Stress is an ever-present aspect of practicing law. The lawyers who I talk to, coach, and train tell me that long hours, billing (and more billing), lack of collegiality, changes in the profession, disconnection from values, and lack of work/life balance and purpose all contribute to their sky-high stress levels. What’s particularly frustrating is that although stress is an unavoidable part of life in the law, few lawyers are given the tools they need to manage the stress they experience.
Not managing chronic stress appropriately can result in unwanted consequences. In addition to burnout, lawyers experience rates of drug and alcohol abuse that are higher than those experienced both by the general population and by other professionals.1 Further, lawyers suffer from very high rates of depression. The results of one study indicated that lawyers suffer from depression at a rate 3.6 times higher than people in 104 other occupations studied.2
After I burned out, I knew there had to be a better way. Now that I’ve spent the past four years studying, teaching, and training thousands of people in different professions in stress-management techniques, I’ve developed a list of seven specific ways lawyers can not only manage their stress but also thrive in the legal profession.
1) Get Out of the Weeds
I spent much of my law practice feeling like I was sinking in quicksand, unable to fully dig out from the pace of practicing. If you are so busy that your busyness has lost its productivity and meaning, then you’re in the weeds, and as a busy attorney, you probably find yourself there more than you’d like. Unfortunately, you aren’t going to be able to will your way out of the hole.
Paula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is a stress and resilience expert who works with and coaches attorneys to help them manage chronic stress and avoid burnout. She also teaches resilience skills to soldiers in the U.S. Army and within the legal profession. Her online magazine, Build Your Strong, is a resource to help professionals manage stress and build happy, healthy lives.
According to Roy Baumeister, willpower is a depletable resource: he means that the more stress and energy you expend during the day, the less willpower you have to focus on finishing a challenging brief or avoid inhaling a box of cookies.3 To better preserve your willpower and work more efficiently, you should establish rituals, habits, and systems, which put your brain on autopilot and thereby preserve your energy and ability to tackle important tasks and get yourself out of the weeds (and avoid all those cookies).
2) Know Where the Meaning Is
I’m embarrassed to say that after law school, I probably cared more about money than I did about meaning. To me, the meaning of work took a back seat to the nuts and bolts of becoming an expert in my area of law and figuring out how to pay off my student loans. Not surprisingly, one trait that lawyers are outliers on compared to the general population is urgency. Lawyers are in the 71st percentile for the trait of urgency, compared to the 50th percentile for the general population.4 Due to time constraints, billable hours demands, and pressure from clients, lawyers want things done yesterday and tend to cultivate an atmosphere of “get it done now.”
The problem is that it’s hard to both approach matters with urgency and focus on meaning. Lawyers sacrifice many meaning moments (that is, reflecting on how their work is personally important and satisfying and also connecting the dots for other people between the work and why the work is significant) so they can get things done faster, but associates and staff crave knowing how their work supports the higher mission for clients. The payoff is bigger than just feeling good. Creating a culture of meaning has been shown to reduce stress, depression, turnover, dissatisfaction, and cynicism and to increase engagement, happiness, and satisfaction.5
3) Build Strong Connections with Other People
Despite a decades-long decline in people joining community organizations, attending town meetings, and participating in clubs, the workplace continues to be a place where lawyers have an opportunity to foster social connection.6 Meaningful relationships are central to happiness, resilience, and good health. It is disturbing that the number of people who say they have no one with whom they can discuss important matters has nearly tripled from 30 years ago.7
One easy technique for building stronger relationships involves responding in an active and constructive way when someone you know shares good news with you. Research has shown that how you respond to a person’s good news is as important for the health of the relationship as how you respond to bad news.8 Busy lawyers miss many opportunities each day to actively and constructively respond to good news shared by colleagues, friends, and family members.
4) Develop a Mastery Mindset
Grit is having the passion and perseverance to pursue long-term goals. Researchers studied an incoming group of West Point cadets and found that the people who were most likely to make it through the training were not more athletic, well-rounded, or smarter – they were grittier; in fact, grit was a better predictor of success for these cadets than IQ or standardized-test scores.9
Gritty lawyers pursue goals with passion, don’t back down from challenges, don’t allow a failure to define who they are as people, and simply put, don’t quit. You can measure your grit using the Grit Scale found at www.authentichappiness.org.
5) Live a Healthier Lifestyle
We are inundated with information about healthy living and dieting, but that didn’t stop me, when I was a practicing attorney, from sitting at my desk on most days to wolf down some type of food-like substance. And those were on the days I actually “had time” to eat. At the same time that more than two-thirds of people living in the United States are overweight or obese, building a healthier lifestyle has become a crucial component to building stress resilience. A good place to start is to find your real age: the biological age of your body based on how well you’ve maintained it. To find your score, go to www.realage.com.
6) Find Your Smile
Given all of the changes and challenges confronting the legal profession, it’s easy to seek out, notice, and remember the negative. Fight back with humor. Early studies of humor and health showed that humor strengthened the immune system, reduced pain, and reduced stress levels. Humor helps to reduce feelings of anger, depression, and anxiety,10 and additional research in this area shows that experiencing positive emotions correlates with increases in both resilience and life satisfaction.11 I kept a book of lawyer jokes by my desk for those days when I was taking the world a bit too seriously.
7) Think Flexibly, Accurately, and Realistically
Lawyers who are able to manage their stress are solution-oriented and capable of seeing a problem from all sides. Optimally, lawyers are expert thinkers who also are skilled at identifying their own thinking errors, downward spiraling, and worst-case-scenario thinking and at realizing when their core values and beliefs undercut their ability to accurately assess a stress-producing event. Research-based, cognitive tools are available to help lower stress levels and build resilience.12
Stress is inevitable, but how you respond to it is a choice. Think of these seven strategies as entry points to building more stress resilience, and pick one to start incorporating into your daily practice. As the great philosopher Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
1 Nancy Levit & Douglas O. Linder, The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law 6 (New York, NY: Oxford Univ. Press 2010).
2 William W. Eaton et al., Occupations and the Prevalence of Major Depressive Disorder, 32 J. Occupational Med. 1079, 1085 table 3 (1990).
3 Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney, Willpower 19-39 (New York, NY: The Penguin Press 2011).
4 Larry Richard, Herding Cats: The Lawyer Personality Revealed, 7 LAWPRO Mag. 2-5 (2008).
5 Kim Cameron, Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance 67 (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc. 2008).
6 Rodd Wagner & James K. Harter, 12: The Elements of Great Managing 142 (New York, NY: Gallup Press 2006).
7 Id. at 142-43.
8 Shelly L. Gable, Gian C. Gonzaga, & Amy Strachman, Will You Be There for Me When Things Go Right? Supportive Responses to Positive Event Disclosures, 91 J. Personality & Soc. Psychol. 904-17 (2006).
9 Angela Duckworth et al., Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals, 92 J. Personality & Soc. Psych. 1087 (2007).
10 Paul McGee, Humor: The Lighter Path to Resilience and Health 90-93 (Bloomington, IN: Author-House 2010).
11 M.A. Cohen et al. Happiness Unpacked: Positive Emotions Increase Life Satisfaction by Building Resilience, 9 Emotion 361-68 (2009).
12 See Judith S. Beck, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, 2nd Ed., (New York, NY: The Guilford Press 2011); Karen Reivich & Andrew Shatte, The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles (New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2002).