Why you need to disconnect

I suspect that many lawyers’ New Year’s resolutions include improving their work-life balance. But waking up this morning and reading yet another story about a recently-enacted French law giving workers at companies with 50 or more employees the right to ignore emails that arrive after hours may make it feel like the only way to attain this resolution is to relocate your legal practice to Paris. Indeed, the French Ministry of Labor justified the new law, saying, “These measures are designed to ensure respect for rest periods and… balance between work and family and personal life.”

Is this a law that would ever be possible to apply to attorneys and the practice of law? I think most of us would agree it would not. But does the law represent reasonable policy and an attempt to cure the work-life imbalance which many lawyers suffer from? Perhaps it does.

As lawyers, we are in a service industry, whether in the private or public sectors. We provide legal services to our clients who compensate us for those services. As service providers, we are expected to be available to our clients in the event of an emergency, even if the emergency arises outside the normal work day.

That being said, I believe it is important that lawyers set reasonable expectations for our clients as to what constitutes an “emergency” such that we should be reasonably expected to jump into substantive action outside the normal work day. This may differ based upon the type of law that you practice. The family-law client may have a much wider array of exigent situations which could arise than the probate client.

Many lawyers fear that not being available to clients by email for emergencies and non-emergencies alike is demonstrative of poor client service. However, a drowsy, immediate response from home to the non-emergency client email received at 10:15 p.m. may well be more dangerous to send than the fully-awake, responsive email sent the following morning. If the fear is that the client will feel ignored, perhaps a simple response email acknowledging receipt and promising an answer the next day is a good middle ground.

Yet even monitoring email outside of work hours can prove problematic. Even if I am not responding to email, merely reading the incoming messages start the mental gears, which can take me away from being emotionally present for my wife and daughter. For me, during that very meaningful and very brief period of time each evening while I am home before my daughter begins the bedtime process, it helps to leave my phone on a different level of the house. I don’t even hear the phone’s pings or vibrations and have no temptation to start down the path that may take me mentally away. I am not going to be away from the phone for long enough that if there is a true emergency, I won’t be able to timely service the client.

I very much believe it is possible for lawyers to make progress on a resolution for improved work-life balance without moving to Paris and becoming affiliated with a firm of more than 50 employees. Happy New Year to one and all, and best wishes for a happy and healthy 2017.

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