Managing Overwhelm

One of the primary reasons that my clients struggle with the practice of law is that they often feel like their life is out of control.

Their time and their practice is completely out of their hands. There’s a general feeling of helplessness and overwhelm. As if every moment, every lull in workflow is just another calm before the storm where there is too much work and no room to breathe.

We want to believe that we don’t have any control. We want to believe that work overload just happens to us and we have no role to play in it.

But that is only true if you decide to make it true.

In every moment of every day we have control over ourselves and the choices that we make. We decide how to handle every task that comes to us. We choose whether to do the work or not do the work. Rationally, we all know this to be true. But when we are stuck in the midst of the chaos and struggling to keep afloat, how do we silence the chaos and harness our own agency?

When we are swimming in overwhelming thoughts about our workload, it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. Given this, my recommendation is very simple:

Get brutally honest.

Write down everything that you are telling yourself you “have” to do. Make a long list of all the things that are overwhelming you. Next to each project write the deadline BUT only include true, factual deadlines. When a partner emails you and says “We really need to get this out today,” that is not a real deadline. That is a preference; a request; a hope. For purposes of this exercise, we note that project’s deadline as “TBD.”

Get all the facts.

For all of those projects whose deadlines are TBD, we develop a communication strategy with the goal being additional fact-finding. We need to determine whether this is a  real deadline or not and whether there is flexibility in how we prioritize this item.

This may require you to contact the partner or the client and express to them where this request falls with respect to your other factual deadlines. Let them know that you want to do a good job and give the project the attention it requires but, given your other deadlines, you are concerned you won’t be able to give it the attention it deserves.

Be honest and focused on the goal: you want to find a way to good work for everyone and you don’t want to give any project short-shrift unless there is absolutely no alternative.

Eliminate and prioritize.

Whenever we start to think “there’s too much work to do,” our brain simply piles on. That email you have been sitting on for a week is suddenly an emergency to your brain; it MUST be dealt with today!

We have to stop this avalanche of “to dos” right in its tracks. If, after completing your list in Step 1 and assigning fact-based deadlines in Step 2, you have a project that is still TBD or unclear, that project gets moved to a NEW list: the Wouldn’t It Be Nice list.

We all have those little nagging projects that we just put off and put off and once things get heated we suddenly make that project a massive, career-making or -breaking priority. Stop doing that. Do not let the overwhelm create an avalanche of tasks. Know what projects are not priorities in this moment and move on. You don’t have to do it all today. You can prioritize real deadlines today and prioritize your Wouldn’t It Be Nice list on another day.

Recognize your limits.

Do not allow yourself to believe that there is no way to get help or support. I often hear my clients tell me “there’s no one who is able to help….everyone else is super busy too…my paralegal isn’t any help…my secretary can’t do that.” Those statements only keep you stuck. They make you the victim to your to do list. Do not believe that any of those statements are true unless and until you have asked for and allowed in support.

You do not and should not have to do it all on your own. (Rinse and repeat.)

You will be a better lawyer and a better team mate if you learn to recognize your limits and ask for help when you need it. If you want to believe that there is no help available to you, I challenge you to investigate the truth of that statement. Maybe it’s true and maybe it’s not but my guess is that you aren’t even open to the possibility of asking to see if there is any truth to that belief.

If you want to believe there is no help available for you, prove it to yourself first. You owe it to your sanity.

An ounce of prevention….

Even before the workload heats up, there are things that you can do to take control over your practice. In order to do that you have to decide what you want your practice to look like–are there certain clients you don’t want to work with? Are there partners you want to avoid? Is there an area of law you want to focus on? Is there an area of law you want to move away from?

If you don’t know where you want to go, you allow yourself to be at the mercy of others and where they want your practice to go.

Early on in my practice, I had a partner who told me that she wanted me to work only on her projects, within her specialty. She didn’t want me to expand my work into other areas of the group; she wanted me to become an expert in her specialty and her clients. Not only did I not want to work exclusively for this partner for a variety of personal and professional reasons, I did not like her type of clients. I wanted to have a broad understanding of our practice area as a whole because I knew that someday I would leave that firm and I didn’t not want to set myself up for a hiring handicap by limiting my experience. I organized a meeting with the other partners in the group and the practice group chair and I told them what I wanted for my career–a well-rounded practice with full exposure to all of our clients and sub-specialties. And that is what I got. Had it not been for that moment, I would never have had the skillset I needed to move on and found my own practice group serving all areas of specialty.

Make a decision about where you want your practice to go and commit to it for at least a year. You can always change your mind later. Do not allow room for thoughts that this will limit you in the future. This is not only intended to allow you to focus your efforts but is also intended to insulate you from project overload.

When you identify where you want your practice to go and you voice that desire to your partners, you have established an order of priority for your work. You permit those partners that you WANT to work with to see you as their “go to.” It will be understood that they get first priority over your time and it sends a message to others to keep their “busy work” projects for other associates.

Rather than waiting in fear that you will get buried in work that you don’t want to do, seek out a stream of work that you WANT to do and continually work to keep that plate full. When your plate is full for a particular partner or client, you can better anticipate the ebbs and flows and practice defensively–keeping your plate full of work you WANT in order to avoid others filling it with work you DON’T want.

In the middle of work overload? Take advantage of a free session, and let’s get your head right.


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