Stop the Burn Out or “What Does a Solo Practitioner Do When Summer Vacation Rolls Around?”
It’s summer — it’s time to relax and to vacation with your family or maybe you’re about to take maternity leave. But you run a solo legal practice and if you take time off, no one is there for your clients. You’ve worked hard to build up your practice, to get clients in, and maintain the momentum. Surely taking time now will hurt not help. The workload will just build up and be overwhelming when you get back. What if there’s an emergency?
Your usual solution of course is to take work with you. To work while your children, out of school for the summer, race around laughing. To work, rather than spend time with your family. Trust me, they notice.
If you’re not married, you are probably even more in need of a break. It’s only you; you work longer hours and spend less time sharing the workload, physical and emotional, with others.
Your usual solution is to — well, take it with you.
You need to unplug.
Sure, we all think about doctors and emergency services personal, and military personnel as being on the front lines for high stress environments, but you have to start including yourselves in this list as well. As a lawyer you care about helping your clients, you put in countless hours and emotional capital into dealing with other people’s problems. You’re there at all hours. You do pro bono work. You often see some really traumatic cases, even if you aren’t handling human trafficking, murder or immigration cases. Divorce attorneys endure the tragedies in their clients’ lives. Patent attorneys have clients who put their whole worlds into getting that one patent, companies that will thrive or die based on their intellectual property portfolio. Estate planning attorneys work with the most intimate details of their clients’ lives — not the least is working out how their death’s will be handled. This is heavy stuff. And that’s just part of the load! There’s still dealing with the hours and stress of research, court appearances, and briefing, with business development and accounting and HR (if you’re lucky enough to have staff at all).
Managing burn out is an ongoing process. As attorneys you need to be doing it year round — taking time for your, practicing self care, getting enough sleep and exercise, and watching your nutrition are all things you can do year round to help. If you need a coach to help you do this, reach out to your local bar association lawyer assistance program. Every state bar association has one, and the ABA also has some great resources. Or contact me, I know a fantastic business and wellness coach who focuses on attorneys.
Take. Your. Vacation.
Your first step is simple: Take. Your. Vacation. I can hear you muttering now. “But it’s so busy.” It’s not going to change and since you insist you’re too busy let me tell you three ways you can let things go and take some well needed time off. Go sit on a beach, hike up a mountain, sail on the lake, take a cooking tour through Tuscany, build houses for Habitat for Humanity. Whatever it is that unplugs you and restores your soul — go do it.
Here are some significant things you can leave to your freelance paralegal to keep things rolling efficiently, and keep the workflow going, while you are away. And you can use them later for while you are in Court or Trial as well.
1.) List your freelance paralegal as your OOO contact, handling things while you are out. It seems like a no brainer. You’ve set your out of office message, but you gave them your phone number as an emergency contact. You know it’s always an emergency for the client no matter what. Don’t do this. Leave that emergency number with your freelancer. Instead, list your freelancer as your out of office coverage, email and phone, and take some time to discuss what’s on your docket and what may come up while you are away. Go over procedures for handling various situations and have the freelancer send you status reports (this is especially helpful if you’ll be out for an extended duration, like say, maternity leave or a wedding and a honeymoon). Routine tasks do not require your attention.
2.) Hand off the lingering clean up tasks that always get pushed down the priority list so your freelancer can do them while you are out. Seriously, this is a prime opportunity to manage all those things that fall by the wayside under more important deadlines. Files for archiving and return to the client, document destruction consistent with your retention plan (you have one, right? No?! Now’s a good time to make one!). Catching up on accounting and billing. Cleaning up those case files from that MSJ you filed before you left and have 23 drafts of. Creating office procedures and linking or creating checklists and forms. No one ever does these while there’s “actual work” do be done, even though these are things that make “actual work” easier and are the bedrock on which ALL work is done.
3.) Let your freelance legal assistant manage incoming correspondence and prioritize your desk. You’re gone for 2 weeks (or more!) and there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of emails in your inbox and pile of mail so deep you could patch a basement wall with it. Set your email to auto forward to your freelancer, or better yet, give them management access to your inbox and let them triage each day. You already know your freelancer is subject to the same confidentiality rules, and you trust them. Let them handle it. Give them a key to the office to deal with the mail (if they are nearby). They can eliminate all the junk mail and handle the routine tasks. For the more involved items, they can get the started and sorted into priorities, and notify you of legitimate emergencies.
With a little thought, and some planning with your freelance paralegal, you will be able to go on vacation and finally relax. Upon your return, instead of your needing to wade through the mayhem and undoing all the good work that dive trip with the whale sharks did for your mental state, you will find organization and a stack of completed tasks. A report and relevant drafts will be sent and/or waiting for you to finalize upon you return. Your actionable items will be organized by priority. And your normally crazy inbox will contain only this morning’s email from seven people you don’t know asking you to mine bitcoin that escaped your spam filters.
Don’t forget to turn off those notifications.
Alison Pacuska is the president of Pacuska Professional Services, a boutique consulting firm focused on top-tier paralegal, and legal assistant services with a focus on intellectual property and solo practitioners. Talk with her about your practice.