Time for Wonder Woman and Superman to Take Off the Cape

In her legal career Charlene had never encountered a challenge that stoic hard work and determination couldn’t beat. After severe abdominal pain forced her to the hospital’s emergency ward she returned to her office to finish an assignment despite the blindingly brutal pain. Months later she discovers that during this time the partner she reports to had found numerous flaws, typos and weaknesses in her work and had told her colleagues that she had grave concerns about Charlene’s legal abilities.

Charlene’s legal career as a solicitor was in ascendency before her car accident. The head injury caused her some setbacks and despite the advice of her doctor she continued to work. The result for Charlene was a drop in quality of her work that was noted by her colleagues and came to haunt her at review time.

Sound familiar? As a coach I have come across numerous cases of lawyers facing health challenges and choosing to continue to work while keep their secret under wraps. These professionals are not workaholics. They are simply choosing to stick with a success strategy that has served them well throughout their lives but under these new circumstances leads them to failure.

The fact is, when we are under severe stress, high levels of pain, or suffering a head injury, our cognitive functioning is likely impaired. Working under these conditions is often a mistake and a disservice to our health, professional reputation, client relationships and relationships with our colleagues.

All of the individuals I know who have attempted to work through a major health or other crisis have told me that in retrospect it was a mistake.

I am writing this article to urge lawyers, male and female, to take some time off when the going gets tough.

Success strategies become recipes for failure

A senior leadership coach Troy King once told me “strategies all come with an expiry date”. We all have our favorite strategies that have helped us succeed. The key is to understand that these strategies need to be adjusted to account for new opportunities and challenges.

A typical success strategy that frequently expires sometime after your first few years of call is the “head down and focus on billable work” strategy. If you want to create a successful legal career in private practice you need to adjust this habit to include time for making careful investments in non-billable activities such as networking, client development, writing, presenting and the like.

The strategy of “head down and work hard to get through” is great for getting you A’s in school, getting into a top law school, securing a job in a top law firm, and surviving as an associate and perhaps even getting into partnership. However, when you are under severe stress or suffering a health challenge this strategy is highly likely to fail you.

Core values

Most lawyers I know value hard work, dedication and responsibility. Personal priorities frequently take a back-burner to professional and personal responsibilities. Client needs, helping colleagues, family and friends all take the highest priority, while self-care is neglected. While this is in itself the subject for another article, in the case of surviving a crisis it is essential to understand that the best way to meet those core values is to take care of yourself.

This is the classic “put on your oxygen mask first” scenario. When your body and mind are under extreme stress and/or pain you must recognise that you are physiologically incapable of anything remotely resembling your best performance. Your first responsibility is to take the much needed break from work to focus on recovery and healing. This way you avoid making potentially damaging errors on client work and hurting client and other professional relationships.

Warning signs

Here are a number of warning signs that it is time to stop working and take some time off:

  • You are in significant physical pain, enough that you have sought urgent treatment by a physician and need to take strong pain medication.
  • You have experienced a death in the family or extended family.
  • Your child or spouse has a severe life-threatening illness.
  • You have been in an accident.
  • You have a head injury.
  • A physician or other healthcare provider has strongly advised you to take a leave of absence from work.

The above are just some of the many circumstances that require you to seriously consider taking time off.

Don’t keep it secret

Law firms are highly political organizations. Law firms are also leaky and one lawyer’s confidential information shared with a colleague can soon turn into the worst kept secret. Also, there is very high pressure to always be performing our best. For this reason, lawyers who are suffering from a serious health concern or other crisis are most likely to keep the information tightly under wraps. In my view this is one time that the information needs to be shared. Consider speaking with a mentor, or other trusted senior member of the firm to let them know about the situation. Explain the advice you have received from health care professionals and work together on a plan for taking some time off. The plan will involve transitioning files, handling client communications, and internal and external messaging.

I know that this is controversial advice. I also know from the experience of many lawyers that if you keep your crisis secret and continue to work you will be judged on the merits of your work product. It can be much harder to recover from the stigma of poor work product then for having had to take some time off to deal with a crisis.

Returning to work

It also helps to work with a mentor or coach on a plan for getting back up to speed when you return to work. Elements of your plan might include internal communication and messaging about the leave of absence and your goals now that you have returned. You may need to rebuild internal relationships, reconnect with clients, and re-launch a business development plan. Taking the time to think through and discuss with a trusted advisor the opportunities and challenges you face upon your return can help you get quickly back on your feet.

Bottom Line

This is a life lesson you do not need to learn the hard way. If you are in a crisis of a serious nature, or suffering from a severe and painful health condition, take some time off. Question your stoicism and recognise the great risk of error and flawed judgement that emerges when we try to continue working under these extreme circumstances. Value your health and well-being and take care of yourself first in order to protect your professional reputation and practice.

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