Leaving Work at Work

Much has been said on Lawyerist about the problems lawyers face with work-life balance. Generally, the way we measure whether we are working too much is by looking at how many hours out of the week we are at the office. But office hours are simply one part of the question. With the potential for constant availability no matter your location, and the capability to work on office projects from anywhere, the real question is: “when am I not working?” And to answer that question, you need to be honest with yourself about whether you are actually done with work when you leave the office.

The balance

Last year, Roy Ginsburg wrote a post discussing the inconsistency of the NYSBA President Vincent E. Doyle, III’s stance on the ‘importance of family’ in a recent speech. Doyle’s stance is inconsistent because while he discusses the need to keep family ‘in your plans,’ he also claims to work 60-70 hours a week. Roy beat up on the prez’ pretty good for that in his post, so I won’t pile on. But I think that it’s safe to say that when most of us read that 60-70 hours per week is somebody’s idea of a strong balance between work and family, our brains collectively exploded. But I would argue that at the very least, it sounds like Doyle is at least being honest about how he factors in his hours.

How much time are you really at work?

Now, I’m not the work-week police, but generally speaking, many of us only factor in the hours at the office when we look at how much we are working throughout the week. But for many lawyers, that calculation is off; for one reason or another, we have a tendency to bring home with us. While it is occasionally a wonderful thing to be able to work from anywhere, it often leads to a “bleed-over” of work time into personal or family time. That creates anything but balance. And unless you establish firm rules to live by in your work-life routine, that bleed-over will make it so that your 40 hour work week is a delusion.

Being a lawyer is generally regarded as one of the most stressful professions for several reasons; one of the chief reasons is that our work has a tendency to come home with us. I’ve worked in several trade jobs throughout my working career, and I can honestly say that none of my jobs occupied so much space in my head when the work day was over. The difference between my previous 9-5 “lunchpaler” jobs and the work I do now is that I am theoretically capable of tackling some work problems from home as an attorney. This ability to work after hours is detrimental to stress levels, but only if you buy in to that ability. One way to fight against this bleed over is to acknowledge this simple axiom: the time you spend even thinking about work is exactly that: work.

Obviously when you are sitting on your couch at home stewing over something you didn’t say in court, you aren’t really “at work,” but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t actually working. If you decide to answer a client email after the kids are asleep, you’re at work. If you start shopping for office supplies online while your fiancee watches “Say Yes to the Dress,” you’re at work. If you check your phone calendar to look at your court schedule for the month, you might as well get in your car, drive to work, fire up the office coffeemaker and sit down in your executive pleather chair because you, my friend, are clocking in.

If we consider the idea of quickly checking emails from home as ludicrous as the idea of driving in to work at 8 p.m., it will establish clear boundaries in the work-life dynamic.

Buy a lunch box, balance things out

It helps to consider your office desk to be your workbench; it can’t come home with you. Carpenters, electricians, and gunsmiths leave their tools at work, and so should you. Being an attorney is a trade like anything else; we use experience and skill to provide a service to people that pay money. But somewhere along the lines, we decided to suck at what union workers are really good at: clocking out. And until you start to adopt the “clocking out” mentality, your work-life balance will look much more like a tie-dye shirt than a pie-chart. Leave your workday at your workbench if you want to achieve that balance. Because if your workbench does come home with you, you will end up a lot closer to Doyle’s 60-70 hours per week than you think.



  1. Avatar Clinton says:

    I never take work home with me or “clock in” from home. I have found that in order to achieve some type of balance I have to clock out completely when I leave the office. It allows me to totally disconnect from the buzz and stress.

    If there is work to be done after hours or over weekends I drive to the office. If I need to check my email or send an email, I drive to the office. My phone doesn’t sync to my office server after I leave, so I don’t even get notifications of whether I have received an email. This generally means that I spend more time at the office, but when I am at home, I AM at home and able to totally relax.

    I don’t believe this impairs my practice, as that 20h00 email from a client can be responded to at 07h30 when I get into the office. If not, client would have phoned.

  2. Good advice.

    Separating work from life has become especially difficult with 24/7 connectivity and home offices. The way we work has changed so much, it’s no longer a simple matter of walking out at 5 or 6 o’clock and leaving everything behind you. Switching to a smartphone had a significant effect on my work habits and having a home office makes quitting time almost non-existent. As difficult as it is to turn off the email, close the door, and walk away, awareness of work habits and self-discipline is an absolute necessity to avoid burnout and have a life separate from work.

    Clinton has the right idea.

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