My Mental Health as a Junior Lawyer Working 4 Day Weeks
There have been countless blogs written about how Covid-19 has impacted family law or how the court system has adapted. What is not often talked about is the continuing mental health crisis among family lawyers that arguably worsened during the pandemic.
As family law lawyers, we are sometimes our client’s gladiators, therapists, and punching bags.
The first time I admitted to myself that I suffer from anxiety was during the shutdown in March 2020 and it was a rude awakening when I realized that the legal profession provided little space for mental wellness.
My Mental Health Journey
Though many lawyers feel constant pressure to achieve results for their clients, in my opinion, junior lawyers are often under a greater amount of pressure.
There is an expectation to prove yourself or “earn your place” which is based on high billables, successes in court, and client satisfaction. This expectation has only been exacerbated by a competitive market and firm cultures that pit juniors against one another.
Thankfully, this culture is not one that exists at YLaw. However, the personal expectation of “earning your place”, is a constant stressor no matter how ideal or accommodating the workplace.
My mental health was at an ultimate low in the early months of the pandemic, the stress of proving myself and anxiety for the safety of my family was crushing at times. As my practice became busier, the anxiety only increased but so did expectations I had for myself to be better.
There is an unsaid expectation that a junior lawyer should be constantly working and that to earn respect of their peers they must pay their dues. This is an unrealistic expectation but one many junior lawyers stretch themselves thin to achieve.
The rate of burnout amount family lawyers is alarming, and it would not surprise me if these expectations fueled the statistics. The mentality to bill and work long hours is cancerous to the family law practice; a symptom that the bottom line of business overshadows mental health.
The Shock of the 4-Day Work Week
I still remember the day that YLaw founder, Leena Yousefi, told the firm that we would be piloting a 4-day work week.
I was shocked and excited; I did a happy dance in my mind. However, this quickly subsided. My anxiety swiftly took over and I began worrying about billables, my clients, and a tiny voice in my brain questioned whether I had earned the privilege of working a 4-day work week.
The closer we got to beginning the 4-day work, the higher my anxiety went. I became all consumed with worry that I would not hit my billable targets or that my files would explode on the day off. I had serious reservations that I would be able to prove myself in a 4-day work week. I worried about getting fired or disappointing my clients. I had concerns that I would not be able to take any of the days off given my workload. I scolded myself several times for taking an amazing opportunity and turning into another stressor. It quickly made me realize how much anxiety I was dealing with and how much that came from the expectations from the legal profession.
Mental Health while Working 4-Day Work Weeks
I cannot imagine going back to a 5-day work week.
My stress at the start of the pilot project was at an all time high; it was an unfamiliar experience. I had to force myself to take the first few days off. I spent most of that days checking my emails to make sure there were no fires to put out. There was an adjustment for many of us as we had longer days (an additional hour each day) given the shortened week.
My doubts and anxiety continued to persist; I felt moments of panic. On those first few days off, I took time to attend appointments that I had pushed to the side for years. It was the first time in the last year that I prioritized myself.
The Foodie is Back
I am a huge foodie and I love to explore new places around the city. I took time during these days off to fill it with new food adventures. It seems simple but taking time for yourself as a legal practitioner is one of the hardest things to do and I believe it is because we think we do not deserve it or that we are doing something wrong if we are not billing/working.
The big question I get from other junior lawyers is about billables. How do you meet targets when you work one day less? My answer to that is that I am more productive now that I have a day to recharge during the week.
Many of us at the firm have exceeded the monthly billable target. Yes, I still internally struggle with meeting expectations but now that I know it can be done; I can breathe a little.
Not All Weeks are 4 Day Weeks
Not every week is a 4-day one for me as I sometimes have to work and tend to urgent matters. But enough are that I can confidently say that my mental health is finally being prioritized. At the start of the pilot project, on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being super anxious, my anxiety was at a 5. Now I would say it hover comfortably between 3 and 3.5.
I did not expect moving to a 4-day work week would eliminate my anxiety, but I did hope that it would help me manage it better, which I can say it has.
I had some difficulty writing this blog, I did not want to seem like I was a junior lawyer asking for an easy ride nor do I want my peers to judge my mental health concerns.
However, I think it is important that as legal practitioners we openly discuss our mental health needs. We are often putting our clients, our billables, and others’ expectations before ourselves. For some this is a dangerous path that can lead to an exacerbation of mental health issues, addiction, or to make mistakes that cost our clients.
Finding a balance in the legal profession is sometimes unheard of and thus, as professionals we shy away from changing the archaic corporate structures that often fuel the mental health crisis.
Since beginning the 4-day work week, I can think more clearer, my passion for solutions and resolution has increased. I am a better lawyer for recognizing my mental health needs and I will be forever grateful for working in a place that shares this priority with me.
My hope is that we can lead by example, by opening the dialogue and creating a blueprint for legal practitioners. It is important that all lawyers, not just juniors, feel comfortable to seek help when they need it. We are only better practitioners for putting our mental health at the forefront.
Written by our star family lawyer, Amber Cheema, June 21, 2021.