Thoughts on preparing for, and recovering from, personal setbacks while working in BigLaw
Earlier this year, Mrs. A | E tore her ACL in a skiing accident. What was supposed to be a fun trip to Big Sky and Yellowstone quickly turned into a nightmare: she couldn’t walk unassisted, would need to undergo ACL reconstructive surgery, and would spend the rest of the year doing physical therapy to regain her range of motion. The intense fear she experienced in the first few days following the injury was exacerbated by work worries—the injury happened just as she was entering the busiest phase of the biggest closing of her career.
But what looked like a major problem turned out to be no problem at all. Mrs. A | E soon discovered that she was well equipped to handle the crisis. In this post, she talks about her experience dealing with the injury during a particularly busy stretch, and how to prepare for personal setbacks while working in BigLaw.
Thanks to a decade of aggressively saving and investing the majority of my BigLaw income, I had far more options than I initially realized
Needless to say, there are far worse setbacks in life than a torn ACL. Still, a torn ACL is one of the most dreaded injuries in sports. For competitive athletes, an ACL injury can alter, or sometimes even end, a career. Successful rehabs typically take about a year and require a relentless commitment to hours of daily physical therapy. Even for a non-athlete like me, the injury meant that my life was instantly upended: Mr. A | E and I cancelled all of our plans for the foreseeable future, the surgery took away my mobility and independence, and my daily routine became one of full-time, tedious range-of-motion exercises. What’s more, the injury happened about 3 months before the biggest closing of my BigLaw career. Talk about timing!
BigLaw is stressful as is, but combine it with a significant personal setback, and you have the potential for a complete disaster scenario.
In the first few days following my injury, I was paralyzed with fear when I tried to think about how I could possibly manage months of intense rehab at the same time as a massive closing. I was so overwhelmed by everything, I could barely stop crying.
But once the initial shock wore off, I came to realize that I actually had a lot of options. Thanks to a decade of aggressive savings, we had a lot of financial flexibility in terms of how to move forward. If the concurrent closing and rehab schedule proved to be too much, I could go on a dramatically reduced hours schedule for a year or more without having to worry about the pay cut. I even had the option of taking an extended unpaid leave to commit myself to PT full time, Tom Brady style. This remained viable even though Mr. A | E had retired from BigLaw only a few months before my injury, and was not making any income. Reflecting on these possibilities, I could breathe again. I wasn’t trapped.
Probably the greatest gift that BigLaw can offer to reflective and determined attorneys is the ability to attain financial independence (or their preferred financial milestone). Typically, people have no choice but to continue working through whatever life throws at them—the mortgage payment, after all, always comes due. Dutiful savers, however, are presented with alternative options. And the blessing of the BigLaw salary scale is that saving your way into these alternative options is a question of years rather than decades.
There is much that happens in life that is outside of our control. Your investment portfolio won’t prevent setbacks, but it can cushion the blow by providing you with a wider array of options to weather crises more easily.
My injury demonstrated to me the significance of developing boundary-setting skills before you need them
Ultimately, I decided against going on an extended leave, though I did take some time off before returning to my normal flexible schedule. I wanted to get back to work, in part, because I needed a mental escape from my (temporary) physical limitations. Plus, I quite enjoy my job, so my strong preference was to find a way to see my closing through.
But the biggest reason that I decided to return to work pretty quickly after my surgery was because I was confident in my boundary-setting skills—I knew that I could successfully mould my work schedule (which was important to me) around my physically grueling and time-intensive rehab schedule (which was more important to me).
One problem that many BigLaw attorneys have with boundaries is that they don’t put in the effort to develop boundary-setting skills until it’s too late (if ever). Learning how to set boundaries takes a lot of effort and commitment. For me, it also involved plenty of trial and error over a number of years. If you wait until you desperately need a boundary in order to set one, the experience is likely to be much more challenging. Not to mention, you’re not giving yourself a lot of room for error.
If I hadn’t already developed strong boundary-setting skills before my injury, then managing my closing in conjunction with my recovery would have been near impossible. The most successful rehabilitation outcomes depended on my ability to commit 4-5 hours to PT exercises each day, throughout the day. Imagine trying to learn—for the first time—how to prioritize my own needs at a time when I expected to be at my busiest and when my team most depended on me. That would have been a disaster. It would likely have resulted in me skipping PT to deal with urgent emails and, consequently, jeopardizing my recovery. But since I already knew how to advocate for myself, it turned out that working the closing while rehabbing my knee wasn’t even particularly difficult. I knew exactly what to do.
We’ve long believed in the necessity—and feasibility—of setting firm but fair BigLaw boundaries. Boundaries are a condition precedent for an enjoyable BigLaw experience. Crafting firm but fair boundaries was also our primary strategy for lasting long enough in BigLaw to hit our savings goals. While setbacks can often make BigLaw more challenging, you can better prepare yourself by practicing the skills you will need before the do-or-die moment arrives.
If you’re fearful of taking that first step towards setting boundaries, remember this: it’s usually not the boundaries that jeopardize your career—rather it’s a lack of boundaries that pushes most associates out the door.
To ensure I had my priorities straight, I used the regret minimization framework
Even with honed boundary-setting skills, the prospect of taking 4-5 hours off in the middle of the work day—every single day and in the midst of a hectic closing—seemed daunting. At the very outset there were times when I felt like there will be no way I can pull it off.
In situations like this where I want to make sure I am intentional rather than making sub-optimal life choices out of fear, peer pressure, inertia or other factors, I like to use the so-called regret minimization framework. It’s a simple exercise whereby you try to imagine what actions and/or inactions you are likely to regret in 10 years, and then you structure your present in a way to ensure that you live with fewer regrets in the future.
There are certain actions—such as saving, exercising and spending time with loved ones—that practically no one is going to regret. And yet as obvious as this is, in the present, many BigLaw attorneys live paycheck to paycheck, skip exercising and neglect important personal relationships for the sake of work even though they are virtually guaranteed to regret these choices in the future. The reason for this is that sub-optimal life choices are often not an intentional course of action, but rather a sign that we’re letting life happen to us instead of making pro-active decisions about what we want our life to look like.
This is why I find the regret minimization exercise very valuable. In my case, I tried to imagine how I would feel 10 years from now if I skipped some PT appointments in the all-important first few months of recovery that are critical to regaining full range of motion. It was very clear that future me would be devastated to have limited athletic ability, jeopardizing one of the most important things to me—the ability to explore and be active in the outdoors. That is not the life I wanted for myself.
So, to ensure that I stick with PT and don’t spend the rest of my life regretting prioritizing work over recovery, I followed the prevailing time-management wisdom:
I scheduled the things that are most important to me—my PT appointments—first, and then organized all work and other obligations around my rehab schedule. From my decade in BigLaw, I knew that waiting for the ‘right time’ to do something of personal significance is usually a recipe for disaster. The schedule you actually live by is a reflection of your true priorities, so I filled my schedule with PT.
The allies and goodwill I had developed over the years were instrumental in helping me successfully navigate my recovery at a particularly busy time at work
Even when you have the financial means and boundary-setting skills to weather crises, it’s still critical to have allies at work who will help you through difficult times. Relationships and goodwill take time to build—typically involving doing good work for good people over a period of time—so the earlier you start, the better.
In my case, I had a great team of partners and associates who supported me in making adjustments to my role to accommodate my intensive PT schedule. With many hours of PT and various other appointments scattered throughout the day, my work schedule was going to need to be flexible enough to accommodate these rehab-critical obligations. Not only were my partners supportive of whatever accommodations I needed, but they even assured me at the outset that they would be happy for me to go on a longer medical leave if I wanted to. Even though I decided against this option, the understanding and support meant the world.
Needless to say, these relationships weren’t built overnight. Cultivating the goodwill that helped me through my injury and rehab was a long but necessary process. In my view, happiness and longevity in BigLaw depend far more on who you surround yourself with than on the actual work you’re doing. Find good people who understand and support your goals, and you’ve hit the BigLaw jackpot.
Reflecting back, most of what best prepared me to deal with my injury were all things I had started doing long before I tore my ACL.
Because setbacks have a tendency to make us feel trapped, preparing for setbacks is ultimately about creating job flexibility. In my case, I achieved flexibility by choosing to save rather than spend, learning how to set boundaries and building goodwill.
Even beyond unexpected setbacks, creating flexibility at work is also helpful when dealing with normal life changes that typically come with plenty of advance notice, like becoming a parent. Imagine a busy, partner-track senior associate who never quite figured out how to stand up for herself, who is now returning from maternity leave overwhelmed by her new responsibilities. She could barely manage the demands of the job when she didn’t have a child—how on earth is she supposed to balance both? Most BigLaw associates who find themselves in this position struggle tremendously.
This is because the moment when a personal setback strikes or a major responsibility arises is a particularly overwhelming and stressful time to learn about personal finance or figure out how to set boundaries. So don’t wait. It has been said: the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.