Stress in the new millennium; lawyers who tie up too much of their self-esteem in winning constantly suffer high levels of stress.
As the 21st century approaches, the amount and intensity of stress that people experience are increasing. Our society is not only becoming more complex, but the rate of change is accelerating.
Like other people, trial lawyers have to deal with the stress of everyday life. They also have the added challenge of handling specific stressors induced by their role in the legal system.
In theory, lawyers should be well prepared to cope effectively with stress. They pass through a highly competitive and rigorous educational process to obtain their law degrees, and passing the bar exam is an additional challenge. These stressful experiences should ensure that a lawyer has not only the technical competence but also the mental and emotional stamina needed to make a legal career manageable and enjoyable.
Nevertheless, lawyers must cope with the stressors inherent in a highly competitive and constantly changing legal system. In addition, family difficulties, job insecurities, financial problems, and physical illnesses affect lawyers as well as others. Since stress in one area often magnifies stress in other areas, lawyers are often highly susceptible to stress-related disorders.
Numerous studies have documented this problem. For example, a 1990 ABA survey showed that 71 percent of lawyers who responded felt fatigued at the end of a workday, 17 percent had troubled marriages, and 13 percent consumed six or more alcoholic drinks per day. (American Bar Association, The State of the Legal Profession, Report No. 1, at 17 (1990); see Stewart I. Edelstein & Irwin Sollinger, Twenty-Six Ways to Cope with Stress, TRIAL, Feb. 1991, at 102.)
Stress--whether the sufferer is a lawyer or someone from another walk of life--is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. It is simply an experience that requires people to adapt. For example, during a trial a lawyer may be surprised by the testimony of an expert witness. This will usually trigger a stress response. How quickly and how well the attorney adapts the trial strategy to the expert witness's unexpected testimony will determine the duration and potential negative effects of the stress.
Stress can be caused by an event or even the anticipation of an event (imagine how you feel sitting in the dentist's office waiting to have a root canal procedure done). Other stress is self-induced and results when people create their own stress by labeling an event as stressful or by being too self-critical.
For example, imagine driving down the road when a small child runs out in front of your car. You swerve and avoid hitting the child, but you experience a strong stress reaction complete with pounding heart, sweaty palms, and trembling. Few people would react in any other way.
Now imagine it is the day of a major trial and you arrive in the courtroom only to find that you have left critical papers in your office. Almost every attorney would find this stressful. If you are prone to self-induced stress, you berate yourself endlessly. If you react in a healthy way, you acknowledge your error and begin brain-storming solutions. That night at home you make a resolution to always double-check your briefcase. The stress-prone attorney, on the other hand, is still wallowing in recriminations.
Mental health professionals have learned some important facts about stress. For example, we know that the effects of stress are cumulative, meaning that when a person has to deal with more than one major stressful event, the effect may be overwhelming. Also, people vary widely in their ability to cope with stress, and what is stressful for one person is not necessarily stressful for another.
Warning signs that a person is being overwhelmed by stress include
* heightened irritability,
* sleep disturbances,
* difficulty with sexual functioning,
* over- or undereating,
* increased alcohol consumption, and
* withdrawal from interpersonal relationships.
The research also indicates that highly stressed people are more prone to heart disease, tension headaches, gastrointestinal problems, and even common colds than are people who report having lower levels of stress.
Although some events are stressful for everyone--the loss of a spouse, for example, is consistently ranked as the most stressful event that anyone can experience--the event itself does not determine either the duration or the magnitude of the stress experience. The person's interpretation of the event will determine how debilitating the stress is.
Sources of lawyer stress
A variety of stressors can take a severe toll on lawyers, especially trial lawyers. Consider these:
* Financial concerns. Each year thousands of new lawyers enter practice. Until they are well established (which usually takes several years), they may encounter financial hardship. Lawyers who are prone to worrying can become preoccupied by financial concerns, and these can be a constant source of stress. Even established lawyers may have difficulty handling stress caused by cash flow problems.
* Need to win. Winning cases can be exhilarating, but every lawyer loses occasionally. Lawyers who tie up too much of their self-esteem in winning constantly suffer high levels of stress. Many lawyers are neurotic perfectionists, who are at high risk for stress-related disorders.
* Clients. Dependent and demanding clients--those who call every day and want the lawyer to make every decision for them--are difficult. Angry clients often vent their frustrations with their opponents on the most convenient target, their lawyer.
Also, no lawyer is immune to the emotional stress caused by dealing with physically injured clients. Lawyers who lose a case involving a severely injured client may experience intense feelings of failure and despair.
* Lawyer image. No other profession is the butt of as many derogatory jokes as the legal profession. Constant public criticism can erode a trial lawyer's sense of personal worth. This, in turn, erodes his or her ability to cope with stress.
* Lack of time. Demands on successful lawyers' time can be extreme. Long hours at the office not only wear them out physically but also can cause havoc in their personal lives. Lawyers may feel torn by conflicting emotions: They may feel simultaneously angry about family demands placed on them and guilty about spending too little time with family members. People who are unable to achieve a balanced lifestyle often become workaholics--an ineffective way of dealing with stress.
People can handle stress in either an adaptive or a dysfunctional manner. Unfortunately, dysfunctional coping strategies, such as alcohol and drug abuse, appear to be easier and seem to offer quicker relief. These strategies, however, often lead to new and even more difficult problems.
Those who deal effectively with stress share common coping skills. These skills can be developed at any stage of a person's life. Lawyers who want to cope successfully should use these strategies:
* Define success as satisfaction and happiness. Healthy people enjoy the process of what they do as much as they enjoy reaching specific goals. They never waste their mistakes or failures by engaging in excessive self-recrimination. Successful attorneys make realistic appraisals of their mistakes and failures, thereby improving their skills.
For example, consider an attorney named John who just lost a case he believed he would easily win. In the past he would have criticized himself endlessly, using words like "stupid" and "incompetent" to describe his courtroom performance. He would have gone home and had too much to drink, been irritable with his family, and still have felt lousy the next day.
John has learned, however, that this behavior increases his stress level. Now he allows himself a few minutes to feel bad, but then he begins to ask himself solution-oriented questions: What have I learned? What did I miss in my pre-trial preparations? How might I do better next time?
Notice that John does not blame himself or anyone else. He quickly transforms the stress of losing the case into energy for learning. This approach eliminates self-induced stress and helps him cope with unavoidable external stress.
* Achieve a healthy balance between professional and personal lives. People who devote appropriate amounts of time to their interpersonal relationships are happier and less prone to stress-induced disorders. Hard work is, of course, desirable, but workaholic attorneys are seldom truly happy. Their preoccupation with work typically covers deeper problems.
Healthy attorneys recognize that relationships with family and friends were not meant to be adversarial, and they seek positive solutions to family and interpersonal disagreements. These lawyers share their feelings with spouses and friends, which brings the stress-relieving benefits of cathartic release and emotional support.
* Maintain a physically healthy lifestyle. Exercise can both relieve current stress and improve a person's ability to cope with future stress. Healthy attorneys exercise regularly but reasonably. Compulsive exercise routines that leave a person worn out are counterproductive and are seldom continued for long. Likewise, a healthy eating pattern is not a deprivation diet but emphasizes moderation and variety.
Relaxation, an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, is critical in reducing the toxic effects of stress. One person might find a warm bath relaxing while another is refreshed by a five-mile run. The key to a healthy lifestyle is to engage in relaxing activities on a regular basis.
* Restrain "Type A" behavior. Type A personalities are characterized by excessive competitiveness, aggressiveness, impatience, anger, and perfectionism. Although these traits are sometimes beneficial to trial lawyers, a lifestyle based on this behavior puts a person at high risk for developing heart disease.
Flexibility, adaptability, a sense of humor, and creative problem solving are characteristics of healthy attorneys. For example, a healthy attorney copes with a canceled flight by passing time in the coffee shop, reading a good book, or catching up on work. This lawyer responds to problems in a relaxed but effective manner.
Type A lawyers can take steps to change their behavior. They might begin by reading articles and books on stress prevention. Next, they might experiment with modifying small aspects of their behavior. For example, they might set aside an hour a day for relaxation or time with family, or they might interrupt their self-criticism and say, "I'm human. What have I learned?" If these small changes seem extremely difficult--or impossible--the Type A attorney might want to seek professional help. Type A behavior patterns are often ingrained, so people with those traits might need some help in changing them.
* Cultivate good client relations. The more stress a client experiences, the more stress the attorney will experience, so healthy lawyers do all they can to ease their clients' stress rather than add to it. They remember that their clients sought legal counsel in the first place because of a stressful event or situation.
Healthy attorneys cultivate good listening skills and make sure that they understand what their clients tell them. These attorneys make certain that they return phone calls in a timely manner. They update their clients often on the progress of their cases, alleviating the anxiety that clients feel when they do not have adequate information. When unavoidable delays occur or clients must be kept waiting for appointments, these attorneys reduce stress by apologizing and updating their clients as soon as possible.
Practicing law, by its very nature, is a high-stress occupation. By combining efficiency with compassion in their practices, attorneys can avoid creating unnecessary stress for themselves or their clients. Further, by maintaining a sense of balance and perspective in their personal lives, lawyers can both reduce stress and develop better stress-coping skills. Lawyers who take these steps can enter the new millennium looking forward to enjoyable careers. Thomas L. Cory is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Chattanooga Tennessee.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Cory, Thomas L.|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1997|
|Previous Article:||Protecting medical malpractice claims against ERISA preemption.|
|Next Article:||Person to person: reclaiming the lawyer-client relationship.|