Enjoying Litigation’s Ebb and Flow

It’s the nature of litigation—sometimes I find myself insanely busy and other times, after a big case settles or a brief is filed, I find myself with a momentary lull. During my first year in practice, I did not appreciate that this ebb and flow was normal. Experiencing my first ebb, I panicked. Wiser, more experienced folks at my firm have since taught me that you need to relax, enjoy the ebb, and use it productively. But this approach takes practice . . .

Litigation is fast-paced

When I first entered the working world after undergrad, I worked for a busy non-profit in Washington, D.C. I loved my job, but I could generally finish my work by 11 am on most days. Of course, other items would pop up over the course of the day, but I would take care of those items and return to a state of zero work. What did I do the rest of the day? I read a lot. UPenn Books On-Line has copies of classic works in the public domain. While this approach this did not keep me updated with current fiction, I enjoyed a lot of Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Lucy Maud Montgomery.

As much as I enjoyed my time with UPenn Books On-Line, I had a vague feeling that I should be busier at work. This vague feeling translated into anxiety, and I began to worry that moles on my arm looked cancerous or my metro train would crash into another metro on the way home (D.C.’s failing infrastructure did little to relieve this worry). One year at our office Fourth of July party, on the roof and overlooking the National Mall, I became convinced that the roof could not support the teeming crowd and collapse was imminent. A therapist suggested that I needed to feel more engaged at work. And so I started the law school application process.

When I began my job as a lawyer, I found that my work could not be completed by 11 am on most days. Some days, I couldn’t complete my work until late into the evening. As a newer attorney, my workload also reflected the fact that everything took a bit of extra time. I would come home to my husband each night and announce: “tomorrow I need to draft an Answer, I’ve never done that”; or “tomorrow I need to draft discovery; I have no idea how that works.” Until this time, I had secretly harbored a belief that I might be one of the most productive people in the universe. I realized (immediately), of course, that this was not true. But, my anxiety about cancerous moles and collapsing buildings disappeared. I enjoyed being busy.

But it affords downtime

The first time a giant case settled, however, and I showed up at work with nothing but organizational tasks, I freaked out. I have since learned that the ebb is a normal part of the lifecycle of a case, and affords necessary time for things like:

  • Doctors’ appointments: It is probably time for at least a dental visit.  Perhaps an annual check up or dermatologist visit as well.


  • Picking up a pro bono matter: It is so easy to put off pro bono when you’re working nonstop on a paid matter. That said, an ebb is the perfect time to pick up a short pro bono matter—you could be in Court fighting for a restraining order within days.


  • Cleaning out your inbox: Or organizing your files. Or getting boxes out of your office. The sorts of things I put off when I am truly busy.


  • Writing an article: I enjoy writing, so at the conclusion of each case, I ask myself whether I can draft an article (or a CLE presentation) based on my recent experience. Was there a new or novel substantive legal issue? An interesting procedural hurdle? A good story?


  • Going home at a reasonable hour: Sure I want to stay busy during an ebb, but it’s also great to leave at a reasonable hour and enjoy a nice dinner with your significant other, a walk around your neighborhood, or even a trip to the gym (I know, I know, this should be a part of my life even when I am busy—I’m working on it).

I still get a little nervous when I have downtime (perhaps its flashbacks to my UPenn Books On-Line days). But I have also realized that the downtime affords opportunities for reflection, assessment, and rejuvenation—all things that will make me stronger when the next big case arrives.

(image: Sea Ebb from Shutterstock)


  1. Avatar Kate says:

    Good article. I’m wondering, did you figure out what to do with yourself in your “free” time on your own? Or, is your firm supportive of you taking time to do some personal things or pro bono work when your work is ebbing rather than flowing? I think some of my anxiety during an “ebb” time is that my bosses will think I’m lazy!

    • Avatar sybil says:

      Thanks Kate – I’m lucky. My firm is supportive of people taking time to accomplish personal tasks or pro bono during a down time. I also have a fear that people will think I am lazy, but pro bono is a great way to develop new skill sets (a plus for the employer!) during free time that could otherwise be dead time.

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