Lawyer Stress: Let's Deal with the Root Cause & Not Just Manage the Symptoms
Lawyer Stress Is a Serious Issue
More than 45% of lawyers are depressed, and more than 12% struggle with suicidal thoughts. More than one-third of lawyers struggle with alcoholism, which started in law school for more than half of these lawyers. The legal profession is one of the most stressful professions. It is replete with:
- Billable hours
- The race to partner
- Trial prep
- Continuing legal education
- Settlement negotiations
- Collecting on outstanding invoices.
Lawyer stress is real, no matter where you are on the proverbial food chain.
Stress Management Is Important
Stress management is crucial for lawyers. Stress management is a daily job for many of us because while we'd all love to be the idealistic vision of ourselves as lawyers (while making that fabulous income) that we had in law school who jumps out of bed to solve the problems of the world. All while saving the day and feeling fulfilled and happy at the end of each day. Unfortunately, that's not reality.
There are bad days, unhappy clients, hard to please clients, clients who don’t want to pay, clients who file bar complaints, opposing counsel who are hard to work with, ridiculous motions, ridiculous arguments, ridiculous answers, ridiculous demand letters, judges in bad moods (who you still must be nice to and treat with respect), cases assigned to you that you don't want or like, decisions that don't go your way, and, oh, by the way, your cat threw up on your new suit—and ruined it. Yes, the one that you planned to wear to court today. Yes, we know that your other one is still at the cleaners. Sorry. Oh, and your assistant called, too. She’s out sick.
So, yes, stress management is essential. But, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of stress management articles available for you to read. Many of those articles are written specifically for lawyer stress. Some of these articles address burnout or preventing burnout, while others address topics such as compassion, fatigue, and addiction.
Lawyer Stress Management Treats Only the Symptoms
The issue with addressing lawyer stress management is that we're only treating the symptoms. And, yes, that's important. But, it doesn't address the root cause of the issue. The legal industry, as a whole, is inherently stressful. You may have noticed a shift in the desires of younger lawyers as well as what many BigLaw and even smaller firms offer in terms of culture. The short answer: a better work-life balance for lawyers.
That seems to be a much better solution than what a couple of BigLaw partners who left the legal industry and became psychologists thought should be done: mandatory counseling at crucial stages of a lawyer’s career. They believe they could lessen burnout if lawyers were required to undergo counseling at three to five years after beginning their career, at the 10-year mark, and the 20-year mark.
We don’t know how you feel about that. We think that while it might be a novel concept, a lot can happen between those marks. For instance, maybe you decide that partnership isn't for you between the five and ten-year mark. Perhaps you also choose to go out on your own. Maybe you also undergo significant personal life changes. What if you hate law and decide to do something else? What if you get involved in legal tech? What if you do get on the partner track? What if you become a lateral hire because another firm promises you an equity partnership opportunity? What if another pandemic happens and your salary is slashed? A lot can change in a few years. You shouldn’t have to wait to get mandatory counseling.
And Why Does It Need to Be Mandatory, Anyway?
Sure, it can be a good idea to have some mechanisms in place to help those who struggle to reach out. Yet, some people thrive under pressure. Some people enjoy the challenge. Some people recognize that they don't enjoy whatever is going on around them and decide to change. They made decide that the stress of the partnership track isn't for them and make a change. They might start their own practice. Maybe they love technology and go into legal tech. Perhaps they want to reach out sooner, or maybe they want to reach out later. As an industry, we have programs in place at the state level through the bar. We should consider whether we need mandatory counseling programs since we have bar programs as well as peer programs.
Addressing the Root Cause of Lawyer Stress
So, how do we address the root cause of lawyer stress? It starts with law firm management as well as self-management. If you own a law firm, regardless of its size, it starts with reviewing how it operates. It begins with treating your employees as people. Profit is important, but you can’t turn a profit without people. Your people are your first and best investment, and that includes you.
While there are times when everyone does what is necessary to meet deadlines, overworking your staff shouldn't be the norm. The cultural shift shows that people now value having a life. Embracing this within your law firm can help you attract and keep talented attorneys and legal professionals.
Learn to Say No
Learning to say no is powerful in many ways. This could be saying no to that one thing you did not want to go and do with that one person you don't like, but you felt obligated to do it anyway. Your time and energy are sacred. You will be a better lawyer and less stressed when you learn to say no and protect your time. You should also learn to say no to clients who are not a good fit for your practice. Why? Because you could be walking away from a potential ethics problem, someone who won't pay, or a myriad of other issues (as well as walking away from a big, fat headache!).
Saying no is your friend.
Be Realistic About What You Can and Cannot Do
As much as you'd like to take on the world and do it all, you're just one person. If you overcommit yourself, you’re adding to your stress. If you overcommit your law firm, you’re adding to the stress of your team. You must be realistic. Use the tools you have available to you to plan and use your time wisely to understand better what you can and cannot do.
Automation Is Your Friend
The fear people have about automation and legal tech is astounding. Legal tech and automation aren't going to take your job. It isn’t going to make lawyers, paralegals, legal assistants, or receptionists disappear. It just makes your job easier. You still have to verify the quality of the work. If you’ve ever completed a mail merge or used a template in Word (or Excel) or if you’ve ever used “auto-fill” on a website, congratulations…you’ve used automation and lived to tell the tale. Automation can make your job easier. You can start slow. No one is asking you to automate your entire office. However, there are easy to use legal tech options that can save you time and stress. The American Bar Association provides a legal tech buyer’s guide that offers categories as well as explanations on what each option offers. You could also ask colleagues what they use. If you currently use a law practice management system, you may already have some automation tools at your disposal.
Delegate When Appropriate
While it can be difficult to let go of certain tasks, it can be essential for you to free up your time and address the root cause of some of your stress: being overworked—delegate tasks when it is appropriate. Just remember to provide proper oversight. Delegation options may include hiring associates, paralegals, legal assistants, independent contractors, or freelancers.
Set an End Time for Your Day. And Stick to It
While it can be challenging to do, you need to have a set time to end your workday. Barring an absolute emergency, you need to separate your work life and personal life (even if you work from home). It sounds easy and a no-brainer, but it's more difficult than it sounds. It really does help address the root cause of the lawyer stress issue.
Get Some Exercise
Yes, we know it seems like this should be under the "stress management" category, but it does help address the root cause of the problem. It turns out that exercise helps your brain deal with stress better. When you’re better able to deal with stress, it’s less likely to become a full-blown issue. If you own a law firm, make time for yourself and encourage your employees to exercise as well.