Why Lawyers are so Stressed Out and How to Prevent it
At an event hosted by the New York City Bar last week, around a dozen attorneys and interested professionals gathered at 42 West 44th Street in New York to talk about something not a lot of people in today’s society like to acknowledge: stress in the legal profession.
The workshop–titled Resilience for Lawyers: Practical Skills to Decrease Stress and Avoid Burnout–was run specifically by the Mindfulness in Law program, a group that meets monthly at the New York City Bar to discuss using meditative practices in the legal profession. The group is headed by Robert Chender, an attorney who started the program several years ago with the goal of seeing how mindfulness practices could potentially help lawyers. Law Street’s Social Media Marketing Assistant, Fatima Sarassoro, covered the event and had some interesting information to share about exactly why lawyers are so stressed and how they can better deal with that stress. After a conversation with her, a phone interview with Robert Chender, and an email exchange with Bjorn Sorenson–a presenter at the event–it became clear that there are important steps attorneys can take in their everyday life to de-stress and become more productive.
Stress is a funny thing; no two people experience it the same way. What might be stressful for one person, could be a normal daily occurrence for another. In addition, people cope with stressors differently depending on which coping mechanisms work best for them. One thing we do know about stress is that pretty much everyone experiences it. The workplace and money are some of the highest stress causing factors in America today. According to an annual stress survey done by the American Psychological Association, “Many adults say that money (37 percent) and work (31 percent) are a very significant source of stress in their life,” with only 13 percent of adults claiming that money is not at all a significant source of stress and only 12 percent claiming the same about work. In the field of law, specifically, people cite burnout as more common than in other fields because of pessimistic work environments and large amounts of debt from law school. The American Bar Association acknowledges that stress in the legal profession is well-documented, “Lawyers often have demanding schedules and heavy workloads, which may contribute to increased stress levels.”
In addition, part of the reason lawyers experience more stress than people in other professions is because of the high level of emotional involvement involved in their jobs. The practice of law attracts people who are very passionate, which then leads them to experience heightened emotions, like stress and anger, in response to their jobs–more so than many other professions.
According to Bjorn Sorenson–a consultant to mission-driven leaders, entrepreneurs, and businesses who gave a presentation at the event–law is a stressful profession, which then leads to a lot of stressed out lawyers not taking care of themselves and burning out early. At the event, he explained that life is on a spectrum; people fluctuate on that spectrum from stages of suffering and stress to stages of resiliency, sustainability, and flourishing throughout their life.
Because lawyers are taught in law school that they have to “think like a lawyer,” they have the skills to think analytically but not necessarily the skills to deal with the issues and stress that come along with that type of thinking. In addition to that law mentality, Robert Chender noted in a phone interview about mindfulness in law that,
Legal practitioners tend to be subject to certain qualities of mind that are more pronounced in lawyers than in other fields. For example, lawyers tend to be more pessimistic and lawyers tend to be more perfectionistic, which are adaptable or adaptive qualities at work but not so adaptive outside of work.
What’s the main stressor that comes from law? An inability for lawyers to focus, according to Sorenson. Apparently “47 percent of people are unhappy because they’re focusing on things other than what they are supposed to be focusing on.” Sorenson’s presentation explained how, even though in today’s day and age everyone assumes multitasking is the norm, our brains are actually incapable of multitasking. Instead, when people try to multitask they end up trying to do multiple things at once but doing neither one effectively. Trying to multitask leads to a lack of focus and productivity–perpetuating the problem. While this lack of focus is a challenge in all fields, it is especially prevalent among lawyers because of heavy workloads and heightened emotional responses to their work.
The question that comes from this is whether or not there is a place for awareness techniques like mindfulness to modulate the tendency toward negativity among lawyers. If stress is so prevalent, how can lawyers work to cope with the stress they face so they can be as effective in their careers and lives as possible? That’s exactly the question Sorenson hoped to answer when he spoke at the Resilience for Lawyers workshop.
At the root of the problem, Sorenson claims, it is imperative for the health of legal professionals that they sit back and realize one simple thing: before you are a lawyer you are a human being. As a human being, you have the power to control your own thoughts and reactions to situations. Unfortunately, Sorenson says, negative emotions are more contagious than positive ones. Sorenson notes that to get out of this negative rut, people have to choose to be positive, both with themselves and with others. While choosing to be positive can be difficult, there are some tips and tricks to use every day to keep a positive attitude in potentially negative situations.
One of the methods Sorenson talked about in detail is the SPA method–Situation, Posture, and Attitude. Before diving into the inevitably negative grumbling when something doesn’t go right, it is important to analyze the situation you’re in. After you assess what exactly the situation is, take a second to breathe and adjust your posture. Then you can decide exactly what attitude you are going to choose to have when it comes to dealing with your situation. Taking a moment to breathe, assess your situation and readjust your posture and attitude can be instrumental in maintaining a happy work environment and perpetuating a positive stress-free lifestyle.
The good news about these techniques is that they are applicable in all fields. When asked in an email interview how flexible these strategies are in other jobs, Sorenson said,
All of the techniques discussed in my workshop are applicable in other fields and other areas of life. In fact, my primary approach to these workshops is to share human skills, not legal skills. Resilience, emotional intelligence, social connection, a meaningful life…these are not the exclusive domain of lawyers.
In a phone interview, Robert Chender explained how he teaches mindfulness techniques to all kinds of businesses and investment professionals. In light of all this information, what is the main takeaway from the Resilience for Lawyers presentation?
Fatima, my fellow Law Streeter who covered the event, says she walked away from the hour and a half presentation with a better understanding of exactly how stressful law and the workplace can be. There seems to be a lack of comprehension among most people about just how energy-draining a lack of focus can be every day.
Sorenson commented in the interview that the main take away from this presentation should be:
We have the power to make our lives better. In-between every stressful emotional trigger in our lives and our habitual reactions, we can insert a space for our values-driven appropriate response. We have tremendous agency in our lives—even if we can’t always control the circumstances, we can control our attitude toward those circumstances.
Finally, Chender finished off our phone interview by putting the main point of the event pretty succinctly:
If there’s only one thing you can come out of this event remembering it should be that you can actually take a breath before you react to a situation that’s emotionally fraught. You don’t have to follow your habit or follow you impulse, but you can actually take a breath, stop, and then decide what you want to do not because of how you feel, but, perhaps, even in spite of how you feel.
When it comes to any job, especially being a lawyer, you have to help yourself before you can begin to help other people. So, remember to take a break, step back from stressful situations, and choose to tackle them head on with positivity to make your life as efficient and positive as possible.
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of one presenter’s name.