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Flexible hours create unpredictable days

Being available anywhere and anytime can stress out professionals
By Natalie Alcoba
March 13 2015 issue

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Even before the smartphone or the work e-mail inbox followed you home, to the movies or to dinner with a friend, seemingly endless work hours were a fact of life for lawyers. 

Lowly articling students or associates often bore the brunt of mind-numbing schedules that defined an industry which traditionally measured its productivity by billable hours. The advent of the aforementioned technological gems brought a measure of flexibility for those burning the midnight oil, in law as in other professions. 

But they have also helped blur the lines between work life and “life life,” and created conditions in which employees are held hostage by another factor: unpredictability. 

That was the discovery made by the Boston Consulting Group, global management giant and willing guinea pig for a Harvard Business School experiment that sought to explain a trail of burnt-out employees. 

“The big problem wasn’t so much the long hours and incessant travel,” wrote Grant Freeland and Deborah Lovich on the Huffington Post blog recently. Rather, “it was the complete lack of predictability or control” they had over their daily lives. 

“When consultants woke up in the morning, they literally had no idea how many hours they would be putting in that day,” the authors wrote. 

The legal profession isn’t immune to the reality that being on call is simply part of the job now. The Canadian Mental Health Association warns about the importance of creating “balance” by creating a buffer between work and home, but Steve Prentice, an expert in workplace productivity, says the number of people across professions being “overrun by expectations” has hit “pandemic” proportions. 

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Andrew Feldstein, founder of the Markham, Ont.-based Feldstein Family Law Group, of the tools that allow him to sometimes work remotely while at home with his children. As a result, the expectations of clients have also changed. “If this was 10 years ago, they would send you a letter by fax,” Feldstein notes. Now, clients expect a response to an e-mail the same day or the next.  

The erosion into people’s personal time is exacerbated by our natural inclination to react, says Prentice. “The tools at our disposal have not lessened that at all,” he said. “There is no natural switch to turn off the natural reflex.” 

But there is also a great deal of self-imposed obligation to stay busy for fear of not looking productive or team-friendly. “People are terrified of losing their jobs,” observes Prentice, a partner in The Bristall Group. But limits are required, and lawyers, like other professionals, need to figure out how to impose them, argues Prentice. 

One suggestion is what he calls the 80-20 rule: never fill your calendar more than 80 per cent. Leave the rest of the day for networking, and to respond to a crisis or an opportunity. Prentice says lawyers can take an inventory of their last five years of employment to determine the prevalence of unexpected events or crises. “Nothing is truly unexpected,” says Prentice. “You just haven’t allowed time for it to happen in advance.” 

Jana Schilder, a co-founder of the Legal A Team, a coaching, marketing and PR firm for lawyers, says there are other practical ways in which lawyers can build more predictability into their careers, and it starts with choosing a practice area carefully. Real estate closings are predictable and transactional, she notes. Family law is emotional. Criminal law, by definition, is unpredictable, she says, as is M&A work. “It’s not reasonable to go into these types of practice areas and expect predictability,” says Schilder. 

She urges lawyers to structure their practice to encourage “income smoothing” and avoid the “feast or famine” scenario that gives a bank account “whiplash.” If regular income is coming in, you will think twice about taking an unpredictable file. Schilder points out lawyers don’t have to take every case. She said one of her clients deliberately avoids high net worth clients because they are notorious for wanting what they want when they want it and won’t hesitate to call in the middle of the night. And although it goes against the grain of the traditional model of billable hours, Schilder advocates strongly for a “tag team” approach to cases, so that everything does not fall on just one person, and to farm out the “easy stuff” to juniors. 

“This is a good opportunity to actually put into practice the principle of letting go and learning to trust others to do the work,” says Schilder. 

Failing to strike the right work-life balance can have serious consequences, warns the Canadian Mental Health Association. 

“According to Statistics Canada, employees who considered most of their days to be quite a bit or extremely stressful were over three times more likely to suffer a major depressive episode, compared with those who reported low levels of general stress,” the association reported. 

It says there are ways for workers to take control, such as scheduling brief breaks during the day, and responding to e-mails only once or twice a day to avoid being distracted (this advice isn’t geared towards a specific profession, and lawyers might scoff at its applicability to their trade). It also urges people to protect their private time, and to not be available at all hours. 

Feldstein says the reality of the legal profession now is one in which work hours have bled into hours away from the office, but he maintains that most of the toiling is done during the day. If he’s going to court on Monday, he expects associates to be available to answer questions on the weekend, even though he probably will not need to call. Still, he says it’s up to individual lawyers to manage their time and manage their client’s expectation. 

“For me, I know when I have my kids, I’m going to be a lot less likely to respond unless it’s a real emergency,” he said. 

Prentice agrees. It’s a matter of drawing lines in the sand regarding availability, and making it work for the entire firm.

“This is why doctors have waiting rooms,” he said. 

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