Perspectives from two generations: What does COVID and working from home mean for achieving balance and wellness in the legal profession?
By: Diane and Sarah Thompson
Lawyers. We are not known as a healthy bunch. We sit all day. We eat at our desks. We don’t sleep enough. We don’t know when or how to stop working. We drink too much – caffeine or alcohol, or both. We are stressed and depressed, anxious, and high strung. We’re often stuck to our electronic devices late into the night. The list, and the stereotyping, goes on. The sad truth is that many of these stereotypes are our reality.
Is work-life balance possible during or after COVID? Is it even possible to have a healthy and balanced life as an attorney? Is working from home better for us or are we just trading one location for another? Do our unhealthy habits remain the same?
To be completely honest, I’m not sure the answers to any of these questions.
Most pre-pandemic wellness articles focused on “tips and tricks” about how to be healthy as an attorney: exercise, outsourcing, sleeping habits, etc. The same things were recommended: exercise in the morning, get some sunshine, eat well, sleep, and don’t look at the screen before bed, blah blah blah. We are now in unchartered territory. I used to believe that if we prioritized our health and wellbeing then work, everything else would fall into place. I was absolutely certain we could have balance if we prioritized properly. I even thought working from home was the solution.
Now that we work from home, I’m less convinced that balance can be achieved solely based on our work location. I think we may just be taking our unhealthy habits home with us….and now home may no longer be the relaxing sanctuary of old.
Yes, I sleep in a bit more and work with my dogs snuggled at my feet. I take walk breaks. I wear comfortable clothes and save my feet from the office heels. I make salads and smoothies for lunch. I can step out for a doctor appointment or blood test and make up that hour later in the evening without feeling embarrassed or nervous that people will think that because I left early, I’m not working hard enough. I have my spin bike in the room next door for easy access before or after work. I’m working on my dusty French instead of mindlessly scrolling Instagram. I’m reading more. I can run a load of laundry during the workday. I stopped wasting time dating, found a meaningful relationship, and actually see my partner every day. I finally have a savings account, which I didn’t before the pandemic. Since I no longer spend $550 per month on dog daycare, I’ve been able to save, buy some things that have been on my wish list for years, and make progress on paying down debt. On top of that, working from home allows me to quarantine so I can see my family.
On the other hand, I’ve pulled more all-nighters in the last 9 months than I have in four years practicing family law. I’ve gained 7 pounds. I’ve had days so long I can’t believe I ever had the time to spare to commute. Clients and co-workers contact me late at night and on weekends (which, to be fair, they did before too). I drink just as much caffeine. I still eat at my desk and sit most of the day. I miss my office – my framed pictures of family and friends, the art on my wall, my sit-to-stand desk. I miss my colleagues. Everyone has my cell phone number. I’ve taken less vacation, personal, and sick time this year. There are no boundaries. There is no break.
In short, I think in some ways we are better off and in some ways we are not. But the pandemic certainly does not seem to be going away any time soon, so for now, I think we have to just do the best we can at home and try to work on some of our bad habits in the interim. And for now, I will continue with my daily French lessons!
When my daughter asked me to do this article, I thought it would be quick and easy. Uncharacteristically, I procrastinated for quite a while. After 30 plus years of practicing law and faithfully meeting both self-imposed and client driven deadlines, I just couldn’t seem to get it done. When I finally sat down to “bang it out”, I realized the reason for my dawdling. Writing about it, for me, has meant truly and fully embracing how COVID has or can continue to change our lives and our profession – for worse or possibly for better.
COVID has not just changed my location, but my entire working life.
I was fortunate to have a long and rewarding career as a partner in a Big Four accounting firm; an international senior management role in a Fortune 500 company; and, most recently, as a partner in a top 100 law firm requiring weekly travel as chair of two firm governance committees, serving national clients, and spending the better part of four years in another state as a court appointed receiver in a federal SEC fraud case. All of those years involved challenging work and long hours. Some failures and painful lessons, but also personal and professional growth and many successes for me and the people with whom I worked. They were filled with incredibly interesting and unique issues and situations and with colleagues and clients who have become lifelong friends. It was also a lot of fun. Those long, and often stressful hours produced the funds for successfully juggling a demanding career, raising and educating two incredible children, amazing vacations, owning horses, and a creating for my family a fair amount of inheritance – worthy jewelry. They also took a toll on family and personal relationships and my physical and mental well-being. I couldn’t “have it all” all the time.
I knew the time was nearing to retire, and I was eagerly looking forward to more personal travel and time to spend with family and my horses…but in a year or two. COVID accelerated making the inevitable decision to deescalate the work part of my life. The four-year case was over, replacing the revenue was already becoming a struggle and the business development travel was now impossible. I felt defeated rather than joyous, but it was time to rebalance my attention to my family and myself.
Today, no longer under the pressures of partnership, I have an Of Counsel role, working from home with a limited hours requirement. I no longer have to travel every week or endure a long commute. I’ve spent several months redecorating my house, lots of time with my spouse, gardening, helping to care for and teach my two young granddaughters, frequently riding my horses and working out with a personal trainer three times a week. I’ve had a complete wellness exam, lost 15 pounds, and finally had the ability to stay home to do the elective surgery to fix my aching feet. I’m even considering getting a dog.
I think this might be a “balanced life” – having time for some interesting work, family, health and well-being. Everything has fallen into place….right?
Then why do I feel anxious, when standing in line “wasting” time, having to re-boot my computer or about not completing the “when I have more time ” to do list in over four months? It should be done by now. Why am I irritable and feeling smothered at home despite the beautiful new indoor and outdoor environment I’ve created? Why am I fearing that my husband or daughter might no longer proudly see me in the same light as when I was killing myself every week with travel and long hours?
Being a lawyer is who we are or become. We were already competitive over-achievers, persistent, and intellectually curious before we became lawyers. The time-conscious, constantly working, guilt-ridden lawyer who is always available to our bosses, partners or clients becomes “just how it is” and eventually can become who we are. We chose to prioritize the needs of our clients over our family and friends. We chose to pull the “all- nighter” because we used precious time doing something fun over the weekend, and we chose to caffeinate and then drink attempting to handle the pressure. We chose to be lawyers and the profession chooses to largely continue in a business model that perpetuates the all-consuming nature of our work.
The newly minted lawyers, self-improvement gurus, psychologists and our families would say to “make more balanced or healthy choices”, but we all know it isn’t that simple even without COVID impacting our lives. The imposed safer at home orders often exacerbated rather than facilitated our attempts to carve out time away from work. However, it is up to all of us, if and when we are able to return to our offices, to take a good hard look at how we work as lawyers and how our business model could be changed for the better.
Sarah A. Thompson is an attorney at Hersh Mannis LLP, a prestigious family law firm in Beverly Hills. Sarah is a member of the Beverly Hills Bar Association and the Los Angeles County Bar Association and is eligible for appointment as Minor’s Counsel in Los Angeles County. She graduated from the University of San Francisco School of Law in 2015, and practiced family law in the Bay Area before moving back to Southern California in 2019. Sarah was also an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law for two years.
Diane A. Thompson is Of Counsel at Cozen O’Connor. Diane focuses her practice on providing advice and counsel on matters pertaining to executive compensation and employee benefits. Her clients include public and private companies, as well as tax exempt organizations, and she regularly works with board of directors compensation committees and company executives in finance, human resources, legal, and accounting.
Diane served as a court-appointed receiver for the U.S. District Court in a fraud and violations of securities law case involving an administrator of self-directed 401(k) plans and IRAs. The company serviced account balances of $350 million, and more than 5,000 accounts invested in unique non-cash investments including real estate, LLC interests, foreign currency, and promissory notes. Over a four-year period, Diane acted as CEO, operating the business, liquidating assets, negotiating and settling legal claims, and procuring insurance settlements for the benefit of the victims. She led a team of more than 75 attorneys in assisting the government in successful civil and criminal claims against the perpetrator, completed the sale of the company, and the transfer of accounts to a successor custodian with a 92 percent recoupment.
In a previous role as corporate senior vice president of HR for AECOM (a NYSE professional services company with 45,000 employees in 130 countries), Diane led a team of more than 50 global HR employees and was responsible for executive compensation, incentives and stock compensation, benefits, human resources information, shared services, and global employee taxation issues.
Diane teaches part-time in the MBA-Tax graduate program at California State University Fullerton. Before joining Cozen O’Connor, she was a partner of a multinational accounting and professional services firm and a large, Philadelphia-based law firm.