Are You a Workaholic?

We all know someone we’d characterize as a workaholic. You know the type: always at work, constantly checking the mobile device for emails, never taking (or canceling) vacations, billing up a storm on weekends.

Our perception is a bit skewed, though.

We’re used to comparing attorneys to other attorneys, and singling out only those who are at the most extreme end of the spectrum.  But if we compare attorneys to others outside the legal profession, it’s eerily clear that the average attorney is a workaholic.

Check out this description of workaholic burnout from Psychology Today:

Burnout is not a simple result of long hours. The cynicism, depression, and lethargy of burnout can occur when you're not in control of how you carry out your job, when you're working toward goals that don't resonate with you, and when you lack social support.

Let’s focus on the following components:  long hours + not being in control of how you carry out your job.

Most of us don’t set out to become workaholics. And many of us hate the fact that we’ve turned into a worker bee on steroids. But I firmly believe that individual attorneys are not to blame for this phenomenon.

I blame the attorney workaholic epidemic on the almighty billable hour.

Oh, our love-hate relationship with the billable hour. Wait, love? Yes, love. Allow me to explain.

Let me know if this sounds familiar: I work so much better when I’m under pressure or have a looming deadline.

I think every attorney I know (including myself) has uttered this sentiment at one time or another. And it’s an indicator of an underlying addiction to adrenaline.

I know, it seems strange to think of attorneys as adrenaline junkies, but take a step back and consider the following scenario: You’ve got a big trial coming up and have been preparing for weeks if not months. Long hours, weekends in the office, billable hours upon billable hours. Just look at all those glorious billable hours you’ve racked up!

Even if you slept for a week (or three) after the trial, you’d still be way ahead of your hourly target for the year. But why take a break? Why not log even more hours and push for that bonus? Or demonstrate that you’re more dedicated than the associate behind door number two?

Because only a workaholic would think those options are acceptable. That’s why.

It becomes an addictive cycle of riding the adrenaline high and then seeking out the next one. For example, when your billable hours are lower than usual, do you kick back and recharge or take some much needed vacation time?

I’m willing to bet the standard reaction is high anxiety.

Like an addict looking for the next high, you’re fretting about where your next assignment is going to come from, why it hasn’t come sooner and when the powers-that-be are going to sit you down to talk about your “crappy” performance because there is no other explanation for why you aren't billing 12 hour days right now.

Bat. Shit. Crazy.

But I reiterate, this is NOT. YOUR. FAULT.

You’ve been trained to measure your worth by your billable hour totals. After all, this is how managers determine your salary and trajectory at the firm.

High billables:  Give Jones the predetermined merit bonus and lock-step salary bump, and maybe tease her with the idea of partner track to keep performance up.

Low billables:  Scare the bejeezus out of Clark, and let him believe he’ll be lucky to be kept on as an off-track associate.

Believing you’re only as valuable as your billable hours would make anyone a workaholic.

How do we break free of this billable hour-fueled adrenaline addiction?

Short of revolutionizing the way attorneys charge clients and award compensation (both of which I wholeheartedly support), the intervention needs to come from yourself.

You know that your worth is not really determined by your billable hours. You know it’s just a lazy metric used by management to measure your output. You also know you bring so much additional value to your organization.

More importantly, you understand that outside your office doors, billable hours are worthless. Your friends, family and kids don’t care how much you billed last year. And your significant other isn’t going to enjoy that bonus you earn nearly as much as s/he will enjoy having a conversation that doesn’t end with you falling asleep mid-sentence.

You know all this to be true -- do you have the courage to act on your knowledge?

In the absence of the billable hour, would your workaholic tendencies (and hopefully you) be more likely to take a vacation? For those of you that have found a way to mitigate the pressures of billable hours, how did you do it?