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Got Stress? Get help.

August 14, 2010

Being a lawyer can be stressful.  No secret, right?  It’s a field of high expectations and long hours.  As a young lawyer learning the substantive and procedure rules, at times, you may also feel the burden of impressing your peers and senior colleagues as well as opposing counsel and judges before whom you appear because you don’t want anyone to think you can’t do your job.  Managing your colleagues, your clients, and your case load can become overwhelming, and before you know it, you may find that your mood is always off, your personal relationships are deteriorating, and/or you have a new dependence on alcohol or drugs.

The emotional struggles of lawyers is not a new story.  A 1991 Johns Hopkins study found that lawyers are more likely than any other professionals to be depressed.  How’s that for a pick-me-up?!  But the more you know about the causes and signs of depression and the like, the easier it will be for you to identify that you need help.

So what’s causing the stress?  Well, the sources can be internal or external – meaning either it’s how you emotionally react to the events in your life or it’s the stressful people/events in your life.  Are you a perfectionist? Are you your biggest critic who can’t see beyond your accomplishments and only notices the flaws?  When you receive constructive criticism, do you turn a deaf ear to the praises and focus only on what you need to improve? Or may be you work in an unprofessional environment and have the case load of 1 ½ associates?  Have there been recent personal developments such as a marriage, birth of a child, divorce, or death in the family and you haven’t been able to dedicate yourself to your personal life and take the time you need because of work?  Stress can come from anywhere.

One perhaps obvious issue is that many of us are not working 9 to 5.  Ever heard of more senior attorneys talking about how “back in the day,” they had to handwrite or type everything and the advent of technology has made the life of us young attorneys so much easier?  Sure, it would be miserable to type out a motion.  But the flip side is that the technology that was supposed to make our life easier has also contributed to the stress we deal with as lawyers.  With computers and smart phones, we work more efficiently as lawyers but the saved time isn’t deposited into our “personal life” account but is rather just used to take on more work.  Now we are accessible 24-hours a day, every day of the year, even if you’re on vacation on the other side of the country (or world).

All this is not to say that a stress free life is ideal.  A little stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it can motivate you to do better.  Yet, there are some things that you can when you’re getting stressed:

–  Set your sleep time.  Our bodies like routine and getting a good night’s rest will also enhance your immune system’s effectiveness.

–  Eat healthy and exercise.  It is tempting to head for the snack machine when it’s 8 pm and you’re still at work.  But plan ahead and keep healthy snacks in your office.  And while a routine exercise schedule is best, even taking a 5-minute break to walk around the block (or around the office if you really can’t leave the building) during a late night at work can be helpful.

–  Have a good attitude.  There’s a difference between being your own biggest critic and always being down on yourself.  Be aware of your own negative thinking and replace it with a positive attitude about your abilities and skills.

–  Stop and plan.  When you’re overworked and you can’t see your desk under all the case files and papers, taking time to plan and organize may seem futile.  But in reality, having an organized table may relieve some anxiety, and making a “to do” list or a chart outlining your cases/projects will also allow you to prioritize and refocus.  Plus, this way, the next time someone wants to give you more work, you can look to your chart to see whether you can actually take on more work.  There is a limited amount of time and energy so it’s not enough to work hard, you also have to work smart.

If you have tried all of this and you still feel overwhelmed or in distress for more than two weeks, don’t give up!  Reach out to family or friends or a counselor/therapist.  If you think they won’t understand what you’re going through or you don’t feel comfortable talking with them, then one great source specifically for lawyers is Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL).

LCL is a non-profit, independent corporation run by and for the benefit of Pennsylvania’s lawyers and judges and their families.  Its mission is to save the lives and careers of lawyers and judges suffering from substance abuse, chemical dependency, depression, stress and anxiety, compulsive gambling, and other serious emotional or mental health problems.  LCL’s confidential helpline, run by lawyers and judges, provides a free consultation and free referrals to healthcare professionals, free referrals to recovering lawyers and judges, follow up calls from its staff, as well as free information and literature.

The help is just a phone call away so don’t let yourself get in the way of the help you need.  There is nothing wrong with asking for help, especially if it means getting back some peace of mind and getting your life in order.  The person on the other line helping you is a member of the bar who has experienced what you are going through and knows how you feel.  You can also contact LCL in lieu of reporting others for violations under the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct (see RPC exception 8.3(c)) – in doing so, you may meet your duty to report under the RPC and you may also be getting a fellow attorney/judge the help he or she needs.  LCL staff protects the identify of LCL volunteers and those who call the helpline.  So you have nothing to lose by not calling!

All this talk about stress may not seem relevant but sometimes you can be in distress and not even know it.  If you are unsure about whether you need help, take one of LCL’s 3-minutes quizzes available on their website at  There are separate quizzes for stress and anxiety, depression, substance abuse or dependency, and compulsive gambling.  So take the quiz, and if you have to, make the call for help!

1-888-999-1941.  24 hours, 7 days a week, including holidays.

(For more information on LCL, check out its website at

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