By Gary Miles, Esq.
We joined the legal profession for many different reasons. Some of us liked the prestige or the financial benefits. Others are attracted to the intellectual challenge. But the most prevalent reason is our desire to be of service to others, to help clients solve their problems.
But, many of us learned that the legal profession is filled with stressful situations. We have experienced that it is extremely challenging to serve our clients while at the same time maintaining a healthy work/life balance. Stress is an absolute in our profession. We are overwhelmed with constant telephone calls, emails, and scheduling deadlines. We face pressure to prepare our cases for court, deal with other attorneys, advocate passionately for our client, prepare documents, maintain a heavy caseload, etc. Our work environments are often very stressful. We work extremely long hours. On top of that, we often face financial pressures, bringing in business, paying the bills, etc.
What is the result of all that stress?
Have any of you felt overwhelmed, tired, burned out or frustrated?
Have you ever wondered if it was all worth it?
Have you ever resorted to any unhealthy practices just to deal with the pressure that you are under?
If so, you are not the only one.
EFFECT OF STRESS ON THE LEGAL PROFESSION
Sadly, the legal profession is “unwell.”
A 2016 study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the ABA revealed the following alarming statistics: 21% of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers, 28% struggle with some level of depression, and 19% demonstrate symptoms of anxiety. Most shocking, 11.4% of lawyers had suicidal thoughts in the prior year.
A 2014 article by the ABA found that more than 25% of attorneys who face formal disciplinary charges are identified as suffering from addiction or some other mental illness, and substance abuse plays a role in an overwhelming majority of disciplinary cases, malpractice claims, and trust fund violation cases.
Another study showed that 39% of lawyers say the long hours they worked negatively affect their personal lives. Particularly troubling, lawyers are one of the top five professions for the highest suicide rate.
The statistics are troubling, but tell only part of the story. So many of us while not reaching that level of difficulty nevertheless feel overworked, overwhelmed, deeply stressed and burned out. The stress we feel can be overwhelming. Physical symptoms of the stress can include tension, sleep disorders, fatigue, increased alcohol use, headaches, frequent colds and infections, higher blood pressure. We also may encounter psychological symptoms of stress such as worry, fear, confusion. Stress can cause poor job performance, disconnection from our peers and friends, and accidents.
WHAT IS WELLNESS FOR LAWYERS
Of course, generally, wellness means doing whatever we need to do on a daily basis to feel better, to be healthier, and to feel more serene on a daily basis. More specifically, for lawyers (and for those in other stressful professions) well-being includes:
1. Improving our work life balance. All too often, work not only controls our day, but invades our personal life at home and prevents us from having healthy and relaxing practices. It can affect our relationships with our spouse, children, family and friends.
2. Managing our stress better. Healthy practices help us to handle the stress of our profession without negatively affecting our mental or physical health.
3. Supporting a more positive mindset. We create better habits of supportive thoughts, throwing out negative self talk and limiting messages that cause us additional stress. We change our way of thinking to one that is more supportive of us and our goals.
4. Developing habits of regular self-care. We find time to take care of ourselves, to relax, to unwind. We make time for special friends and family.
TOOLS FOR WELLNESS FOR LAWYERS
How can we achieve a healthier lifestyle that supports our search for a fulfilling and complete life? Here are tools we can utilize in our daily life:
1. Practice mindfulness. Being present in the moment, calming our mind, relaxing our body, being aware of our emotions and feelings, and reflecting on where we are helps us to remain emotionally balanced.
2. Avoid HALT. Being hungry, angry, lonely or tired are warning signs. Be aware when you are any of those, and satisfy that need.
3. Nutrition. Often, we are too busy to eat well. Consuming fast food, eating junk, and eating too much to fill the “hole,” are all habits that many of us suffer from. It is faster and easier, and we have so little time. But, if you develop a clean nutrition practice, you will find that you not only feel better, look better, and have more energy, but mentally and emotionally you will feel stronger as well.
4. Regular exercise. Exercise is so important as a way to both feel healthy physically but also to relieve stress, whether it is jogging, going to the gym, playing a sport or just a long walk on a beautiful day. Being physically active can be a real asset to our wellness regimen. The key is finding some physical exercise that you truly enjoy.
5. Maintain boundaries. It is okay to say no. Separating our work focus from our personal and family time is critical. We get burned out very quickly when work consumes all of our day.
6. Organize our day. Start each day with a healthy routine and a plan for what we are going to accomplish when. Each day schedule not only our work activities, but also our lunch and our personal and self-care activities.
7. Avoid multitasking. Trying to do multiple things at once just increases the stress that we feel, and we tend to not complete any of those tasks very well. Instead, focus on completing one project (or step in a project) with that being your singular focus at that time.
8. Practice acceptance. There are many things in our life we cannot change- a toxic work environment, a demanding partner, clients who are never happy. Accept other people and circumstances in our life as being exactly how they are supposed to be, and focus instead on what we can change and control-our attitude and our actions.
9. Share with a trusted friend. When you are feeling stress, and circumstances are bothering you, share your feelings with someone you can trust, your spouse, sibling or best friend. Being open about what we are going through helps us to relieve the pressure and stress we have. Burying those feelings of stress can be very harmful.
10. Ask for help when needed. It as a sign of strength and maturity to ask for help. There are so many resources available to all of us that support us on our journey. Most states have Lawyer Assistance Programs whose mission it is to help lawyers respond to the stresses of their profession in a healthy and positive manner. Do not hesitate to seek help from trained professionals, such as therapists, primary care physicians, those experienced in recovery, etc.
We owe it to ourselves and our profession to take care of ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally. Stress is very common in our profession, and being aware of it along with these helpful steps to overcome it goes a long way toward allowing us to continue to practice law in a safe, healthy and effective manner. We are in a wonderful profession in which we help and serve others. Utilizing these wellness steps not only facilitates our successful practices as lawyers but also supports our desire to achieve a fulfilling life. And in our profession, let’s encourage open and honest conversations about wellness within the legal industry.
I now have the great pleasure of serving other attorneys and professionals by helping them achieve the most successful and fulfilling life they can. If you would like to chat further, please feel free to reach out to me and schedule a free discovery call here: https://calendly.com/garymiles-successcoach/one-one-discovery-call
The Lawyer Assistance Program(LAP) has Assisted Thousands of Maryland Lawyers
For Confidential Assistance Call 888.388.5459
LAP provides free, confidential assistance to all Maryland lawyers, judges, law school students, and support staff by offering assessment, referral, short-term counseling, and continued support to ensure long term success. If you are concerned about another lawyer you can make an anonymous referral to LAP. We offer financial assistance for Mental Health and Addiction Treatment.
Please also feel free to reach out to our LAP Committee Members and Volunteers https://www.msba.org/health-and-wellness/