Every lawyer is stressed out—at one time or another, or, more often than not. The American Institute of Stress says the top four causes of stress are: workload, people issues, work/life balance and job security. Add to that the typical stresses in a lawyer’s life: short deadlines, fear of oral argument, conflict at home or at work or just being in a highly competitive environment and it amounts to a pretty long list of potential stressors. We all experience stress at one time or another. Some stress can be positive like getting the adrenaline boost right before you stand up to make a presentation. But some stress is debilitating. How can you tell the difference?
One way is how you feel afterward. Do you feel the exhilarated by completion of the project? Or, do you experience physical, mental or emotional negative effects? Other signs may be physical reactions, i.e., your body sounding the alarm. The ABA recently identified 12 symptoms of stress.
These symptoms are “headache, muscle tension or pain, chest pain, fatigue, change in sex drive, stomach upset, sleep problems, anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation or focus, irritability or anger, sadness or depression.”
If these symptoms linger or recur with frequency, something needs to change. We all know colleagues who complain of being tired all the time, who can’t stay focused or who melt down at the slightest provocation. They could be suffering from the harmful effects of stress. If you or a colleague are experiencing any of these stress symptoms on more than an occasional basis, it makes sense to get a complete physical to rule out physiological causes.
Having done this, the next step is to come up with a strategy to deal with your stress.
Do It Now!
Make no mistake: you can’t procrastinate. Stress, if not dealt with, can lead to burnout, substance abuse or physical or mental illness. These consequences will affect not only your career or work life but will overflow into all aspects of your life. The impact of unrelieved stress on the family and loved ones is devastating.
So what is the source of all this stress?
Looking at the legal profession in general, it’s fairly easy to spot some of the stressors.
We all know the problems of Big Law, the bait and switch game with the top law school graduates (baiting them with visions of partnership and switching them to the reality that few ever make partner); the pressure of billable hours that in many cases are set so high that everyone knows creates, at worst, a culture of cheating and, at best, a culture that rewards inefficiency; cut throat competition among associates; unrealistic demands in terms of the amount of work (overwork) or deadlines (inhumane, arbitrary and unnecessary); conflicting priorities; unclear performance expectations and job insecurity; lack of positive feedback; few opportunities for growth, mentoring or advancement, adversarial relationships with opposing counsel and their clients, courtroom personnel and judges; and lack of control over one’s life, work or anything for that matter. And, that’s only for the first 7 to 10 years. Life as an income partner is not much better.
Outside of Big Law, many lawyers encounter variations of the same problems, but you can add to the mix things like poor pay and benefits, monotonous work, lack of resources (support staff, experts, computers, mentoring, training etc.); shutdowns (Federal attorneys); layoffs and poor working conditions.
Since typically these things do not occur in isolation but rather in combination with each other, that creates a toxic combination that leads to unhealthy levels of stress.
In 2016, a study conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs
21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with some level of depression and 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety. The study found that younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice exhibit the highest incidence of these problems.
Something has to change.
How can we change the practice of law at the employer level to create an environment that doesn’t produce high levels of stress, burnout or depression?
Unfortunately, some things just can’t be changed—like statutes of limitations and filing deadlines. What can be changed is how these things are handled within the office.
If you look at the results of the Vault 2019 Best Law Firms to Work For, there are some interesting takeaways in terms of the characteristics of the top rated firms. Associates valued meaningful interactions with senior attorneys, attention to their career development, mentoring, meaningful assignments, being made to feel welcome by the firm’s attorneys. Each firm is different, of course, and will have its own culture. Leaders in firms and offices in the private and public sector can have an open dialog with the lawyers and other staff they work with to develop a vision of a new reality that creates a healthier environment for the lawyers and other staff who work for them and better serves their clients. Some examples of creative solutions can be found in descriptions of programs offered by firms profiled in The Working Mother 60 Best Law Firms for Women. What is interesting about this article is that it shows the diversity in how individual firms have crafted solutions for working parents that have had a positive impact on reducing stress while improving morale and productivity.
Four Things Law Firms Can Do to Reduce Workplace Stress
First, create an environment of trust. Transparency, open and honest communication, mutual support, fairness, and inclusion build trust. Trust is the foundation upon which all healthy cultures are built. If staff does not trust that firm leadership is trustworthy and reliable, stress will multiply. One of the Directors I worked for told us on his first day, “I have got your back,” and then having said that he did exactly that. During his tenure, staff morale and productivity increased dramatically.
Second, change your reward system to truly reflect the mission of the firm or office: If it’s to serve the client, the public or some other purpose, then things that advance that mission should be rewarded, things like efficiency, good listening, empathy, collaboration, team work or creativity, instead of a system that primarily rewards billable hours.
Third, follow the good advice of one of my graduate school professors: “Hire no jerks!” It sounds funny, but it is something I tried to do as a manager and when I left, it was the thing my management team remembered me for. The reality is that jerks create problems, and problems eat time that can be spent more productively. Plus, jerks are just unpleasant to have around and can have a negative impact on everyone who works with them. They are toxic.
Fourth, recognize perfectionism and micro-management for the negative forces that they are. Lawyers are high achievers and always want to excel, but perfectionists take it to an unhealthy extreme that can have negative effects on the culture of an office and micromanagers squash any shreds of ownership and pride in the final work product.
Four Things You Can Do Now to Reduce the Stress in Your Life
First, life style changes: eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly; and get at least 7 hours of sleep. There are programs like The Whole Life Challenge that can help you do this in a team environment.
Second, try meditation, if that doesn’t work for you, go take a walk during the work day—just do something to break away from your phone and computer and decompress. Never eat your meals at your computer. This is bad for two reasons: it does not give you a break from the stress of work (which you need) and it isolates you socially.
Third, connect to other people who can provide emotional support when you need it. Take the time to reach out to family and friends to create a social support system and develop a professional support system outside of your workplace as well. Join a Bar Association or other professional association where you can develop both business and social contacts and possibly learn new things.
Fourth, find meaning in your life. Some researchers have found that when the individual finds meaning in the whatever is causing the stress in their lives, they can cope better. There is a fascinating study of Turkish torture victims that found that those victims with a strong commitment to a cause and strong support from spouses, family and friends were more resilient in their response to stress.
Why is Having Meaning in Your Life Important?
Work that is personally fulfilling and meaningful keeps you anchored to what is really important in your life. If there is dissonance between your work and what you find to be meaningful, this can be a fundamental source of stress. Spending most of your working hours doing things you don’t believe in or that you don’t care about can be a poison. When I was a 1L, one of my classmates told me that only women can afford to look for meaning in their lives, and that for men it was all about making a lot of money and we went about going our separate ways. About 5 years after we graduated, I heard that he had been disbarred.
The Coaching Solution for Stressed Lawyers
Coaching can be part of the solution. Coaches listen. Being heard nonjudgmentally just by itself relieves stress. Coaching can assist lawyers who are dealing with stress by helping them to identify their values and creating a connection between their work lives and their personal values. Trained coaches work with their clients to bring all aspects of their lives into balance including health, life style, connections to others, communication and relationships with others and the search for meaning. Some coaches also use modalities that incorporate meditation strategies.
What Could Coaching Do at a Firm Level?
Coaching at the management level can help change the culture of a firm. But, coaching only works when the coachee is willing to commit to the process and is open to making change. If the firm isn’t behind changing its culture, coaching is not likely to make meaningful or lasting change. Coaching associates is an investment in their career development and sends a strong message to the associates selected for coaching that the firm is willing to invest in them. Some coaches use 360 assessment devices, which can pinpoint the problem areas for the firm or the individual and provide feedback to that can help set the coaching agenda. Coaches can also do training and group coaching to help first time managers and experienced managers create and implement their vision.
If you or a friend are feeling stressed, give us a call, it costs nothing but could make a huge difference.