The Healthy Lawyer: Stress Management
You’ve already been at the office ten hours. The senior partner you’re working with is on your case about a research memo you haven’t even had a chance to begin. That difficult client who insists on calling several times a week to complain about everything under the sun is at it again. Oh, and you’ve got a brief due tomorrow that you have no idea how you’re going to get finished on time. You’re exhausted and overwhelmed and it’s only Monday. Sound familiar?
There’s no way around it: being a lawyer is stressful. Every job can be stressful at times, and the adversarial nature of law practice arguably makes it one of the more stressful professions. Whether private law firm, government agency, large or small firm, things can get hairy at times. Everyone feels overwhelmed, overworked and underappreciated at times. With so many responsibilities vying for your attention, it’s sometimes hard to remember to check in and take the time to take care of yourself. I have to admit, I even got a little stressed out thinking about writing this article on stress! Too much stress and a lack of stress management techniques can make daily tasks seem overwhelming, and can even be paralyzing at the exact moment when action is most needed.
Sources of Stress
There are so many sources of stress for an attorney, where to even begin? The work itself can be difficult and demanding. And there’s lot of it. And it never ends. The deadlines are constant, and the hours long. Billable hours requirements are inescapable at many law firms. There just never seems to be enough time to get everything done. Competition and office politics are other sources of stress. And let’s not get started on all the people you encounter at work that add an extra layer of stress to the whole mix. Demanding clients, partners, colleagues, opposing counsel, judges - the list goes on and on.
Female lawyers face their own particular set of challenges. Even with the changing role of women in the workplace, female lawyers still have tremendous responsibilities at work and at home. Women still shoulder most of the domestic chores and childcare duties, which is an additional stressor to an already stressed out attorney.
Consequences of Stress
Bottling up stress and not properly dealing with it is bound to bite you in the behind sooner or later. Stress can take an emotional and physical toll. It can lead to depression, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness. Chronic stress can cause muscle aches, upset stomach, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system. It can lead to burnout and poor job performance. Problems associated with stress at work often find a way of spilling over and affecting your family relationships or personal life. Unfortunately, it can also lead to substance abuse problems.
Five Stress Management Techniques
There are a lot of different ways people deal with work stress, and the following list is by no means exhaustive. These tips have proven useful for me, and I hope they will be for you too. They’re simple and rely on common sense but can still be a challenge to follow. Sometimes the hardest things to do are the simplest and most obvious.
If you feel like your problems are more than you can handle on your own, however, seek professional help. None of these tips are meant to substitute for psychological or medical advice. The American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs has the National Helpline for Lawyers: 1-866-LAW-LAPS. It also has a directory of Lawyer Assistance Programs by state available here.
1. Time Management
A lot of stress management is time management. Sometimes it’s easier to keep busy with a task that is low priority than to tackle an onerous yet important project that really needs your attention. Just because you’re keeping busy doesn’t mean you’re being productive. Do you really need to read that bar journal article right now instead of draft that complaint? Sometimes we busy ourselves with small tasks just to avoid doing bigger ones.
It’s important to put first things first.[i] Prioritize tasks according to importance, deadlines, and amount of work involved. For example, if you have a dispositive motion due next week that you know is going to take hours to complete, and a research memo due this week that you can probably hammer out in a few hours, perhaps it’s better to get started on that motion today.
One of the best ways to prioritize is to make a list. I love making lists. The problem is, sometimes I make so many lists, I need a master list to keep track of all my lists! After a lot of trial and error, I’ve managed to whittle it down to two lists. One list is a long-term/monthly overview that lists all assignments and projects by due date in very general terms. After making a general list of big projects and cases and figuring out their priority, the next thing is to plan out actionable steps. This is where the second list comes in.
The second list is a working ‘to-do’ list that I refer to every day and revise on a weekly basis. On this working list, I break down each project into smaller tasks. It helps make a large task more manageable and also gives me an idea of how long the entire project will take. Also, if you set deadlines for each step it makes a large assignment manageable and helps avoid that late night freak-out.
I’ve found this works better for me than a daily to-do list broken down by hour. There are always things that pop up unexpectedly each day that you need to allow flexibility in your schedule to deal with. For that reason, a tightly scheduled list is hard to follow. Additionally, it can be a little demoralizing when, at the end of the day, you are left with items you weren’t able to cross off your list because you were busy with something else or one task ended up taking longer than expected to complete.
Of course, you need a calendar, whether paper or electronic, to keep track of appointments, hearings, meetings, and all other scheduled events. The rest of your time, however, is up to you to decide how to spend. Review and revise your monthly priority list and your working to-do list regularly so that you still get done what needs to get done.
2. Be Aware of Your Thoughts and Emotions
Lawyers are praised for being logical, reasonable, analytical and detached. These same traits, however, can leave some lawyers out of touch with their own emotions. If you can’t figure out what you’re feeling, you can’t figure out how to make yourself feel better. In stressful situations, a stream of negative thoughts may be running through your head without you really even being aware of it.
Slow down and be an observer of your thoughts and emotions. Allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling, but also do a reality check. Is this fear reasonable? Are you really going to get fired? Are you really going to lose that client? Is it really true that there’s NO way you’re going to make that deadline? How do you know you’re going to lose that hearing? Do you really have NO idea what you’re doing?
See if your thoughts and feelings are based on reality. Require evidence, evaluate the merits, cross-examine yourself - use your lawyering skills to your advantage! These thoughts can distract you from your work so that you’re not really focusing on the task at hand. Once you interrupt that dialogue, you can start to replace thoughts with more constructive and realistic ones. For example, “Yes, I know it’s going to be a lot of work, but I’ve faced this type of challenge in the past, and I can successfully get through it again.”
3. Practice Relaxation Techniques
Let’s say you’re already an expert at time management. As a lawyer you still have to be prepared for the unexpected. Sometimes it’s inevitable that you will have to complete an assignment under a time crunch. In situations like that, you have to be able to focus and not let anxiety distract you. In certain instances, being under a time crunch can motivate and focus a person. Other times, however, it can create excessive anxiety and stress. In those situations, although you might not have a minute to spare, that’s precisely when taking even a couple of minutes to engage in a few relaxation techniques can really help.
Just the act of getting up out of your seat and stretching can be enough to rejuvenate and refocus. The Mayo Clinic has a slideshow of office stretches you can do without even getting up out of your seat. So you really have no excuse! It focuses on areas like the head, neck shoulders, arms and lower back, which tend to feel sore and tense after sitting at a desk for long periods of time. I tend to carry stress in my shoulders and have found stretch resistance bands particularly useful. They’re inexpensive and can be stored in your desk drawer. Hold them overhead like you’re signing the letter “Y” in the YMCA song, and with straight arms maintain the tautness of the band and lower the band behind your head to open up tight or hunched shoulders.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to channel your inner yogi for this one. It’s all pretty basic. Close your eyes and take a deep breath in. Pause for a moment and then let your breath out slowly, counting down from 5 as you do. Try to focus on your breathing and repeat until you feel your heart rate and stress level decrease. There’s no mistaking the mind-body connection. Everyone has felt their heart rate increase right before an important presentation or oral argument and this is a good way to calm nerves.
This might be a tough one for some lawyers. Many lawyers are perfectionists[ii], and have trouble giving up control. If you give your support staff a chance, though, they just might surprise you. After all, they are there to ‘support’ you, right? Have your assistant or paralegal proofread your documents. Sometimes it helps to have a fresh pair of eyes look at a piece of writing you’ve become so familiar with that your eyes gloss over mistakes.
Of course, if you don’t have confidence in the abilities of those that you assign projects to, that needs to be addressed. Provide clear instructions, and allow and encourage questions. Mistakes are inevitable, but don’t have to be catastrophic if you are overseeing their work. Let go of your inner control freak!
5. Have an Outlet Outside of Work
I have a friend who works as a prosecutor. He tries murder cases and has gathered lots of war stories over the years. As hard as he works, he has a hobby outside of work that helps him to stay healthy and clear his mind. He cycles for miles on the weekend and has developed such a love of the sport that he even competes in races on the weekends. I’m not saying you need to take it that level, but you’re more likely to stick with a physical exercise or sport if you enjoy it. Whatever your interest may be, try and make time for it. You’ll feel more balanced, healthier, and happier.
I hope this got you thinking about how to better tackle the stress of your day. What are some of your favorite stress management tips?