The Loneliness Of The Work-From-Home Lawyer
By Alexis Lamb • October 04, 2017•Writers in Residence, Issues, Balancing Private and Professional Life
We live in an age of unlimited digital connectivity. Via social media, we can
stalk open a dialog with high school classmates, former flames, college roommates, and, even strangers.
10 years ago, when I moved from New York to Hong Kong, Skype was my lifeline into my world back in the States. The tech was easy enough for my parents to use. I helped my then-best friend plan a wedding in real-time despite the vastness of the Pacific Ocean between us. My BlackBerryMessenger (remember that!) and WhatsApp group chats included friends on multiple continents and time zones.
From a professional standpoint we are likewise connected. I have devoted a blog - The No-Pants Life - to location independence as a viable professional and personal lifestyle. I couldn't make a case for flexible workplaces over the traditional alternative if we didn't have Skype, GChat, Slack, FaceTime, Google Drive, or other tech platforms over which we can connect. Our offices are wherever we are if we have our laptops and a robust Wi-Fi connection.
Despite the ubiquity of social media and apps that claim to foster relationships, one in five Americans suffers from persistent loneliness. The number of people with zero close friends has tripled since 1985, according to the General Social Survey. This same survey also noted that 'Zero' was the most common response when people were asked how many confidants they have.
There is evidence that loneliness is contagious - a non-lonely person may experience enhanced feelings of loneliness when exposed to lonely people. Why? A 2009 study using data collected from 5,000 people and their children found that lonely people are less able to pick up on positive social stimuli, like social interest or romantic attraction. Non-lonely people interpret this as disinterest, and their loneliness level increases.
Loneliness is also bad for you. A 2014 study found that social isolation can increase your chance of premature death by up to 14%, about twice the risk of early death from obesity.
But what's this got to do with being a lawyer, let alone one who works from home?
Telecommuting, for all its benefits, reduces the water-cooler elements of workplace socialization. I met one of my closest friends on my first day of work at Linklaters in Hong Kong (she now lives in Medellin, and we've managed to keep in touch via WhatsApp). People have met their spouses at work, or through other professional connections.
This doesn't mean that people who work in a physical office can't feel lonely. When was the last time you stepped away from staring at your computer screen to share something personal with one of your co-workers?
Maintenance of a robust social network is even more important for lawyers. Instead of adding more free hours to a lawyer's day, technology has only decreased the patience of clients, who demand near instantaneous turnaround for work product.
Lawyers top the charts for a variety of mental illnesses. We are 3.8 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers, with chronic stress being identified as a major trigger for depression. In a 2014 study, lawyers ranked 4th with respect to suicides by profession. Lawyers from at least three major BigLaw firms committed suicide after being laid off in 2009's Great Recession.
The legal profession is also plagued by addiction issues. Earlier this year, the New York Times chronicled the death of a high-powered Silicon Valley attorney who succumbed to a bacterial infection common to IV drug users. Most heartbreakingly, the last call recorded in his mobile phone was reportedly for work.
How To Create Connection In The Workplace?
Examine your existing network. Does it suffer from mile-wide-inch-deep syndrome? What about your colleagues or business partners? Do you feel like your contributions are valued? Do you feel comfortable enough to express your authentic identity (within bounds of professionalism) to your colleagues? If you are in a supervisory position, how can you foster this connection between your team members?
Encourage Employees To Socialize. This isn't as simple as offering regular happy hours or team-building retreats. Does your workplace culture support connection without forcing socialization or openness (i.e. open doors required)? Do you feel comfortable "venting" to anyone in your workspace without fear of repurcussions? For remote employees, do you feel comfortable calling up a colleague, in lieu of an impromptu office visit, for a random chat?
Learn About Your Colleagues' Personal Lives Without Judgment. We are more productive and committed employees when we are able to show our authentic selves in the office. Each of us are individuals with full lives - we are marathon runners, Burning Man attendees, veterans, aspiring novelists, tattoo enthusiasts, Republicans - and a workspace (virtual or no) should be a safe space for all.
When I think of lonely periods in my life, I'm drawn back to the period of my life from 2009 to 2011, when I started being a remote employee. I was a legal recruiter in Hong Kong, freshly laid off from my BigLaw job. Despite being surrounded by all manner of work-hard-play-hard social stimuli, expat life can be profoundly lonely.
Being an expat exposes you to levels of transience not seen since college or graduate school. Goodbye parties are more common than birthdays. It's not unusual for people to have to replenish their friendship circles every few years. That is, if they live abroad long enough.
Once, I organized a semi-impromptu drinks session before going back to the States for Christmas. No one came. Many cancelled, citing last-minute work dropping onto their heads (not uncommon for the law/finance set). And some just didn't bother to show up. I spent the entirety of the evening at the bar by myself in a WhatsApp conversation with a friend in New York. Ultimately, this chronic lack of connection led me to leave the expat life and move back to the States.
Lawyers often feel pressure to wear their exhaustion like a badge of honor. High billables become a pissing-contest-style status symbol. What doesn't kill us doesn't make us stronger.
Alexis Lamb is a recovering lawyer who served time as a transactions associate in the New York office of O'Melveny & Myers and the Hong Kong office of Linklaters. She is currently Director of Talent at Bliss Lawyers.
Her work has appeared in online and print publications including Inside, the NYSBA Corporate Counsel Section’s publication, and Thought Catalog; and her fiction has appeared in Five2One Magazine: The Sideshow.
Connect with Alexis at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexislambesq/
Visit The No-Pants Life, Ms Lamb's blog on location-independent careers and lifestyles here.
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