From the Multnomah Lawyer: Ask the Expert - Overcommitted with Extracurriculars

Dear Expert,
Right after I passed the Bar I got involved with a lot of organizations so I could expand my network and gain relevant experience. Now that my practice is growing, I am having a hard time keeping up with all my commitments, and I’m feeling overwhelmed. I don’t want to let anyone down, but I’m having a really hard time giving my all. 
Overcommitted with Extracurriculars

Dear Overcommitted,
When you are just starting out in your legal career it can be tempting to join every organization, committee, or even board that comes your way. These are all important ways to build your legal network, figure out which areas of law interest you the most, and give back to your community. Often, each individual commitment seems small enough that it won’t get in the way of the rest of your life, but when you add them all together they can become overwhelming. Remember, you can only be a good attorney and a good colleague if you have the mental energy to devote to your work and your obligations, and if you are taking the time to care for yourself as well. It is possible to gracefully and professionally end some of your obligations, but first you need to figure out which ones to keep.

Now that you have a job and a legal field to focus on, consider which organizations are relevant to your professional development. Maybe you were considering jobs in employment law and in family law, so you joined networking groups related to both. Now that you have settled on family law as your practice area, is a group of employment lawyers the best place for you to spend your limited time and energy? Probably not, unless you are thinking about switching gears in the near future.

You also want to think about your passions and where you want to make a difference. If working toward better mental health awareness in the legal community energizes you, stay on the quality of life committee you joined, but consider dropping the CLE planning committee. If you have joined the board of an organization, think about how important that organization’s mission really is to you.

Undoubtedly, it is doing good work, but if it isn’t the work you feel passionately about, you aren’t going to be motivated to participate fully, and that won’t be beneficial to you or to the organization. Finally, consider which commitments you actually enjoy the most. Maybe you joined a trial lawyers group and ended up practicing transactional law, but darned if those trial lawyers haven’t become your best friends in the meantime. You don’t want to lose those connections, or the opportunity to do something you enjoy in a professional context.

Once you have narrowed down your list to obligations you enjoy the most, are the most relevant to you, and will benefit you the most, you still might have to make some hard decisions to cut your list down to a reasonable size. Consider your specific obligations in each of the groups. Is there a way to cut back so you can stay involved but without as much responsibility? If you planned five CLEs this year, maybe next year you can commit to only doing two. For the specialty bar you joined, maybe you decide you can help plan the dinner next year, but not the conference.

Now comes the hard part: following through on the decisions you made. Saying no to future obligations might be a little easier (for some of us) than getting out of current ones. Either way, the best thing to do is be honest about it. Sit down with the chair of the committee you need to resign from, or the other members of the small nonprofit board you joined, and be direct about what is going on. It’s okay to tell them that you have taken on too many commitments and you can no longer be an effective member of the group. In most cases, they will understand, support you, and appreciate your honesty. Give them a heads up and detach gracefully. If you promised you would secure a venue for next month’s happy hour, do that, but make it the last thing you do. This is the perfect opportunity to practice the “no, but…” skills you will need to maintain your sanity going forward. You don’t have the capacity to serve on the board, but you would love to volunteer at their next clinic. You can’t stay on the planning committee, but your firm can sponsor the next event.

It’s okay to say no, and it’s okay to quit some things. It is also possible to do it in a way that maintains the connections you have made and the good will you have built. Being honest about how overwhelmed you feel sounds scary, but it’s probably the best thing you can do. Most people appreciate it when you open up to them, and you might even strengthen some of those connections in the process. Most importantly, remember that you can only benefit an organization if you actually have energy to bring to your commitments. Focus on a few projects that ignite your passion, and you will be able to benefit the organization, and yourself, that much more.

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