Slow periods cause anxiety for everyone, and lawyers are not immune. Alarm bells start ringing when we’re not busy (or billing all that much) for a prolonged period. As insecurity, fear, and doubt take hold, we wonder whether we are doing enough, whether there is more that we could be doing, whether we’ve done something wrong, whether others have more on their plate than we do, and whether we’re one step away from being fired in the midst of one of the worst job markets in recent memory. And while slow periods happen every year, the kind happening now in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic feels different—no one knows how long it will last, whether we’ve seen the worst of it, or when, and to what extent, things will go “back to normal.” What’s more, wide-ranging economic and social changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are afoot, including a wave of pay cuts, layoffs, and lower partner payouts at law firms of all sizes.
Perspective matters. Although so much feels uncertain and out of our control right now, we get to decide for ourselves whether to regard this period as one of lockdown or sheltering-in-place, as a crisis or an opportunity, a burden, or a blessing. Similarly, it is up to us to decide how to use “dead” time, and whether to regard it as such. We will get through these times of economic uncertainty, although probably not entirely unscathed. But as with any challenge we rise to, we can and will come out stronger, ready to take on and handle more.
While you have time on your hands, think about how you were spending your time when you were at your busiest. Were you being your most efficient and productive self, or were you running in circles, so caught up in moving forward that you were unable to identify better ways to move? Without the typical distractions, it becomes easier to observe ourselves. In this new in-between space—with fewer distractions, water cooler breaks, commutes, endless to-do lists, and 24/7 communication with clients and colleagues—take the opportunity to see yourself clearly and understand how your energy levels and focus shift throughout the day. Conduct a time audit and create personalized schedules that work for you.
Before we know it, things will speed up again. What’s more, particularly now, as administrative staff are being laid off, associates will need to rely on themselves more than ever to do a lot of the work that their colleagues were once doing. Use the time you have now wisely to assess your administrative burdens and reduce the ones that have been hampering you. Streamlined workflows save time and reduce stress, ensuring that the administrative work will get done on time, and more precisely. Take the time to learn about new technologies, and take the initiative to help yourselves and your firms become more tech-competent.
Slow periods not only trigger our anxieties but also eat away at our confidence. Learning new skills and developing new methodologies is a fantastic way to enhance your self-esteem and value in the marketplace. This is the right time for learning, gaining new tools, growing new practice areas, and deepening knowledge areas and skill sets that we weren’t taught in law school, and don’t have time to learn when there isn’t downtime.
Although this is a period marked by loss, we all stand to gain from taking the time to empower ourselves—whether it’s by learning new practical skills, self-care techniques, or streamlining our—so that we can do more by doing less, and reduce sources of stress. Partners should actively encourage their team members—from associates to administrative staff—to use this slow time for upskilling, deepening knowledge, or engaging in the pursuits mentioned below. Often, associates don’t take advantage of downtime. Feeling guilty about any time not spent billing, they anxiously spin their wheels, taking on small tasks instead of longer-term projects, checking in with others to gauge whether they’re in the norm. Especially during these trying times, encouraging associates to take on pursuits like those listed above (and even assigning these) is likely to not only boost morale but also generate new value.