bite off more than you can chew. Taking on additional tasks and responsibilities is great – provided that it is manageable and sustainable. What do I mean by that? Simply put, if you continue on at the rate you are going, is it likely that you will burnout or collapse (metaphorically or literally!) under the pressure? If so, this is not sustainable and you should make adjustments to the way you are working to avoid physical, mental or emotional harm.
“But long hours are what is expected of me?” I hear you say. Certainly, archaic approaches to working in law are synonymous with the perception that you are chained to your desk. However, it is important for many reasons that you find a balance. From an employer perspective, it is important to understand that over-working staff inevitably leads to mistakes and, depending on your culture, can also encourage staff to try and hide such mistakes; which usually creates a ‘snowball’ effect. Insurance providers are increasingly looking at the culture of firms to ensure they aren’t creating environments where mistakes are rife.
For employees it means considering whether your workload and environment is manageable. A good place to start is to assess three key factors on a scale of 1 (easy) to 5 (difficult), the factors being: the volume of work you are responsible for; the complexity of the work you are responsible for; and the intensity of the environment in which you work. If all three areas score very high, then it is likely your workload is unsustainable. You should consider discussing these factors with your manager to see if pressure in any areas can be alleviated.
Junior Lawyers also need the confidence to challenge excessive expectations. This doesn’t necessarily mean saying “no” outright but could take the form of “in order to complete that additional task, I will need to de-prioritise one of my existing tasks. Please could you confirm your preferred order of priority for my tasks?” or “I am currently at full capacity due to XYZ and wouldn’t want to fall short of your expectations; is there someone else available who has capacity to assist?”. In the best-case scenario, your manager will take this onboard and respond effectively. In the worst-case scenario, your concerns will be on record should any errors or problems arise.
In today’s modern world, especially when working from home has become the norm for many, it is particularly important to make sure you have time to step away from work-related matters. This might mean having a separate work phone you lock away at night, not checking emails out of hours, scheduling emails for working hours or stepping away from the office (even at home) entirely. It is not healthy for anyone to be constantly in ‘switched on’ work mode, so asserting clear boundaries is important. In the same vein, it is also key you utilise your annual leave entitlement to ensure you have regular, extended periods of time away from work in which you can ‘switch off’ and relax. Overworking and not taking breaks increases the chance of presenteeism; where you are present at work but working far below your full potential and/or usual productivity levels.
Once again, if you are really struggling then there is support out there for you. This could be within your organisation, such as a mentor or manager, or outside of your organisation, such as a professional coach or therapist. There are also law-specific resources such as LawCare, who support lawyers with a focus on mental wellbeing. Remember that everyone is entitled to have a healthy, supportive and sustainable work environment, and that taking care of yourself is also usually in the company’s best interest too.
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