There’s widespread acknowledgment that the law is one of the most stressful professions. So it’s no surprise that most of the resources on the topic focus on severe stress. From long-standing ABA reports on Lawyer Mental Health and Lawyer Assistance Programs to studies on how the pandemic has significantly amplified the phenomenon of lawyer stress, to countless commentaries about the impact of law firm culture on lawyer health – it’s abundantly clear that career-related stress is a complex problem.
Fortunately, however, there are many high-impact principles to learn, tools to use, and skills to develop that will allow you to manage yourself and your environment more effectively and thus reduce your ongoing job-related stress level.
The Relationship Between Time and Stress
To start on the process of reducing stress, it is important to understand the source of anxiety in your workplace and to embrace the changes that can make a big difference. Stress reduction in the legal field often boils down to effective time management. And this is as true for court-heavy litigators as it is for purely transactional attorneys.
Where Does Stress Come From?
Professional stress is primarily caused by a feeling of being overwhelmed. Too many things to do. Too many things to think about. Too many people interrupt each other. Attorneys often rush around putting out fires. At the end of the day, they’re exhausted.
The fires get extinguished, sure, but as with real fires, there’s a mess left behind. And nothing else got accomplished, so the mountainous to-do list grows ever larger. To-do lists often hang heavy in the back of their mind, unwritten. And that means that in addition to worries about not accomplishing important tasks, lawyers also worry about forgetting some of those tasks. The cycle feeds on itself. And the stress of one critical player in a law firm increases the anxiety throughout the staff.
Time Management is Critical
How many times do we say we’d be fine if we had a few extra hours in our day? Yes, it’s not possible to give someone extra time, but it wouldn’t really help even if we could. The issue is usually not about having time but managing it.
And managing time comes down to managing our choices. We choose how to spend every minute of every day. If you don’t make the best choices, you won’t be able to make the most of your time. So the key is learning how to choose the right ways to manage your minutes, days, and weeks.
Planning Reduces Stress
Planning is the key to managing time and thereby reducing stress. Without an intentional plan for their time, attorneys are faced with constant interruptions that lead to a haphazard approach to some tasks and the tendency to let others slide. The most important long-term tasks often don’t have immediate deadlines, so if a lawyer does not deliberately schedule time for these tasks, they may never get completed, and that knowledge leads to incredible stress.
The right planning techniques can be a game changer. When an attorney can establish blocks of distraction-free time, the amount they can accomplish is often astounding. They also feel confident knowing that they have scheduled a time to complete everything so they don’t have to worry about missing deadlines.
The schedule should include time for answering emails and communicating with staff and clients. By keeping those communications limited to specific times, attorneys can limit costly interruptions and establish expectations with colleagues and staff that ultimately reduce stress.
Every one of us has only a finite amount of time and attention (check out the book 4000 Weeks in the LTM library). Splitting attention by trying to multi-task usually results in a loss, with neither task getting sufficient attention and both taking much longer than usual to complete. And multi-tasking can be incredibly stressful, especially for certain personality types. So, one boundary to set would involve resisting the urge to multitask.
As discussed above, another set of boundaries involves interruptions in communications. Let your associates know the times you’re available for discussion. Let your clients know when they can expect to hear from you. Be diligent about availability during your scheduled times and turn off notifications when you’re supposed to have time focused on something else. The peace and focus will do wonders for your stress levels.
Finally, you have to be realistic about what you can accomplish. Don’t be afraid to say no when you have too much on your plate. Cultivate a culture where you can delegate responsibilities.
Tackle the Tasks Weighing on the Back of Your Mind
Maybe it’s a client who is nitpicking minuscule dollars in an otherwise-straightforward deal sheet. Maybe it’s drafting the 300th set of instructions for a QDRO. Maybe it’s an analysis of a court opinion where appellate justices split hairs over the interpretation of a new regulation. The job you’re trying to avoid is about as appealing as showing up at the dentist for a root canal. It is so easy to put off tasks that annoy us, and the inclination is natural. But tackling these unwanted tasks is a sure way to reduce and manage stress. Some suggestions for overcoming reluctance include:
- Take on an unwanted job first thing in the morning. Not only are you most rested and alert, but that accomplishment early on leaves a sense of well-being that can carry throughout the day.
- Start with a tiny step. Open the case file and look at the last two entries. The familiarity can make it seem approachable and less intimidating.
- Break the task into small chunks. List each mini-task on the to-do list and take satisfaction as you complete each one.
Regularly taking on dreaded tasks leads to a sense of empowerment as well as a reduction in stress.
Technology Should Reduce Stress, but Often Has the Opposite Effect
We have so many tools to save us time. Why does it seem like so often they control us and take our time instead of serving us to increase productivity of our time?
Often a big problem is that we do not fully understand how to use the technology around us, particularly if we had no choice in the matter. If your law firm requires you to work with new task management software when you were quite comfortable with the old arrangement, you might learn only the bare minimum to get by. Investing a little time in learning the full range of tools and shortcuts and how this software integrates with other programs you use can save considerable time in the long run—or at least considerable frustration. Either way, stress is reduced.
Technology also allows an astonishing array of interruptions in our lives. Learn how to manage notifications so you have time that is not interrupted except in case of emergencies.
Signs of Stress Problems
Stress can be so pervasive in legal practice that many attorneys do not realize the effect it is having on their lives. Effects show up in physical health as well as mental health. Some questions to consider include:
- Am I feeling tired more than I used to?
- Do I get headaches frequently?
- Are my neck muscles tense all the time?
- Is stress affecting my relationship with my family?
- Am I complaining a lot? Or does it seem like others around me are always complaining?
- Do I find myself clenching my jaw?
- Am I avoiding decisions?
- Do I need excessive caffeine to get through the day?
- Do I feel a sense of resentment toward others?
If not reduced and managed, stress can become chronic and lead to burnout. For most attorneys, the increase in stress occurs gradually over time so it simply seems normal. However, stress is dangerous to all aspects of health and can ruin relationships in the workplace and at home.
The practice of law is demanding, and successful lawyers will always feel the keen pull of demands on their time. When they manage time and tasks for productivity, time spent at work should not be a horrible ordeal that needs to be balanced out by excessive meditation and vacations.
But many lawyers enjoy relationships and activities outside of their practice that plays a key role in their lives. Devoting time and attention to these people and things brings them satisfaction and makes them complete.
Many lawyers find their highest calling in the challenges of the legal profession and can live happily engaged in the practice throughout most of their time. But you deserve to have time and bandwidth to focus on something other than your legal practice if you so desire.
The term work-life balance is not really accurate in describing that. In reality, adults in any profession spend more time working than they do engaging in hobbies or connecting with loved ones. It’s the way of the world for most of us. So most attorneys seeking a “balance” are not going to have a balanced scale with equal amounts of time on either side. And during a big trial or other projects, the time available for personal interests may dwindle to nothing.
Over the long term, though, attorneys who want to have time available to engage in their favorite pastimes or hang out watching football with friends need to set boundaries and carve time out regularly to protect their outside interests. Law firm culture should not make attorneys and staff feel like they have let the team down if they can’t focus on law 24/7.
Strategies for Managing Stress Flare-Ups
The best defense is a good offense. Fight stress at the source and you won’t need to spend so much time managing the symptoms. But life throws us curve balls, and sometimes the best strategies in the world cannot keep us from feeling stressed.
What happens then?
A few steps can help get stress levels under control:
- Pinpoint the source of the stress and take steps to stop it from growing worse
- Try some relaxation techniques. What works for one person will not work for everyone. Try deep breathing exercises, muscle relaxation strategies, or inhaling relaxing scents
- Incorporate movement into your day. Regular moderate exercise such as walking can help your body manage stress naturally. Yoga can be particularly helpful because it comes with exercise with deep breathing techniques and mental stress reduction strategies
- Review your time management plans to see if you need to account for additional problem areas
- Treat yourself to a dinner out, concert, or bouquet of flowers. Enjoy sensations that you usually reserve for special occasions
- Find something that makes you laugh. When we share laughter with others, the healing effects are even more powerful and long-lasting
For everyday stress reduction, in addition to time management techniques, good sleep and eating habits can also make a big difference. You don’t have to give up everything you love, but cutting back and making a few substitutions can lower background stress in your life.
Help With Stress Management
You can’t be an expert on everything. In your home, if you’re good in the kitchen at making soufflés and sauces, you might need to call in a professional closet organizer to help you develop the best plan to control clutter in your storage areas.
Similarly, if you provide outstanding legal services to clients, you may not be an expert on time and stress management techniques. After all, understanding what to do and knowing how to make it a habitual practice are two completely different things. There are professionals who train lawyers on how to make the most productive use of their time and prevent stress. There are professionals who help lawyers find the factors that trigger stress so they can develop solutions for management.
Contact Our Stress Management Attorney Coaches Today
Don’t be afraid to seek advice and try techniques to find what works best for you.