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The Lives of Lawyers: How Young Lawyers Can Make Themselves Indispensable

At the beginning of the year, managing partners at leading law firms were reasonably optimistic about growth in 2020—and then COVID-19 happened. In the past few months, there have been layoffs and salary reductions, deferments, and even rescissions of incoming associates’ offers. For those of us (myself included) who graduated in the wake of the 2008 recession, it feels like Groundhog Day, but worse. This time around, it’s not only an economic crisis unprecedented in its global reach and speed is afoot, but also a terrifying global pandemic. The only thing that seems certain in a sea of information and misinformation, is that nothing is certain. 

Amid such turbulence, uncertainty, and social isolation, it’s a scary time for everyone—both those of us with jobs and those out of work. Many who are still employed experience acute prolonged anxiety, fearing that the ax may come down at any time. The very understandable gut instinct for those wishing to keep their jobs is to work harder, become 100% amenable “yes” people who never say no to anything, first to start the day, last to turn out the lights. This solution is not unlike the gut instinct of those caught in an undertow who try to fight the current, exerting more energy swimming against it. Unfortunately, this approach directly leads to precisely the most feared outcome—drowning. In fact, the expert recommendation for those pulled in an undertow is not to fight the current, but rather let it carry you out, turn 90 degrees, and swim back to shore when the waters feel calmer. 

There is a powerful lesson here. When we’re in stressful situations, our gut instinct is often less than optimal, and the optimal response is seemingly counter-intuitive. Stress fogs our judgment, puts blinders on us, and cuts us off from others and ourselves. Indeed, many of us respond to stress by hunkering down, isolating ourselves, believing that it’s “every man for himself.” This cuts us off from diverse perspectives that can provide us with clarity and insight and harms the social aspects of our being that are not only integral to our experience and wellbeing as humans, but our capacity as lawyers. 

My Experience with Recession-Driven Burnout

In 2010, just a few days before graduation, my BigLaw offer was rescinded due to economic hardship at the firm, which has since gone defunct. Much to my surprise, I ended up moving across the Atlantic later that year to Tel Aviv, where I found a job as an apprentice at a big firm. I was in my mid-20s, and the rescission left deep wounds I’ve only been able to articulate in recent years. Most, unfortunately, it led me to believe that losing my job was always around the corner, and that to keep mine, I had to be 100% amenable, bite off more than I could chew, and work harder than anyone else. That conviction stayed with me for much of the decade. Every time I pushed back or expressed discontent, I was terrified that I had just sealed my fate and would soon be out the door without a job. Even though my offer had been rescinded because of the financial recession and not my performance or aptitude, for years I carried it around as a personal failure on my part. Believing that I was not okay or not as okay as others, I believed that to keep a job or advance I had to work harder than others. I eroded any personal boundaries I had and gave my whole self to work, and by the time I left in early 2019, I was burnt out and realized I had been for years. 

Looking back now, I understand that it didn’t need to be this way and that I suffered more than I needed to. I don’t blame myself. I accept and recognize that everything happened as it needed to. But I now understand how faulty my approach was, and I’m sharing what I’ve learned in the hopes of staving off more pain. Being indispensable doesn’t mean being essential to everyone but yourself. Bending over backward isn’t a recipe for success, and even if it might do the trick in the short-term, it’s far from sustainable. Being indispensable comes down to multiple factors which I’ve outlined below—being open and amenable is only one of them. No less critical, being indispensable requires that we remain indispensable to ourselves—that we understand that we have nothing to give when we’ve eroded ourselves to a fine pulp. Willpower is a finite resource. Stamina and clarity require wellbeing, a sense of calm, understanding, adaptability, that we align our goals and decisions, and manage our energy wisely to be able to better dispense of it. The following tips outline how to be indispensable to your team and your colleagues without losing your center, feeling stressed out, panicky. You can—and should—slow down, do one thing at a time, rest when you need to, and create more balance in your life. 

Becoming Indispensable in the Face of a Recession

  • Use the power of meditation and mindfulness to your advantage. Accept things as they are and yourself as you are so you can better understand what is happening and make more sound decisions from a place of calm, not stress. Considering that our brains comprise only about 2% of our body weight but consume over 25% of our energy, it seems like a no-brainer that by calming our minds, we can save energy and reduce stress. With time, practitioners of mindfulness report feeling more energetic, resilient, and less thrown off by stressful events. That increased sense of calm and the ability to direct attention to wherever you choose provides a sense of clarity, insight, and patience—critical for better decision-making and more conscious communication, which are two crucial aspects of lawyering. 
  • Identify your goals and understand why they are important to you. Once you know what’s important to you and why, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to make decisions that support your goals. Just as important, invite open and honest communication with your colleagues, superiors, and clients—understand what matters to them (e.g., timeliness, initiative, or frequent updates), and actively explore ways to align with your development and needs. 
  • Dedicate yourself to high standards and, just as critically, honestly assess your limits and obligations. Be gentle with yourself, especially when you make a mistake. The only mistake is not learning from one. It is easier to learn when we accept and acknowledge our mistakes without flagellating ourselves.  
  • Do what you say you’ll do when you’ll do it. If something comes up, be honest and communicate it as soon as possible to relevant parties. They’ll appreciate the heads-up so much more than being caught by surprise by a delay. What’s more, they might even trust you more because of it. 
  • Stay open and adapt, but also regularly check in with your limits and obligations. Practice boundary-setting. This is a marathon, not a sprint. 
  • Acknowledge and appreciate those around you. 
  • Stay positive. Try to say yes, before you say no. Clients often confided in me that one of their biggest gripes with lawyers is that they often say no before saying yes. Lawyers are by nature more risk-averse than the average individual. That said, clients are coming to you for a solution—don’t forget that.
  • Spend less time spinning your wheels. If you don’t like doing something, maybe it’s not what you’re doing but how you’re doing it. Take a minute to zoom out and understand your process, and think creatively to find other, perhaps more effective ways of doing things. 
  • Avoid fake work. Automate and delegate what you can. It’s not helpful to engage in spinning your wheels kind of work day-in-day-out that has you doing so much and still feeling at the end of the day that you accomplished nothing. And if you feel like you’re spinning your wheels, others are probably taking notice too, as this can often result in too-high billings or delays. Use technology to your advantage. AI-powered document and email management solutions like ZERØ’s help you spend less time on administrative tasks like billing and email filing and more time actually practicing law.
  • Slay your projects by working in bursts. If something can be done in a few hours, block out time and get it done in one day instead of spreading it out over several days. Context-switching and multitasking are big energy drains. It is far better to divide your time between complete rest and complete focus—operating in between leaves us feeling unproductive and constantly tired. Sit down and finish what you can in one sitting. This method of ticking off projects saves you time and energy.
  • Take care of yourself! Learn to relax. Stress-related illnesses are real. Rest, health, and fun matter. Just as critical as deep focus is deep rest—listen to your needs, and learn how and when to recharge yourself so you can accomplish more, not less. We are never at our best when we are exhausted or when our thoughts are ping-ponging. An overactive mind can cause stress and overstimulation, which leave us feeling tense and confused.
  • If you do find yourself laid off or your offer rescinded this year, please remember that it is not you, it’s the economy. Your self-worth is so much greater than your employment status. 

Author

  • Amy Sapan

    Originally from New York and based out of Tel Aviv since late 2010, Amy Sapan has over eight years of corporate legal experience, principally in the fields of high-tech and private investment fund formation. She has previously held positions at Amit, Pollak, Matalon & Co. and Yigal Arnon, two of Israel’s leading law firms, as well as Dickstein Shapiro LLP in New York City, now defunct. She received her J.D. magna cum laude from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, and her B.A. in International & Area Studies summa cum laude from Washington University in St. Louis. She is a member of the NY State Bar and the Israeli Bar Association. She is passionate about gardening, art, craft, dance, swimming, ecology and movement.