Balance the Scales: Service vs Servitude™

The law is a helping profession. Outsiders might scoff, but all of us in the industry know this to be so.

Ask a thousand lawyers what they value about their work, and most will draw a connection to helping. One bankruptcy lawyer told me that what motivates him is helping people to make a fresh start. Business lawyers have spoken with passion about helping their entrepreneurial clients. Personal injury lawyers have told me how much they care about helping injured persons recover and rebuild their lives.

What is meaningful to lawyers about their work is, in a word, service.

What is burning them out is servitude.

Think for a moment about your experience of providing service and feeling good about it. Bring a recent specific example into your mind.

What were you doing?

How did you feel about providing the service? What emotion did you experience? What was the felt experience of this in your body?

This is what it feels like for you to act on your values and align with what matters to you.

We all have distinct ways we like to serve. What is remarkable about human nature is the variation between us. I love listening to clients talk about their challenges all day long. Others might find this torturous.

Now that you have keyed into your experience of servitude let’s talk about what happens when the drive to service is pushed to the max or exploited – when service becomes servitude.

Here are some examples of servitude:

John is dedicated to his clients and enjoys his estate planning practice. He hates to say no and, as a result, has an overflowing practice, and he has months of will drafts waiting for his review. He can’t catch up. His work has become a burden. He is afraid to open his email. The satisfaction of service has become a grind of servitude.

Maggie is a family law lawyer who derives great satisfaction from her work. For the most part, she enjoys her clients, but she has a few clients in the practice who are highly demanding, rude and have unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved. These few clients cause her stomach to clench and fill her days with dread.

Terry has a business law transactions practice. In the early days, he made a point of being highly responsive. Now his clients have come to expect it. He is fielding emails and calls all day, night, and on the weekends. While this approach worked fine for him when he was single, now that he is married with two children he adores, he feels like he is getting close to burnout.

Servitude happens when the instinct to serve is pushed to the extreme.

Servitude can arise when you take on a task that is out of alignment with how you enjoy serving, for example, a business lawyer being dragged into running a litigation file for a long-time client.

It can be serving demanding and unappreciative clients.

It can be the peril of too much and overload.

Think for a moment about your practice. Where are you experiencing servitude? What emotion does this evoke in you? What is your felt experience of this?

Your body can serve as a compass to warn you when you have crossed the line from service to servitude.

Service is motivating, energizing, and meaningful.

Servitude is draining and depleting.

Part of the wellness crisis in the legal profession is rooted in the corruption of the value of service into servitude.

The opportunity is there for all of us in the profession to work towards balancing the scales back to service.

It starts with you.

Over the coming month, set an intention at the start of each day to notice when you experience the lift of service.

Notice when you feel the drain of servitude.

Take notes on these experiences and watch for the opportunities to make shifts in your practice to reduce the servitude:

  • Initiate a process of weeding out the problem clients before they are retained.
  • Let go of clients who are making your life a misery.
  • Stop taking work from a toxic partner.
  • Rethink and restructure when you are on and off work and give yourself time for other priorities.
  • Create zones for focused work in your day and zones for open-door collaboration.
  • Close the door to new clients and work while you catch up on the backlog.

There are many ways to balance the scales. Start with some small steps. Build from there.

Service vs Servitude is a distinction that was brought to my attention by former lawyer, now counsellor Erin Peters. Erin and I held our first presentation on this topic to the CBA Manitoba earlier this year. I am currently working on a book that explores in depth a path back for the legal profession from servitude to service.

Please let me know what you discover as you identify the roots of service and servitude in your practice. I would love to hear about your experiences!


  1. Thank you Allison. You have named an experience I have had many times in my career. The serving feels good and still does; but the servitude feels so heavy and debilitating. I’m learning to pay attention to my boundaries and remind myself that setting and holding boundaries are healthy and necessary. It is helpful to know I’m not alone in this and your naming of this makes it possible to see a viable alternative. I’m looking forward to your book!!

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