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The stress-free law practice

Many of you saw the headline of this column and thought one of two things: “That is absolutely impossible” or “Yes, I want that.”

I am fairly certain that a completely stress-free law practice is not possible, any more than a stress-free life is possible. But certainly there are practice areas for lawyers that lead to more stress than others.

And not all stress is bad for you. Good trial lawyers get excited and amped up for a big trial just like athletes do for a big game. The “fight or flight” adrenaline rush was critical for our ancestors to survive and still comes in handy today.

But chronic stress is a chronic problem for many lawyers. It seems to be inherent in the practice of law.

We set up shops that invite people to bring in their problems – and not the easy or simple ones. We take on their worst problems, often dealing with their most important and emotional issues: freedom, health, financial security or family relationships. A typical client is often unhappy about having the problem and likewise unhappy about having to pay a lawyer to take care of the problem.

Lawyers are trained to focus on logic and set aside emotion – good for dispassionate examination of a challenging problem, but probably not the best method for dealing with personal stress.

The results of such chronic stress are as tragic as they are predictable. Death by suicide among lawyers is six times the suicide rate of the general population, making it the third leading cause of death among attorneys after cancer and cardiac conditions.

A quality-of-life survey conducted by the North Carolina Bar Association reported that almost 26 percent of the bar’s members exhibited symptoms of clinical depression. A Johns Hopkins University study found that among more than 100 occupations studied, lawyers were three times more likely to suffer from clinical depression than any other profession.

Alcohol and drug dependency rates among lawyers are around double the rate of the general population.

Just reading the data is depressing. But it also rings true with our anecdotal experiences. Most lawyers who have been in practice for a length of time have known an attorney lost to suicide. Most attorneys sometimes have bad days and professional situations that are miserable and occasionally seem unbearable. Almost every lawyer has had a conversation or phone call that included more anger than seems reasonable for the situation.

Recognizing the potential problem is, as the cliche goes, half the battle. To learn about coping with stress, I talked with licensed professional counselor Rebecca R. Williams, who coordinates Lawyers Helping Lawyers services for the Oklahoma Bar Association.

Although I was focused on the long-term effect of stress on a veteran lawyer, she reminded me that new attorneys are also particularly vulnerable as they step onto the playing field, often without mentoring or support, and with the unrealistic belief they should have all the answers.

Can stress become a lifestyle or work culture? It absolutely can, according to Williams.

In many pockets of the legal profession, excessive work hours and intense caseloads are the norm. The risk of appearing weak or incapable lessens the likelihood of someone reaching out for help or support and increases the chances of a particular stress phase turning into an anxiety disorder, depression or substance abuse problem.

Williams urges attorneys to be aware of the following symptoms:

* isolation from colleagues, friends or family

* feelings of being overwhelmed

* feelings of inadequacy

* not adhering to set work hours

* losing sight of a realistic caseload

* difficulty turning down work

* letting your work schedule derail your plans for physical activity

* difficulty organizing and concentrating

* resistance to asking for help or support

* avoiding certain clients or files

* increased alcohol substance use

* increase in time spent on nonproductive, non-billable tasks such as Internet surfing or an unhealthy relationship

To cope with stress, Williams recommends lawyers:

* Keep something to look forward to every week that involves being around other people.

* Attend monthly LHL discussion groups, if only to have a sandwich and listen.

* Hire someone temporarily to help organize your space and files.

* Incorporate 15-minute activity breaks during the work day to walk around the parking lot or run up a flight of stairs.

* Promote and encourage laughter.

* Meditate daily or simply slow down your breathing and focus on one thing or concept only, for several minutes, several times a day.

* Take a few deep breaths when feeling stressed and think about all of the good things about your practice and life.

* Schedule fun and recreation on your calendar weekly.

* Participate in frequent new experiences with your partner, friends or colleagues.

* Talk about your feelings regularly with someone you trust.

* Schedule a quitting time. Sometimes long work days are required, but we all have to acknowledge we are not as effective and sharp in our 10th working hour of the day as in our first.

Also, personal consultation is as important as professional consultation, so identify mentors and others for your personal support.

Remember there are some potential clients too challenging for you to represent. Sometimes there is just a personality conflict. Everyone is entitled to a lawyer, but not everyone is entitled to you.

Finally, don’t take on too much at one time. Every lawyer has had to deal with the temptation of taking on a new client when they are already overloaded. Deep inside we can sometimes hear a voice of insecurity that if we turn away this new client, we may soon not have enough work to do. But you do a disservice to yourself, your family and your potential new client if you take on more than you can comfortably handle.

One part of a life skill that many lawyers must exercise more often is saying “no” gracefully and firmly. It is better to do a few volunteer and community activities well than to give half attention to many.

Being a lawyer is an honor. This is a great profession. Not everyone gets to help people with their most important problems. But to take care of your clients, you must take the time to take care of yourself first.

Lawyers are often very self-sacrificing. Maybe now is the time for you to dial back on the self-sacrifice and focus on having a long and healthy law practice.

Jim Calloway is the director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program. He publishes the weblog Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips at jimcalloway.typepad.com. He can be contacted at jimc@okbar.org.

About Jim Calloway