May/June 2021

Work hard and be nice: A post-pandemic prescription

By Kendra Brodin & Alice Sherren

It took a global pandemic, but the world is beginning to recognize the importance of prioritizing wellness alongside productivity. In the last year, we witnessed entire industries shutting down for months while scientists and doctors scrambled to identify and contain a new and unpredictable virus. We experienced mandates for social distancing and mask wearing to protect individuals and those around them. 

Reasonable minds can differ as to the need for and efficacy of shutting down the way we did, but our health system and our world were experiencing a public health crisis. When individuals experience a serious illness, they must focus on regaining their health before they can devote energy toward anything else. Likewise, as a society, at least for a brief period of time, we needed to be as focused on being nice to ourselves and those around us as we were on working hard. 

The pandemic is (hopefully) coming to an end and the light of a new normal is on the horizon, but the balancing of well-being and productivity must remain a focus, especially in the legal profession. To some of us, such a statement sounds ludicrous. We sacrificed a lot to get where we are in our careers, and we need to prove to ourselves, our colleagues, and our clients that we are willing to do whatever it takes to get excellent results and remain successful. For decades, lawyers have built their practices on working longer and longer hours—and expecting everyone in their employ to do the same—to maximize profit. 

It’s easy to talk about the importance of well-being, but it can be challenging for anyone, especially lawyers, to actually pursue a balanced life. Many lawyers want to spend more time with their families or their personal interests, but worry that doing so will diminish their status within their organization. The competitive nature of many firms can lead some to believe they cannot afford to prioritize their well-being, lest they fall behind their peers.

But lawyers are human beings with minds and bodies that at some point need rest and rejuvenation to function at their highest level. A lawyer who lacks personal well-being is far more likely to make a mistake that could harm her clients as well as her firm’s reputation and bottom line. A firm that does not value the well-being of its members and employees may face expensive malpractice or ethics claims in addition to attrition. On the flip side, firms and organizations that encourage well-being on their teams will enjoy increased engagement, lower attrition, and higher productivity. (For more about the business case for lawyer wellness, see Patty Beck and Alice M. Sherren, “Happy lawyers are productive lawyers,” B&B Jan. 2020.)

Thankfully, we don’t have to choose between “working hard” or “being nice.” When we make a conscious decision to value hard work while achieving balance and well-being in our professional and personal lives, everyone benefits. As Stephen Covey, author of the bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, said: “We must never become too busy sawing to take time to sharpen the saw.” In that book, Covey tells the following story:

Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.

“What are you doing?” you ask.

“Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.”

“You look exhausted!” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?”

“Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.”

“Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?” you inquire. “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”

“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!”

As Covey explains, “sharpening the saw” means taking time to rest and refresh in all areas of our lives: physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional. When we invest this time in ourselves, we are healthier, more effective, and more productive.

Lawyers, legal professionals, and legal employers should seize this almost-post-pandemic moment to think about how we can spend more time “sharpening the saw” in our daily lives. We don’t have to go back to the unhealthy work habits we practiced before the pandemic. We can do better; we can be better. We can work hard and be kind to ourselves and others by taking care of ourselves and encouraging others to do the same. When lawyers are nice to themselves and work hard while taking time to rest and restore, they are more likely to be productive, engaged, and fulfilled—personally and professionally. 

KENDRA BRODIN is chief attorney development officer at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister LLP and a member of the MSBA and ABA Well-Being Committees. 

ALICE SHERREN is a senior claim attorney at Minnesota Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company and co-chair of the MSBA Well-Being Committee.

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