Practicing law takes a toll on your physical and mental health. It’s not only the long hours — it’s the stress. Lawyers face unique pressures ranging from the nature of their cases to high billable hours to dealing with around-the-clock client demands. Lawyers suffer from depression and are at least twice as likely to exhibit problem behaviors with alcohol than the general public.
Learning to Be a Healthy Lawyer Is Part of Being a Good Lawyer
The reality of practicing law is different than studying it in law school. Most law schools have done a poor job of teaching how to practice wellness as a lawyer. I am encouraged, though, by reports that leading law firms are committing to the ABA wellness pledge and that more law schools are taking a hard look at this issue. It is imperative for all law schools to develop a curriculum around how to deal with potentially debilitating stress while maintaining good physical, mental and emotional health.
This is the first post in a six-part series on “What You Didn’t Learn in Law School,” aimed at helping new and experienced lawyers build those skills for a long, healthy and successful career. But please understand, these are not soft skills. They are survival skills that will empower lawyers to thrive in their personal and professional lives.
Survival Skill No. 1: Emotional Resilience
Emotional resilience is the ability to bounce back in the face of setbacks or challenges, emerging stronger, wiser and more powerful from the experience. Resilience is critical to lawyers.
Throughout the course of their careers, lawyers will face a predictable string of setbacks and challenges. It’s the nature of practicing law: Two lawyers go before a judge and only one will prevail.
Lawyers will respond differently to this winner-take-all environment. They may feel beaten down, pessimistic and burnt out — their self-esteem and confidence diminished, and their professional well-being compromised. Or they become resilient, learning from the setback without internalizing the loss.
There is often a misperception that because lawyers tend to be high-functioning and intelligent, they are more resilient than other professionals and the general population. Dr. Larry Richard, an expert in the psychology of lawyers, has made a broad study of the emotional resilience of lawyers. According to Richards’ research, if you rank people according to their emotional resilience on a scale of 0 to 100, from lesser to greater resilience, the general population clusters around the 50th percentile. As a group, lawyers average around the 30th percentile. In fact, 90 percent of lawyers fall below the 50 percent level.
What Makes Lawyers so Emotionally Fragile?
Pessimism. We’re taught in law school to always look for what could go wrong — the downside, the worst-case scenario. That may be good lawyering, but this pessimist view eventually colors our outlook on our life and career. Constantly looking for the negative can eat away at you and put you in danger of losing the passion you have for your work. This pessimism is the first reason lawyers lack resilience. We come home at night feeling drained, which may lead us to self-medicate.
Isolation. Lawyers are also more likely to isolate themselves and develop fewer social connections. Resiliency is not limited to being internally strong, where you can sit by yourself in the eye of a hurricane. Instead, it’s having an engaged social network that can support you when you need it most. Almost every lawyer in treatment for alcohol abuse at Caron will talk about how they felt isolated, physically or emotionally. Before I went to treatment myself 16 years ago, my wife would go up to bed, I’d say goodnight, and then I’d get out a half-gallon of vodka and spend the next hour or two drinking. Even though I was married, I was emotionally disconnected from her.
Perfectionism. Perfectionism is another obstacle to resilience. Lawyers often expect themselves to get things exactly right. It’s important to understand the difference between striving for excellence and the obsession with perfectionism. Excellence puts you at the top of your class or on the podium at the Olympics. Perfection, however, is an ideal that can never be achieved, certainly not in this world and definitely not in the practice of law.
Most lawyers understand this on a rational level, but for many, there is always a subconscious desire for perfectionism — an itch that can never be scratched. The constant anxiety about work never goes away as long as they practice law. They feel unsuccessful no matter what they do. Perfectionism creates unrealistic expectations, which drives self-blame.
Teaching Yourself Resilience
No one is born resilient. It’s a skill that is 100 percent learned and can easily be built up with training. In fact, the U.S. Army has a whole series of programs designed to aid service members and their families in developing mental, physical, emotional and behavioral toughness. The resiliency training helps participants cope with adversity, adapt to change and overcome challenges. The Army provides resiliency training to give soldiers the best possible chance at survival and success before, after and during service. Studies have shown a direct tie between the resilience learned in this training and a soldier’s long-term success in the Army.
Law schools and law firms should be providing similar training to students and young associates. In the meantime, here are six steps you can take to be more resilient:
- Look at adversity as an opportunity to increase confidence and self-efficacy. This is the classic “glass is half-full” question. At the heart of it, we are flipping our view of something from a negative perspective to a positive one. We are training ourselves to think positively, but there is more to it than that. Our low points truly are our best opportunities for positive change.
- Don’t be so hard on yourself. Lighten up. We are our own worst critics, always thinking the worst of ourselves. When you start to go down a spiral of self-doubt and self-hatred, stop and ask whether you would say those destructive things to a friend. We must learn to accept what we can control and let go of what we can’t.
- Build energy through relationships. Look at social gatherings as a welcome break, something that can give you energy. Strong relationships are critical to emotional resilience. They are a source of support, a built-in sounding board, a way to get a different perspective on work and life. It can also be worthwhile to step out of your comfort zone and join clubs or volunteer for organizations that reflect your values. Ultimately, you will be better at your job, more balanced and more resilient if you connect with people in a variety of ways.
- Understand the difference between perfectionism and excellence. The term “work smarter not harder” is an important one. We can learn to maximize our efficiency and productivity. If we have the right tools, we can spend five hours on a case instead of 10 and achieve the same result. Perfect is the enemy of the good.
- Stay in the present. Lawyers are paid to worry about what might go wrong in the future, but they also tend to second-guess themselves about things they’ve already done. In reality, all we have in this world is this moment, right now. Clients may expect 24/7 availability, even demand it. But that doesn’t mean you think about work 24/7. Instead, commit to leaving work at the office and learn to set boundaries around your personal time. Obsessing about cases during time with family and friends steals from the joy in those experiences.
- Practice self-care. Make it a priority to eat healthy and stay active. Take a walk, meditate or sit by the fire reading a book. Certain foods are more likely to boost your mood while others may make you more lethargic. Nutritionists and trainers can be really helpful in creating a realistic routine to follow.
- Embrace emotional resilience as a critical part of good lawyering. Emotional and mental health touches on everything in our lives. If the U.S. Army thinks these skills are essential for success on the battlefield, shouldn’t they be a part of practicing law as well?
By exercising these skills, you will develop the emotional strength to handle the demands of a successful legal career with resilience. Instead of falling into the dark holes of isolation and perfectionism, you can be more balanced in your work and family life — and become a better problem-solver, able to look at the challenges facing you with greater perspective.
Next month, we’ll examine a related issue: professional burnout. We’ll discuss how to keep ourselves energized and motivated in our careers over the long term.
If you’re struggling with these issues, we also encourage you to seek therapeutic help as soon as possible.
Disclosure: Caron Treatment Centers offers recovery programs for legal professionals that address the unique pressures and demands lawyers and their families face.