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Quiet Quitting and the Legal Profession

Scheff Shares

Quiet Quitting and the Legal Profession

Quiet Quitting is a term that has cropped up recently. At its core, quiet quitting signifies an individual’s commitment to work/life balance, but to me it’s more than that. I was part of a conversation recently where we were discussing how priorities had shifted amongst workers. The older generations operated for most of their careers with the following priorities, in this order: 1. their job; 2. their families/friends; 3. themselves; but then found themselves reflecting later in their careers on their early career priorities and they wished they’d have flipped them. The way I see it, that’s what quiet quitting does, it flips these priorities on their head so that the worker’s priorities are, in this order: 1. themselves 2. their family/friends 3. their job.

Quiet Quitting is also a rejection of always saying yes; always agreeing to do more; and always ending up doing tasks or responsibilities that are unpaid or are outside of the job description. It’s a rejection of the notion that the only way to advance in a career is to do these things and be boundary-less.

How does this transfer into the legal profession? I think the legal profession is a profession which perpetuates the idea that in order to be a successful lawyer, you always need to be doing more. That you need to be giving more of yourself and more of your time. That you always need to be focused on showing that you’re always going to go the extra mile for the firm and for the client.

When applied to the legal profession, quiet quitting is a complete rejection of this idea.

That’s not to say that this is a clear cut issue. There are extremes on both sides of the spectrum and not everything is an absolute – it can be something other than “always” and “never”. Should you always refuse to take on an extra task or volunteer for something that you’re not getting paid for? Should you never work weekends? Should you never or always go the extra mile for a client? The answer to these questions is no. Operating with absolutes is neither practical nor feasible.

While quiet quitting is about work/life balance, balance looks different for everyone and can change as you enter different phases of your life.

Balance is not 50/50, it is whatever split works best for you in your life and personal circumstances.

For some, taking on extra tasks, volunteering, and doing more is balanced for them. For others, going to work at their start time, performing the tasks they are required to perform, and leaving work at their end time is balanced for them. Therefore, everyone’s version of quiet quitting will look different. 

A key component of being able to embrace quiet quitting is knowing how to set boundaries. This is extremely difficult for a lot of people and in particular, for lawyers. For some, always giving more and putting others first is a part of their identity. It’s often deeply ingrained in them, and these are the people that are most prone to burning out (and likely the most in need of quiet quitting).

What can that look like? The “quitting” part of quiet quitting is a misnomer. You’re not quitting your job nor are you trying to silently encourage your employer to fire you; but what you are quitting is the idea that you are meant to dedicate all of yourself to your job and that your job is the most important priority in your life.

You need to be the most important priority in your life. No matter how much you love your job or how much your employer values you; the sad reality is that if something were to happen to you, someone will be there to replace you. No job is worth forfeiting the people or things in life that make it worth living.

You cannot operate at your optimal level if you are not taking care of you first. If you don’t make yourself a priority, eventually your body will make that choice for you – likely at a very inopportune time. Besides, the graveyard is full enough of irreplaceable people.

While it sounds backwards, the more time I put in to making sure that I’m looking after me, the more capacity I have. The more capacity that I have, the more likely it is that I’ll be able to operate at my optimal level.

I’ll be the first to admit, putting myself first isn’t easy. It’s especially difficult because we have been taught to believe that putting ourselves first is selfish.

In some cases, we’ve actually glorified and romanticized the idea of putting ourselves last because we praise the person who can take care of everyone and everything all of the time.

We strive to be that person: the person who can juggle it all. What we don’t see is how poorly that person is juggling themselves and what’s going on internally. They likely don’t have “it” as together as it seems.

It’s not somewhere I got to quickly or easily. It took many years of self-growth and reflection. Many years of learning to set boundaries. Many years of working on my self-confidence and coming into the person I was meant to be. I needed to become extremely in tune with myself. I know how many files and volunteer commitments I can manage before I’m overwhelmed. I know what support I need and who I need it from. I know what self-care tasks I need to perform and when. And I know when I need to say no to a trip and when I need a day at home.

The kicker is that knowing and doing are two different things. We can know a lot of things but unless we’re willing to actually put them into practice, it’s unlikely to get us anywhere.

Putting yourself first can look different in different contexts. In the workplace, that can look like taking the steps you need in order to look after your mental and physical health as well as taking the steps needed to ensure you’re going to be successful. Ways that I put myself first as an articling student were to ask about deadlines as soon as I received a task and when needed, I was honest when I wasn’t able to deliver within the timeline expected. I actively tried out practice management strategies; e-mail management strategies; file management strategies; and talked to anyone that I could in order to hear about different styles. I did this because I knew I needed to be organized and on top of my files and responsibilities in order to be my optimal self.

Some ways that I put myself first now as a third-year associate:

  • I block out days or couple of hour blocks in my calendar. I use these for many purposes – some for ensuring uninterrupted work time; some for when I have a deadline and need the days leading up to prepare; and some for the days where I’m not feeling up to seeing clients.
  • I have a very organized day planner that I keep track of everything in (tasks on each file as well as volunteer commitments; deadlines; follow ups; and appointments) – I’d highly recommend Artful Agenda. It is as if a physical day planner and an electronic calendar had a baby (my referral code is RC579671 if you decide to check it out!).
  • I generally don’t work weekends or weekdays after 6:30pm.
  • I don’t receive e-mail notifications on my phone on the weekend until Sunday afternoon or between 8:00pm and 6:30am on weekdays.
  • I don’t give clients my cellphone number.
  • I keep food in my office and fridge to ensure I always have something to eat.
  • I keep my yoga mat in my office and take stretching breaks.
  • I am honest about my capacity (with my clients and my colleagues).
  • I am honest about when I am feeling overwhelmed.
  • I don’t fill my weekends with out of town activities and when I can’t avoid it, I try to have at least one weekend morning where I wake up in my own bed.

These are some of the ways you can put yourself first. Everyone is different and has different forces at play in their lives. Not all of these are possible in every workplace; but this is what works for me. I’m not perfect and I’m not always the best at taking my own advice but I find that when I’m feeling overwhelmed or out of control; returning to this list of things grounds me and gets me back on track.

About the Author

Charlene Scheffelmair is a partner with Davidson & Williams LLP in Lethbridge, Alberta. She practices primarily in the areas of corporate and commercial law; residential and commercial real estate; estate administration and planning; and foreclosures.

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