Simone Biles and Getting to No

Earlier this week, Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history just said no to continuing in the team gymnastics competition and participating in the individual all-around at the Tokyo Olympics, citing mental health concerns.  Not surprisingly, Biles’ raving fans supported her decision – and to their credit, most commentators have as well — applauding her courage in setting limits for herself and refusing to risk serious physical injury by competing because she wasn’t at her best mentally.

Biles’ brave decision to take a timeout hasn’t gone unnoticed amongst lawyers.  After all, most lawyers operate daily under severe mental stress resulting from heavy caseloads, demanding clients, contentious litigation, cruel bosses and obnoxious opposing counsel.  Depression is not uncommon too, either due to feelings of hopelessness and lack of control over outcomes, or for many solos and smalls, financial uncertainty of getting clients to pay or finding the next case.  It’s no surprise that the rate of suicides amongst lawyers is five times higher than that of the general population.  Biles’ example therefore, serves as a wakeup call to lawyers to step away before they hurt themselves.

With mental health concerns rife and widely recognized in the legal profession, the real question for lawyers isn’t whether to say no but rather how to do it.  Many lawyers don’t feel as if they have the same ability as Biles did to take a break.  Lawyers just starting out and drawing in debt believe that if they leave that biglaw job where they’re desperately unhappy that they may never find another position to pay off those six-figure loans.  Meanwhile, many solo and small firm lawyers won’t take even a two-week vacation let alone a two-month sabbatical for fear that the work will never return or word will get around the community that they’re slackers.  Other lawyers will hang on in a bruising litigation with a demanding client because of the self-perceived risk of a grievance or malpractice action if they pull out.

We can’t all be the equivalent of Simone Biles of the legal profession.  But Simone Biles wasn’t always the GOAT either.  Just as Simone Biles built a career, relationships and a reputation that enabled her to just say no when it really mattered, solo and small firm lawyers can do the same.  Here are a couple of suggestions:

1. Build a team What most commentators overlook in discussing Biles’ withdrawal is that she wasn’t a solo athlete, but part of a team.  And a really strong one at that.   So Biles could step away without a severe consequence (such as the United States not being able to compete at all) because she had rockstar teammates who would carry on in her absence.  Solo and small firm lawyers should likewise build a team to back them up when they can’t go on. It doesn’t have to be a formal team of employees and staff on payroll either.  You can build relationships with other lawyers’ to take over each others’ cases or “babysit” matters while you take a break. Or hire a virtual assistant or an answering service who can handle small matters that drive you crazy. A strong team will step up when you need to step away.

2. Build relationships When Simone Biles withdrew, she was surrounded by support because of relationships she built either through personal connections or just going the extra mile.   Her teammates – who she has been loyally cheering on — didn’t begrudge her departure, nor did her fans who so admire Biles for going the extra mile for her entire career that they were glad to be able to have her back.  If you show your clients that you are willing to do your best for them, they’ll support you if and when you need that break.

3. Develop other streams of income  It’s much easier to step away when you don’t have to worry about money.  If you haven’t been able to put aside some “mad money” (virtually impossible these days with student loan payments and saving for kids’ colleges and retirement), then consider developing different streams of revenue including passive income that will continue to flow through the door even if you’re off on a beach or taking a two week break to binge on Netflix.  

4. Become the best in the world When you’re the best or the only in the world, people will wait to seek you out.  (Remember, to be best, just define your universe).  If you’re the best Silicon Valley lawyer for baby-boomer startups or the only virtual firm serving families in Jacksonville, Florida, clients will wait out your respite.  After all, when you have a line of people saying yes to services, you can afford to say no.

For more Olympics inspiration:

Biglaw Is Designed By Men…So Why Not Design Your Own Firm?

Stop Playing It Safe: Just Screw It and Start Your Own Law Firm —