Why is it important to talk about stress management for lawyers?
Lawyers handle critical cases for their clients. Very often dignity, honour, life, property, and liberty of clients depend on the efficiency of a lawyer.
Lawyers are like surgeons in this way. One wrong move of the scalpel and the surgeon can end up killing, maiming or irreparably harming the patient. Lawyers are also in a very similar position.
Because of one mistake of a lawyer, someone can go to jail, or lose money or property, or a criminal who deserves to go to jail may be released on the road free to commit more crimes.
Lawyers are under massive performance pressure all the time, that comes with the job.
However, lawyers are not superhuman, they are pretty much made of flesh and blood and nerves. Isn’t it very surprising therefore that lawyers are not taught how to handle this massive mountain of pressure that they carry on their shoulders every single day?
The military is trained on how to handle high pressure situations. Cricketers have psychologists and coaches who work with them to ensure that they can perform well in high pressure situations.
Perhaps it is time to think if lawyers also need the same.
Is there any reliable statistics available about stress level and mental health of lawyers? Are lawyers more stressed than the general populace?
Research around the globe shows that lawyers are significantly more stressed than other professionals. In 2018, a survey done of the Am Law 200 leaders indicated that work stress of lawyers is causing widespread addiction and mental health issues.
The Indian lawyers experience with stress is not much different. In the last few years, several lawyers have spoken out about depression, mental health and excessive work stress that lawyers have to face every day. Justice DY Chandrachud spoke out about this issue and highlighted the urgency of the situation.
A very important article on the subject was published by Caravan magazine that talked about the stigma and problem around mental health issues of lawyers.
Recently a survey indicated that lawyers are more likely to get divorced, especially if both spouses are lawyers. Lawyers will know very well how family life and leisure goes for a toss due to the constant pressure of delivering work every single day, and the lack of real holidays.
Work stress is probably inevitable for every lawyer. But do you have a strategy to deal with it? Are you prepared? Are there any best practices you can implement to save yourself from the worst of it?
Is there a reason for you to worry?
What is the connection between stress, success, and failure?
Is it possible to succeed without any stress? Stress is inevitable, and an important part of success. Basically, the obstacle itself is the way as far as lawyers are concerned. More stressful a case, more important and desirable it is to get those matters as far as a lawyer is concerned. As your stature grows, you get more such matters.
Interestingly, our brains are hardwired for survival, and not for success. That’s how our hunter ancestors saved themselves from perceived dangers while searching for food in the forest.
I was once listening to Steven Spielberg where he was talking about the movie ‘Jaws’.
He was talking about how music was used to create a strong sense of fear in the minds of the viewers even without there being a shark on screen. That’s how they scare you in horror movies, isn’t it?
It’s important to understand here that our brain’s primordial response to any stressful situation is sensing, feeling and thinking. Stress is deeply embedded in the fight or flight response of the brain to situations of perceived danger.
Now as a lawyer, you will encounter many stressful situations that will trigger the fight or flight mechanism of your brain. As a lawyer your success will often depend on managing that mechanism and dealing with a situation from strategy and well thought out plans rather than sub-optimal fight or flight responses. This is one important part of dealing with stress.
The other very important part is to learn to take stress as a enabler for growth rather than a negative element in everyday life.
Success requires getting outside your comfort zone to achieve your goals. Success requires the need to grow from your present reality to your desired state of resourcefulness.
To outgrow yourself in the profession, challenging situations must be dealt with without invoking fight or flight response, and by embracing the challenge rather than getting suffocated by it. Whether you can succeed in the legal profession, therefore, depends on whether you perceive stress as a desirable element or not.
The question is whether stress is happening to you or whether you are seeking it out as a challenge that would make you grow, and managing it well thereafter.
Using stress as a vehicle for success depends on your attitude and belief system.
While stress can be an elementary reaction in many situations of your career, if you learn to see it as a positive challenge, it can be a game changer.
When is stress detrimental and when is it not?
I remember when I was in school, the notice of the exam time table stressed me a lot because it used to come as a sudden surprise in otherwise routine life of school-tuition-cricket-video games-eat-sleep and repeat.
But ultimately that timetable just a week before exams was my call to action. It suddenly used to make me organized and competitive.
In the professional space too, deadlines are not only important but inevitable from the point of view of getting things done.
Stress makes us accountable towards achieving targets, meeting deadlines and to achieve our goals.
Similarly, for some people, the thrill when pushed against a deadline might be similar to the adrenaline rush they experience when skydiving.
In such cases, the brain feeds our reward centre with performance-boosting endorphins causing a feel-good dopamine rush.
What really determines whether stress is detrimental to you or not is your level adaptiveness to it. Adaptive stress is beneficial as it makes people pumped up for a challenging situation.
Stress can make you accountable and enhance your performance but there are downsides if stress is not managed properly.
While instances of work pressure situations in small doses can make you productive, repeated high-pressure workdays, pulling off all-nighters can be counterproductive and exhaustive.
What if office politics and arguments with colleagues causes emotional stress in you? Unresolved emotional stress weakens your immune system. The fear of losing high stakes matter raises your blood pressure causing anxiety and depression. If your mind and spirit is not robust and you take stress in the wrong way, you will face depression, all around breakdown in performance, and serious health issues.
Let’s just take the impact of stress on our eating habits. Our hunter ancestors would eat as much as was available when they found food in order to compensate for the lean times. Researchers at the University of Miami found out that people are likely to consume 40 percent more food during stressful times. Where does that take your physical and mental fitness?
Similarly, stress that is not managed can cause your immunity to crash and lead to all sorts of horrible and unusual diseases.
From weight gain, high blood pressure, heart diseases, diabetes to poor emotional health, stress can cause a lot of damage to you.
This is why learning stress management is a critical skill for every lawyer. Is stress going to be rocket fuel for your growth, or the lead tied around your feet that makes you sink?
How to tell if you are under too much stress?
The flight or fight survival mechanism is only meant to last long enough to get you out of danger. So long episodes of worrying, belittling thoughts, anxiety can destroy you. Long bouts of stress is an alarming signal.
Are you hitting the snooze button of your morning alarm for too many days in a row? Are you waking up eventually with a feeling of tiredness?
Are you finding it difficult to control your emotions? Is there a constant feeling of inadequacy or an impending sense of worry? Did you have an emotional meltdown or did you find yourself close to one?
You might have some physical symptoms too. Examples are insomnia, troubled breathing, indigestion or chest pain.
Are you withdrawing from your social circle for extended periods? Are you giving into one or other kind of addiction? Addiction may not only be to some drugs, alcohol or cigarettes, it could be even addiction to seemingly harmless things like social media or entertainment.
Watch out. Stress overload is a real thing. Even if you have managed stress very well so far, you need to have a strategy and dedicated time to destress. Without that, you may find yourself in a very dark place eventually.
What will happen if you fail to manage stress?
You will find yourself in a loop of lack of mental and physical wellbeing making you unproductive. Your performance and efficiency might go for a toss which will lead to more stress and anxiety. Failure to manage stress very often leads to depression and various other mental and physical diseases. This would definitely hamper your career in a very big way.
Also too much stress can shut down or weaken your important mental faculties. Stress can cause loss of creativity and ability to connect with people.
A large part of being successful as a lawyer is therefore to learn to manage stress and keeping depression, ill-health and other such side effects of stress at bay.
How to identify what is causing stress for you, and whether it is productive or not?
Your stressors are unique to you and may come from either external or internal sources causing a physical sense of uneasiness. Most of our stressors are a result of our perceptions about various situations happening to us.
Watch out for the physical response when the brain recognizes a stressful situation. Not only does the heart pump more blood, it also releases glucose to the muscles making us physically alert to save ourselves whenever we are stressed.
Many people describe feeling goosebumps in the stomach or a punch in the gut.
Self-awareness is the key to identify stressors
The phone is ringing off the hook. Your inbox is overflowing. You’re 45 minutes late for a deadline and your boss is knocking on your door, asking how your latest project is going. You’re stressed, to say the least.
However, if your life feels like this every day of the week, you may be experiencing long-term or chronic stress. This type of stress can be dangerous to your health if you don’t work to overcome it or cope with its effects.
Big stressors include money troubles, job issues, relationship conflicts, and major life changes, such as the loss of a loved one.
Smaller stressors, such as long daily commutes and rushed mornings, can also add up over time.
You have to determine the right amount of stress that gives you energy, discipline and zeal as opposed to the wrong amount of stress that can potentially harm your health and relationships.
Writing down what’s triggering stressful responses is a great way to start.
How can lawyers manage stress?
First of all, know that it’s not a character flaw.
The next time you feel overwhelmingly stressed out, don’t beat yourself up for it. You don’t need to think that you are a rock of Gibraltar for the client.
You are human so if you feel overwhelmed by a particular situation, talk and seek help from others. In fact, having a relationship with mentors, coaches and peer networks who can support you in such situations is extremely important to have. Without that, you are less likely to go far. Building such community around you is a critical task of yours as a lawyer.
Depression can be caused due to biological reasons. It’s can be just another illness like cough, cold, typhoid, diabetes. Stress, anxiety or depression can be caused by your genetics too. It can be a result of a biochemical imbalance in response to social stressors. So don’t think of it as a weakness or a personality flaw.
It can be worked upon and dealt with just like any other problem. Like many other problems you battle every day and win, you have to learn to deal with it and eventually you will learn how to stay away from it.
Let go of the need for perfection
The nature of the profession is such that it demands attention to detail. Think about it. A lawyer is hired to effectively mitigate all the situations that can go wrong. Basically you get paid to aim for perfection. However, it is important to remember that you are a work-in-progress and not a finished product. Aim for perfection but when you miss it, you have to take it on your stride too and live to fight another day. The battle may be lost but the war is still going on.
Demanding clients, law firm environment, fear of losing that argument can make you feel that you are not good enough, or that you are a failure, etc. This is natural and almost all lawyers experience this. It is important to build a system that keeps you positive through all negativity. You need to have people around you who inspire you and remind you that you are meant for great things. You have to believe in your own potential and greatness and the future that is waiting for you. Without that, you will not survive in this profession.
Surround yourself with positive messages. I listen to affirmation tracks, make sure I follow a lot of positivity channels on Instagram, follow inspiring people on LinkedIn and Twitter and constantly interact with inspiring people in real life also.
You have to design a more positive environment all around you so that you can beat the negativity that is inherent in every human being, and therefore you.
Focus on your inner well being
Stress is a physical reaction to a situation. Taking deep breaths can counteract its effects.
Intellectually we all know the benefits of meditation and exercise but lawyers will be the first ones to find excuses to not do these things. You are keeping busy, crazy work hours and blah blah.
That does not work. Lawyers are at high risk, and you must make time to exercise and meditate. Even if for 10 minutes in a day! If you do not do this, you will find it very difficult to sustain yourself in the long run. It is almost impossible in fact! Most lawyers burn out in a few years and then learn how to workout or meditate despite busy schedule or give up on being successful.
Meditation de-clutters our mind, makes us more mindful and self-aware.
Self-awareness leads to more resilience towards external stressors and problems.
A lot of lawyer’s work is about analyzing and decision making. Your ability to solve people’s problems creatively, take better decisions will increase with a mind centred calmness. I think you deserve a few minutes of self-care for the massive amount of hours you put into your work.
How about Journalising
You keep a diary for keeping track of your cases, dates and appointments. Today we can ask Google or Alexa to notify us about our meetings and schedules too.
What about keeping track of your thoughts during the day? Writing your thoughts down is a proven way to get rid of your day to day frustrations and stay in good mental health.
You can identify your stressors, analyze your thought and behaviour patterns over a period of time and make a strategy to deal with them.
Once you realize the fleeting nature of thoughts, you will never let your mind fool you into reacting out of proportion in response to a particular situation.
Are you getting enough exercise?
The law firm environment can be demanding. Working for 12-14 hours a day, especially at a desk job ruins your health. Regular exercise releases endorphins which are natural mood stabilizers.
A sharper mind along with more focused and energized you will respond with increased levels of productivity on the job. Exercise enables you to handle stress much better without killing yourself.
Are you getting enough sleep?
How often have you pulled off all-nighters to prepare for cases listed for the next morning or for drafting a response for the client?
While 3-4 cups of coffee can help you remain focused for the night, repeated episodes of sleep deprivation are counterproductive and unsustainable.
You surely don’t want to look exhausted before the judge or the client. Apart from that, your creativity and presence of mind will take a hit. Lawyers who succeed in the long run, do not do so by not getting enough sleep.
If you have the option, join the 5 AM club. Join the likes of Richard Branson, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Indira Nooyi, Michelle Obama etc who are all early risers. Waking up early will enable you to set up a morning routine. An early head start to the day is the secret to get more things done throughout the day.
In case you are in one of those law firms where working till 2 AM is a norm, make sure you take breaks in between. Even consider changing your job, there are enough things a lawyer can do that ensures amazing success and lifestyle without compromising your physical and mental health. In any case, you must at least get 6 hours of daily sleep to rejuvenate your mind and body.
Prioritize and organize
As Mark Twain famously said, you must eat the frog first thing in the morning, and the rest of your day will be wonderful.
What he meant was to prioritize your day in such a way that the most important and challenging tasks are finished first.
Avoid the phone and answering emails first thing in the morning.
Nothing is as distracting for a lawyer than getting interrupted by a pushy or demanding client, replying to his WhatsApp messages in the middle of drafting a brief or preparing for an argument.
Schedule your day by making to-do lists and allocating your most productive time to the most demanding work. At the end of each day, plan for the next day. Avoid interruptions as much as possible.
Take small breaks in between demanding schedules.
Learn to say no to unimportant meetings.
Declutter your table, keep only minimal files and papers.
I was once talking on the phone, while simultaneously going through my mailbox, and my senior was asking for a case file from behind. Don’t you think that sort of situation is a recipe for goof up? I hit the ‘reply all’ button while responding to one particular professional communication where I should not have.
Does this sound familiar?
It is not just about making mistakes. When you are juggling too many things at once, it creates massive cognitive stress. This is also very bad for us in the long run. We need to learn to compartmentalize work.
Many lawyers get into a habit of multitasking. We even take pride in it. However, multitasking is a myth and another name for inefficient work by people who fail to organize and prioritize. It is a major impediment to our efficiency and productivity.
Manage your relationship with clients
Clients can be demanding, overbearing, pushy and sometimes even “forget” to pay. You get clients who will email and five minutes later if you haven’t responded, they will call the landline and then try the cellphone, and then start that sequence again.
Technology has made demanding clients a whole lot worse, because they can email, call and text you constantly.
It’s made practicing in general very exhausting; you just can’t escape from it.
In such cases, don’t shy away from having direct conversations with the client, or putting a gatekeeper like a secretary in place to manage such clients. Get a professional to do follow up for fees, documents etc rather than doing everything yourself.
You need to reduce stress so that you can focus on what really matters.
Delegate your work
A solo lawyer’s diary for the day reads 2 matters listed in the district court, 3 in consumer court, one arbitration matter and so on. You can’t be everywhere.
There is commute time to consider also and even if you manage, you can’t perform with the same level of efficiency all throughout the day.
A lawyer can get more done through the art of effective delegation. Focusing on core areas of work takes away the time spent on monotonous routine tasks and improves billable hours too.
Avoid office politics
You have been pulling off all-nighters on a project and one fine day, you find that your senior associate has taken all the credit for your hard work.
What if the promotion you were working so hard for has been given to that favourite employee who knows the art of buttering up your senior just in the right doses.
Office politics is everywhere. Law firms are no exception. Each of us, at some point in our lives, has felt like an outsider.
Agreed, the law firm environment is highly competitive coupled with work pressure. However, negative states of competitiveness and insecurity about the job bring about feelings of jealousy.
The focus shifts from performance to playing politics, spreading rumours, forming groups in office.
Scholars from Florida State University and the University of Wisconsin analyzed office politics by using the game of chess as an analogy.
That, apparently, involves being street smart rather than book smart. They add: “Playing office politics, in many respects, is just like any other game: the more you play, the more you tend to improve.” More specifically, they suggest adding the following to your repertoire:
- Focus on the values that guide you rather than other people’s character traits
- Learn how to be a better networker and connect with others in your organization.
- Move beyond superficial conversations and gossips towards developing meaningful and profound relationships.
- Observe the office culture and pay attention to trends, patterns, ideas and systems that could serve you well.
- Avoid taking part in grapevine communication. Say ‘no’ to spreading rumours.
- Be prepared to occasionally give up short-term goals, like in chess where “sometimes you have to sacrifice a pawn in order to take a queen”.
You need to embrace office politics since there is no getting away from it unless you start your own organization or join a very small organization.
Learn new skills
I know lawyers who are very good Yoga experts. I know lawyers who are trained at Neuro-Linguistic Programming or lawyers who are multilingual.
Learning new skills adds another dimension to your persona and keeps your brain cells fresh. It also helps to beat stress.
It is important to detach yourself from the intensive nature of work from time to time. Feeding your creative soul is important. Many lawyers are advised by their doctors to practice a musical instrument for this purpose.
Your work is after all only one part of your life. Don’t get consumed by it. Breaking out of patterns is important in terms of brain development too. If you do not care for any other areas of your life other than work, then it is highly likely that you will also experience crushing stress.
Don’t undermine the value of a social circle
The nature of the legal profession is such that life can get a little isolated.
You are expected to keep confidentiality at all times. It becomes your second nature without you realizing.
You might get consumed in your client’s problems. Client meetings are common on holidays and Sundays.
That’s where the value of family and a social circle comes in. It’s important that you have people around to remind you to keep work at work, take mini vacations, or confide with friends about stressful situations at work.
You are running a marathon, not a sprint. Conserve your energy, health and spirit, because you are going nowhere without these in really good shape.
How do you deal with work stress?
I look forward to hearing from you. What stresses you out? What do you do to stay in good physical and mental health? Are there some good suggestions you want to share with the larger legal community?
One thing that can really help with stress is your competence and training. Good lawyers must continuously train themselves and build their skill sets so that they are prepared to deal with even the most stressful situations.
Being ready is critical. It reduces stress and increases performance. We have a bunch of courses that help lawyers to do just that.
Learn about real life legal situations you will face when you practice, and train yourself so that you can avoid the worst stress.
Here is a list we recommend:
Executive certificate course: