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June 2018 – The Case for More Vacations

by Sherry S. Bragg and Thomas Pavelich

Attorneys, you need more vacations. Seriously. So says a recent landmark study co-commissioned by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, which was the first comprehensive study done in twenty-five years to try to quantify the prevalence of substance abuse and mental illness among lawyers in the United States. Patrick R. Krill, Ryan Johnson & Linda Albert, The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, 10 Journal of Addiction Medicine 46–52 (2016). The study found that 21% of all practicing attorneys suffer from alcohol abuse—that is more than one in five of all licensed, employed attorneys. The study also concluded that 28% of all attorneys struggle with some level of depression, and 19% show signs of anxiety. According to the study’s lead author, Patrick Krill, there is no other professional population with a higher rate of drinking problems.

These statistics demonstrate how the pressures felt by so many lawyers manifest as health risks. Trial lawyers, especially, should pay attention to these alarming figures because their jobs are particularly and repetitively stressful. Many litigators view their jobs as a zero-sum battle all the time. With this kind of inherent pressure on a daily basis, trial attorneys need to become much more proactive and intentional about protecting their mental health. That is precisely why we urge trial lawyers to take more vacations.

Consider the litigation cycle that every trial lawyer must go through with every case that does not settle:

  1. You spend untold hours culling through every detail of the case; every fact and as many as possible are committed to memory with the hopes that some of that minutiae will be useful to your client’s cause;
  2. While in the heat of battle (trial), your workload at the office for other matters begins to pile up; and
  3. Once the trial is over (win or lose), you must turn your attention back to the really hard business of litigation work—the day-in, day-out slog that is more of a marathon than the sprint of a trial.

But turning off the trial switch is not that easy.

All of that information that you have culled for weeks or months continues to plague your thoughts. Your mind, body, and emotions are exhausted. But how many of us have arrived at the office post-trial, only to find ourselves sitting at our desks and staring blankly at the computer screen? No work will get done that day. When you do not take time off to reset your mind post-trial, your other clients suffer. The work that you intend to do on your other cases takes longer to complete, and—who knows?—perhaps even the content of your work suffers. In an unofficial poll of litigators we surveyed, this “trial fog” lasts in earnest for three-to-five days, and its lingering effects can last up to two weeks.

We propose that, after every trial, you impose a mandatory three-day vacation upon yourself. And we don’t mean puttering around the house keeping yourself occupied—we mean going somewhere or doing something for three days that completely takes you away from the litigation cycle. Take a drive up the coast, visit a state or national park, or even just hit the beach to sit and watch the waves roll in. Whatever you do, get out of town. That is Rule Number 1.

Rule Number 2 is perhaps the hardest part: disengage from all things litigation. No email, no phone calls, no texts. The whole point is to disconnect from the stress of the practice, not to take it with you.

But wait—there is more. The mounting evidence of the health benefits of post-trial vacations is overwhelming. In a 2010 article discussing the importance of vacations to our physical and mental health, the author concludes:

Chronic stress takes its toll in part on our body’s ability to resist infection, maintain vital functions, and even ability to avoid injury. When you are stressed out and tired, you are more likely to become ill, your arteries take a beating, and you’re more likely to have an accident. Your sleep will suffer, you won’t digest your food as well, and even the genetic material in the cells of your body may start to become altered in a bad way. Mentally, not only do you become more irritable, depressed, and anxious, but your memory will become worse and you’ll make poorer decisions.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, The Importance of Vacations to our Physical and Mental Health, Psychology Today Blog (June 22, 2010), https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201006/ the-importance-vacations-our-physical-and-mental-health.

In a more recent article advocating the benefits of vacations, the authors report:

Statistically, taking more vacation results in greater success at work as well as lower stress and more happiness at work and home.” That article goes on to conclude that “[p]eople who took fewer than [ten] of their vacation days per year had a 34.6% likelihood of receiving a raise or bonus in a three-year period of time. People who took more than 10 of their vacation days had a 65.4% chance of receiving a raise or bonus.

Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan, The Data-Driven Case for Vacation, Harvard Business Review (July 13, 2016), https://hbr.org/2016/07/the-data-driven-case-for-vacation.

The cites go on and on. Search it. Do your own research, if you like. But at the end of the day, we are confident that you will come to the same conclusion: the practice of law is stressful, and you must become more purposeful in protecting your mental health against the inherent pressures of the job. Lucky for us, there is a relatively easy fix: vacations. As Whitbourne writes, “[v]acations have the potential to break into the stress cycle. We emerge from a successful vacation feeling ready to take on the world again. We gain perspective on our problems, get to relax with our families and friends, and get a break from our usual routines.”

So, trial lawyers, after your next trial, please do yourself a favor—take some time for yourself. Take a vacation. Your family will thank you, your clients will thank you (eventually), and more importantly, you will thank yourself.

Sherry S. Bragg a litigation partner at Weintraub Tobin. She can be reached at sbragg@weintraub.com. Thomas Pavelich is a NALA certified paralegal at Heffernan & Boortz. He can be reached at tom@hblaw.net.