Unlocking the Power of Sleep to Thrive

By Kendra Brodin and Dr. Jagdeep Bijwadia
NALP Bulletin+
October 2023

"I'll sleep when I'm dead."

Over the years, I've heard this phrase slip from many law students’ and lawyers’ lips. Maybe it has even slipped from your own at some point.

But following this philosophy isn’t just bad for your mental and physical health. It could also wreak havoc on your long-term career performance and success.

Battling a Culture of Sleep Deprivation

In 2012, a study from the CDC's National Health Interview Survey made headlines revealing that lawyers were ranked as the second most sleep-deprived professionals in the U.S. They averaged a mere seven hours of sleep each night (which may sound like a lot compared with the lawyers, students, and colleagues you work with and support).

Considering the deep-rooted norms of sleep deprivation and demanding expectations within the legal profession, it's surprising that the figure wasn't even lower. While there isn’t data specific to those of us working alongside lawyers and law students, it's a logical leap to assume that most of us in the legal profession are ranking as low on sleep as practicing lawyers.

From the moment we start working in our positions in law schools or law firms, sleep often becomes a casualty. Whether we are burning the midnight oil to get ahead on a project or working nights and weekends to better support our lawyers or law students, sleep is frequently viewed as an adversary rather than an ally.

Unfortunately, the legal profession has cultivated a culture of sleep deprivation, a culture riskier than many realize. These norms can easily seep into your work to support the profession, making it harder to have well-being in your body, mind, and career.

Why We Struggle with Sleep

The legal profession is inherently demanding, with a constant influx of cases, deadlines, demands, and responsibilities. And lawyers aren't the only ones with these intense demands. The legal professionals working alongside them have overflowing to-do lists and job expectations as well. With all of these obligations on our minds, it can be hard to wind down, fall asleep, and stay asleep.

Inconsistent sleep schedules further exacerbate the issue. Trying to accommodate the chaotic schedules of lawyers or law students can disrupt regular sleep patterns, leading to erratic sleep schedules that confuse your body clock.

Working late into the night is another common culprit. Working in the legal field, often we stay up late to meet deadlines. However, this habit not only robs us of our sleep time, but also provides late-night exposure to the blue light from our devices, which can inhibit the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep.

Finally, our daytime habits play a significant role in our sleep health. Consuming excessive caffeine to stay alert during the day can interfere with our ability to fall asleep at night. Similarly, working on high-stress tasks late into the night can increase our stress levels, making it harder to relax and drift off to sleep.

In essence, the nature of our work, coupled with our lifestyle choices, often sets the stage for sleep struggles. But by recognizing these issues, we can begin to address them and pave the way for better sleep habits.

The Key to Higher Performance

Sleep is as fundamental to our overall well-being as a balanced diet and regular exercise. Sleep is not an optional luxury, but a non-negotiable necessity that fuels our health and productivity.

When we prioritize high-quality sleep, we set the stage for optimal health, well-being, and peak performance across all areas of our lives and practices. We become more focused, alert, and effective in our roles, capable of delivering our best work consistently.

However, the converse is also true. Lack of sufficient, high-quality sleep can sabotage our professional competence, undermine our mental health, make us irritable with colleagues, and elevate the risk of errors and costly or embarrassing mistakes. In other words, by skimping on sleep, we're unwittingly setting ourselves up for subpar performance and potential pitfalls.

Here's how adequate sleep can enhance your performance in your career and overall life:

Boosts focus and concentration: A well-rested mind is sharper and more focused, enabling you to pay attention to details and handle complex issues effectively.

Enhances alertness and problem-solving: Quality sleep equips you with heightened alertness and improved problem-solving skills, essential for navigating the challenges in your role.

Reduces memory loss: Insomnia often leads to memory loss. Adequate sleep can help prevent this, ensuring you remember crucial information about your projects and the lawyers or students you support.

Improves learning: Sleep plays a significant role in memory consolidation, which is crucial for learning new information and skills.

Reduces irritability and frustration: Lack of sleep can lead to increased irritability, frustration, and difficulty controlling behavior. Good sleep helps us maintain emotional balance which improves our communication, interpersonal skills, and workplace interactions.

Tips for Better Sleep

What can you do to make the benefits of sleep a reality for you? Here are some top strategies we recommend to clients and patients:

Set a regular sleep schedule: Consistency is key in sleep health. Strive to maintain a consistent sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time daily which will help regulate your body's internal clock.

Design a sleep-inducing environment: Ensure that your bedroom environment is dark, quiet, and cool (somewhere between 66 to 70 degrees.) Consider putting up blackout curtains and using white noise or earplugs to block out sounds that could keep you from sleeping deeply.

Address your anxieties: Attempt to settle any concerns or worries you may have prior to bedtime. Stress management techniques such as yoga, journaling, meditation, or breathwork can help.

Avoid stimulants: Nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol often interfere with sleep. Avoid these substances close to your bedtime so they do not disrupt your sleep cycle. Try to cut off your caffeine intake at least eight hours before you plan to go to bed.

Get active: Regular physical activity can help you fall asleep faster and deepen your sleep. However, try not to exercise too close to bedtime as it might interfere with your sleep. Wrap up your exercise at least two hours before bedtime.

Be a role model: As an influencer to those on your teams, you can play a part in shifting the culture around sleep. Show your colleagues and the lawyers and law students you support, that sleep is important through your words and your actions.

A Well-rested You Is a Better You

In the busy world of law, sleep often gets sidelined, viewed as a barrier to success rather than a necessity. However, the evidence is unequivocal: getting the right amount of high-quality sleep is vital for optimal performance, mental health, and overall well-being.

As legal professionals, we owe it to ourselves, those we support, and our profession to prioritize sleep. It's time to replace the "I'll sleep when I'm dead" mantra with a more sustainable approach that recognizes sleep as an essential part of our toolkit for professional success and overall well-being.

Changing the culture of sleep deprivation in the legal field starts with each of us. Let's commit to prioritizing sleep, implementing the strategies outlined above, and advocating for a healthier view of sleep as a critical way to enhance performance and well-being for ourselves and those around us.

Remember, a well-rested you is a better you in so many ways. So tonight, close your laptop a little earlier, tuck your phone away, and give your body and mind the rest they need. You'll not only wake up refreshed, but also be ready to bring your best to work.

Kendra Brodin, Esq., MSW (kendra@ esquirewell.com) is the founder and CEO of EsquireWell and a speaker, consultant, and coach on building well-being, emotional intelligence, and sustainable success in the legal profession. Kendra is Vice-Chair of the NALP Well-Being Circles.

Dr. Jagdeep Bijwadia, MD, MBA (jbijwadia@ sleepmedrx.com) is board certified in internal, pulmonary, and sleep medicine and is the founder of SleepMedRX. Dr Bijwadia has been named "Top Doc" locally and nationally.

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