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The Mental Load: I Couldn’t Care Less About My Job

Caring drives success in any endeavor. And caring, by its nature, requires emotional investment. While some career guidance cautions that “emotional investment is normally a stigma you want to avoid in the workplace”, an authentic caring-based approach to your substantive work, your relationships with colleagues, and your personal goals can not only steer you clear of the emotional turmoil caused by acting in discord with your true instincts, but also pay off in spades.

Caring helps a lawyer empathize with clients to provide meaningful insight and guidance. Caring leads to identifying and inventing deeper and more creative arguments and solutions. Caring improves client service, increases the likelihood of better outcomes, and bolsters higher career trajectories.

But nonetheless, emotional investment in a career and its components is risky business. Too much personal entanglement in work can inhibit your ability to be objective. And in the legal profession, the mental health stakes can be high. When long hours and constant on-call status are the norms, it becomes really difficult to separate work from “the rest of your life”. Thinking in terms of work-life integration (as opposed to struggling with a “work-life balance” dichotomy) can be helpful when you’re seeking to reconcile your work and “non-work” identities, but it also can blur the lines with respect to when, how, and to what extent you should invest emotionally in your career.

In some types of law (like family, personal injury, criminal, or immigration law), I can’t even comprehend how a lawyer would refrain from emotionally reacting to the subject matter. Anecdotally, I’ve observed that the emotional toll of these types of practice areas, as well as the more general dilemma regarding bringing emotions to the table at work, are significant issues for women lawyers.

When you let emotions and personal investment creep into your work, you become vulnerable, just like in a personal relationship. If we rewind to what may have been your first brush with this concept, in The Bramble Bush, Karl Llewellyn forewarns future lawyers that they are entering an “invidious profession”. No matter how much caring a lawyer might inject into her work, there will inevitably be some dissatisfied clients and losing cases. A lawyer might internalize the subject matter or outcomes of her cases and allow them to affect her outlook on her job, her self-worth, and even her view of the world.  

So, is detachment the answer? Stoicism might serve as a band-aid to get you through some particularly difficult situations, but just as a marriage cannot thrive without real emotional vulnerability, a career without full investment won’t reach its true potential. Llewellyn posits that we persist in wholehearted dedication to our profession because we, collectively, care – about our clients, our careers, our profession as a whole, and the role it plays in our often otherwise haphazard world. And we should not stifle that instinct.

Are Women More Emotionally Invested Than Men? 

The answer to this question is more complex than stereotypes might suggest. Women are highly emotional, and men are detached, right? With the preface that gender-based generalizations aren’t universally true, women are more likely than men to become emotionally invested in their work – but surprisingly, only slightly so. Emotional investment tends to elude objective criteria, so studies don’t show a big gender divide until we reach the dramatic end of the spectrum. For example, research indicates that women are far more likely than men to cry at work.  

Another query is whether men really possess a swift ability to let everything roll off their backs and keep emotions out of the equation, or whether women are just more comfortable addressing the issue. The spotlight on toxic masculinity we see in the news today touches upon this question, and it’s outside the scope of this post to delve into the intricacies of that debate. But however you look at the gender divide, as a woman, there are upsides to embracing your emotional tendencies. You may possess a higher emotional intelligence ("EQ") level (and the accompanying advantages like more meaningful relationships with clients and an ability to dig deep into the substance of your work) than your average male colleague. Or you may enjoy the exemption from gendered pressure to avoid discussing and seeking guidance on managing your emotions at work.

Unchecked Emotional Investment Contributes to Burnout

Emotional investment manifests in multiple ways. You might be heavily invested in your career in terms of measurable criteria like working long hours or prioritizing work over other facets of your life (or you might feel like you have little choice - or actually have little choice - in those matters). Or your investment might be less tangible – maybe you deeply internalize your clients’ situations, or you’re personally affected by occurrences at work. Although the latter facet is likely to deplete your emotional reserves more quickly than the former, any type of unchecked emotional investment can ultimately lead to burnout.

I went through a never-ending cycle of highs and lows during my time in Big Law. It usually went something like this: I’d get really invested in a particular client or matter, give it my absolute all, and be truly excited and energized by the work. As you probably know, taking this approach– long hours, exhaustion, and feeling the stress of caring more than anyone else (which often means picking up the slack for others who aren’t as invested)- isn’t the easiest path to follow. But knowing I was giving it my best, engaging fully with the issues, and doing valuable work by truly caring about my clients made the investment worthwhile – and sometimes even exhilarating – to me. And I often saw tangible returns – happy clients, satisfied bosses, and bonuses. However, inevitably, something would happen that sent me crashing down to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum - a review where my efforts weren’t even comprehended, let alone appreciated, or a client feverishly ranting when one little thing didn’t go his way (ignoring the multitudes of thankless hours I’d put in for him).

Experiencing these highs and lows is exhausting. I would turn to defeatist self-talk like “I really just shouldn’t be so invested in my work; it never pans out well.” I’d waste hours mulling over why I even went to law school or researching whether I might be able to replace my legal income with a froyo franchise (don’t bother looking into this escape route; the answer is that it’s more likely you’ll win the lottery!). But deep down, I knew that caring so much was what kept me producing high-quality work, standing out, and moving up. And I knew that doing anything otherwise just wouldn’t be me. I literally could not care less. (To be clear, it’s not that I love the law above all else in life; it’s more that I’m incapable of half-assing or leaving my EQ out of the equation on anything.) But eventually, I learned not to dismiss, but rather manage my emotions.

How To Manage Emotional Investment

Regardless of what type of emotional investment you might be grappling with, the key is to manage it – not to aim for the “toxic masculine” standard of detachment. So how do you achieve positive returns on your emotional investments without riding the roller coaster of extreme highs and lows?

1. Hone your sense of self-awareness.

Developing strong self-awareness is a critical first step in the process of figuring out how you can best manage your emotions. Take heed of signs you may be too emotionally invested in your job: internalizing criticism, always taking work home with you, becoming overly stressed in high-pressure situations, confusing your self-worth with your job title, and experiencing decline in your “real world” relationships as a result of your obsession with work. But some of these indicators are par for the course in the legal profession. Thankfully, women lawyers like Jeena Cho are educating lawyers on mindfulness and providing a relatable framework for processing the emotions and stress inherent to our profession.

2. Seek balance.

Some experts advise that it’s best to find a middle ground between being overly invested and not caring enough.  Llewelyn seems to be a fan of this approach, suggesting that it is possible to practice law without shutting down emotionally and dulling our sensitivities. Instead, we should temper expectations, but simultaneously avoid becoming jaded. This is a tough area to land in, but it helps to enjoy the process of practicing law even if the ultimate end result we are striving for may not always be attainable.

3. Find gratitude.

At some point (or really over a long period of time), I learned to enjoy the process of practicing law more than the outcomes, which gave me the freedom to keep caring. If you feel like you’re in the right place, doing something that’s a good fit for you, and engaged in work that you’re learning from (all forms of gratitude), it’s hard to argue that caring is misplaced. If emotional investment energizes you, your work doesn’t have to be all about the bottom line.

4. Be Objective.

Instead of avoiding emotional involvement, identify when your energy is being channeled in a positive manner (giving your all to a client you care about) vs. creating more pain than power (you get so upset by the partner’s red ink all over your memo draft that you sit in your office crying and poring through job postings online the rest of the day). When an emotional reaction is unproductive, set it aside, acknowledge your feelings (they are real), but remind yourself that those feelings (and the triggers that set them off) don’t define you and are only temporary. Take a step back, put on an objective lens, and reign in unhealthy emotional entanglements.

5. Practice self-care.

For some people, sufficient respite can come in the form of regular exercise, a weekly trip to the spa, or a work-free outing with a friend. But don’t be afraid to seek help dealing with the tough emotions involved in your work. Bar associations and CLE providers are beginning to implement more programs focused on mental health. If you’re a highly sensitive person or you’re in a particularly trauma-inducing field and internalize triggering emotional events experienced by your clients, you may benefit from therapy. Find what works for you and prioritize it.

Treat Your Emotions Like Valuable Assets

In one of the final chapters of The Bramble Bush, Llewellyn, despite the admonitions mentioned above, nonetheless zealously advocates for what I interpret as boldly employing emotional investment (though managed) – practicing law not merely for monetary gain, not in a perspective-driven but detached manner, but ultimately with the view that “Humanity and law [are] not two, but one”. Similarly, the equally astute legal scholar Elle Woods notes that “Passion is the key ingredient to the study and practice of law, and of life.”

So have faith that your caring will pay off in the long run (what comes around goes around, right?). Learn to manage your emotions to avoid burnout. Practice self-awareness and rely on whichever techniques for finding perspective and balance resonate for you. Use your caring judiciously, but when appropriate, completely.

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