Lawyer stress management is a challenging but critical skill. Here are six ways for lawyers to bring some balance to their working lives and reduce stress.
No one ever said being an attorney would be easy. Challenging? Yes. Interesting? Absolutely. Fulfilling? That too. But often, being a lawyer is stressful.
Busy lawyers balance constant deadlines, long work hours, and seemingly never-ending requests from clients, opposing counsel, and even colleagues. Many lawyers also begin their careers with significant law school debt. Add to that the nature of legal work deals with serious issues that require constant diligence, and you have a recipe for a high-stress environment.
Unmanaged stress can lead to mental health issues and physical ailments that will both inhibit your ability to work at a high-level and affect your quality of life. Law.com conducted a 12-month survey that found 64% of attorneys feel they have anxiety, 31.2% feel they are depressed, 10.1% feel they have an alcohol problem, and 2.8% feel they have a drug problem. These are real problems and challenges that the legal profession needs to confront on a broader scale -- as law firms, as lawyers, and as an entire industry.
In the meantime, there are individual tactics you can use to combat stress in your own career right now. Being a lawyer doesn’t have to be a stress-filled doomsday scenario. But to succeed in this industry and carve out an enjoyable and fulfilling career, you have to find ways to manage the stress that comes with the job.
Here are six stress management tips--backed by science--that you can start to bring some balance to your working life and reduce stress.
Take a break during the day, even if it’s only for 30 minutes. Many lawyers are constantly “on.” You run from meeting to meeting, deadline to deadline, continually making sure you meet your client’s needs.
So when you think about the time in your day, how much is yours? When was the last time you took a break for yourself or just sat and relaxed with no other thoughts on your mind than what’s happening right then and there?
Practicing law isn’t a physically demanding job, but it is very much a mentally demanding job. That’s why you feel exhausted at the end of the day, even though you sat at a desk for most of it. Like any other muscle, your brain needs a rest.
So spend some time each day to take a break from your work, step away from your computer and phone, and go for a walk. Or just sit there for 10 minutes and let your mind wander. Your brain needs time to recharge, and this will help you stay focused on your work when it’s time to get back to the grind.
Legal professionals face a constant battle between their schedules and their work. What do I mean by that? Great legal work requires time for deep thinking and strategizing. Big chunks of time to write and revise briefs into a final masterpiece. Hours to plan out your negotiation strategy or prepare for a court hearing. But you are constantly competing with a schedule loaded with meetings, email inboxes that are always filling with new messages that need a response, and on and on.
To succeed as a lawyer and manage stress, you need to take control of your day. The best way to do that is to use a system called time-block planning: assign a task for every hour of your day.
Here’s how it works:
Here’s what a fully time-blocked schedule might look like:
In a profession where demands on your time can pile up, it is essential to create a sense of control over your schedule. Not only will this help minimize stress, but it will also make you way more productive. Time-block planning may seem too simple to make an impact, but try this for a week and see your productivity soar and your stress levels plummet.
Beyond time-block planning your day, you also need to set and enforce some boundaries to allow yourself to perform your work at a high level.
Constant deadlines, meetings, hearings, and requests from clients can get overwhelming pretty quickly. There are days where you’ll feel like there are not enough hours in the day to get all of your work done.
While all of this is true, it is still important to set some boundaries for your clients and for yourself that are designed to optimize your ability to deliver high-quality service to your clients and manage your own stress.
For example, when you bring on a new client, take some time upfront to set a communication strategy. Let them know that you may not respond to their emails immediately, but commit to getting back to them the same day. We often feel pressure to respond immediately to client emails, but this can lead us to constantly feeling like we’re running behind. Committing to replying the same day means that you’ll be able to focus on the task at hand without worrying about every client email that hits your inbox. Your client can also rest easy knowing that they will get a response the same day when they reach out to their lawyer.
You also need to set boundaries for yourself. Commit to a goal of shutting down your computer and putting work away at a particular time each night. While doing great legal work is time-consuming, the law of diminishing returns absolutely applies within the construct of a single day. When your eyes are glazing over, and the words on the page seem to come twice as slow, that’s a sign that it is time to think about shutting it down for the day and getting back at it tomorrow.
Now, of course, "reasonable working hours" can be a moving target and there are days or weeks where you may need to plow through. Maybe this week you have two briefs due, a mediation, and a court hearing. There’s no getting around the fact that those types of weeks will require long hours and probably lots of coffee. But that’s not every week, and you should try to set some boundaries and prevent yourself from falling into a routine where you aren’t constantly burning the candle at both ends. Otherwise, both your health and your work will suffer.
Your work as an attorney can be all-consuming. Your client’s problems become your problems, and you’re laser-focused on providing them the best representation possible.
There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. But spending time with loved ones is a great way to remind you of what is most important in your life. Yes, your work is important, and your clients are important. But you also need to remember what is important to you.
Schedule in time for friends, family, and hobbies. Call your mom. Meet up with a friend. Get away from your working world and spend time with people who know you as a person, not as a lawyer.
We all know how important exercise is. It’s the reason gyms are packed the entire month of January. But it is hard to consistently fit exercise into our busy daily lives.
Here’s what we suggest--just do something! You don’t need to craft an elaborate plan to get up at 5 a.m. and follow a complicated workout routine. Start with something you can do consistently, and then build from there. It can be as simple as committing to taking a 30-minute walk at lunch every day. Do that for a month straight before taking on more.
Exercise doesn’t just bring physical health benefits. It can also act as a stress reducer. It is a time where you can give your brain a rest and let it recharge.
When people think of exhaustion, they typically think of physical exhaustion. But for lawyers, more often, it is a feeling of mental exhaustion. You get to that point in the day where you just want to sit mindlessly in front of a Friends rerun. That’s because the primary muscle you have used all day is your brain, and it is, in fact exhausted! Getting some exercise during the day lets your brain recharge and can give you a boost of mental energy.
While we have laid out some strategies to help combat stress and take control over your day, sometimes that is not enough. You may be in a place where it is helpful to speak to a therapist. And guess what, you’re not alone.
It can be hard to see that sometimes. The legal industry is filled with overachieving personalities that can struggle to admit when they need help. And it’s not unique to the legal industry. Michael Phelps, the world’s most decorated Olympic swimmer, is a great example. Despite all the success and accolades, he struggled with depression and anxiety until he took the step to speak with someone about it.
There are lots of great resources to get the help you need. Here are some places to start:
For many lawyers, the law is not just a profession; it’s a calling. It’s a way of life. Part of what makes the job so rewarding is that you are helping people navigate through complex issues.
But remember that your ability to perform as a lawyer at a high level is directly related to your ability to manage your own stress. To take care of your clients, you need to take care of yourself. Start today.