Whenever I used to watch shows on television about lawyers (Boston Legal and The Guardian were among my favorites), the lawyers always seemed to have everything going for them: great cases, exciting personal and professional lives, and, of course, they always won in the end. If only real life were just like television!
Becoming a lawyer sounded glamorous before I attended law school, but I quickly learned that it is not at all like it appears on TV. Just like being a quarterback in the NFL, it might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Sure, when you’re on top, like the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers is right now, it’s great, but what about dealing with all the pressures of the job? Former Dallas Cowboys Hall-of-Famer Troy Aikman once said that when things were going badly, one of his coaches would put his arm around him and say, “So you really want to be an NFL quarterback, huh?”
The reality, of course, is that a lawyer’s career, like that of an NFL quarterback, is filled with ups and downs. Difficult cases and clients, tight deadlines, tough-to-solve dilemmas, and financial pressures often invade an otherwise fulfilling practice. The pressures never seem to end, they just change from week to week or month to month. Depending on your area of practice, being judged on whether you win or lose is another pressure some lawyers cannot escape. How you deal with that pressure can determine your success as well as your ability to stay healthy and happy and help you avoid mistakes that can prove costly.
You might like many of the challenges in your practice, even thrive on them, but you might also lie awake at night worrying about others. Eventually, you’ll feel some stress.
So what do you do about it? How can you control the stress and turn it into something positive?
As any medical professional will tell you, constant stress and anxiety, unchecked, can lead to physical changes in your body – wear and tear that sometimes eventually leads to long-term, even permanent, ailments. In addition, stress and anxiety can lead to mistakes you might not otherwise make in your practice. Missed deadlines are among the more common mistakes that lead to malpractice claims. These are mistakes that good lawyers sometimes make. Small but important details can fall through the cracks and then lead to bigger problems.
Lawyers can do several things to alleviate or reduce the anxiety that comes with the job. You have to be able to step back and assess what’s going on. Often, lawyers are in that mode of constantly pushing forward, without taking the time to stop and reflect. This is where personal and professional balance can make a difference. You don’t have to put in 12- to 14-hour days to be a good lawyer. In fact, working too hard and pushing yourself too much can lessen your effectiveness. Milwaukee attorney Bill Mulligan of Davis & Kuelthau says, “Some lawyers fall into the trap of being obsessive about their work. They are perfectionists. As a result, they sometimes overdo it. It becomes counterproductive.”
The emphasis on perfection that starts in law school rarely lets up once a lawyer is in practice. And the resulting stress only grows with difficult clients and financial pressures – especially for solo practitioners. Mulligan, who works in a large firm, says, “I think it’s tougher for solos and general practitioners. I admire what they do. I can focus on my area of expertise. But for solos, they sometimes have to do a little bit of everything. That can add to the stress, I think.”
That means you need to make time for yourself. Baldwin attorney Tom Schumacher, who is with Bakke Norman, says daily exercise is critical. “It gives me time to think uninterrupted by others. We are not here forever and some matters that we really think are important each day really are not. Make time for activities you really enjoy. I have gone back to working as a basketball referee. It’s fun for me and presents a different type of stress. It allows me to utilize stress management skills in a different context and helps me put everything in perspective.”
Madison attorney Michelle Behnke says she keeps up her weekly exercise routine, even if it means getting up early to do it. “I find that it relieves stress and clears my head. I have also learned to keep healthy snacks in my office so that I don’t ‘eat my stress.’ Chocolate and chips may make me feel better for a moment, but they don’t give me lasting energy or keep my mind focused if I’m working late.”
Mulligan is an avid runner. “I try to run every morning, even when I’m on the road traveling. I even sometimes get other lawyers to run with me. We never talk business. Instead, we talk sports, television, current events, you name it. It’s important to step away from work mentally. Having other interests really keeps my mind sharp. I follow college basketball, the Brewers, Packers, the NFL generally.”
Just Say No
Another good way to limit the effects of anxiety on your practice is taking the right clients and cases. Do the work that is a good fit for you, work that takes advantage of your strengths. Dabbling in areas of law with which you are not familiar can lead to not only increased stress and anxiety but also malpractice. Mulligan says, “Choose your work wisely. Know how to say no and don’t overwhelm yourself. The danger is when you have a lull and you then take on some work that compounds the problems that flare up elsewhere.”
That can be especially true when you get a call from someone with an especially tight deadline. Behnke says, “Sometimes, I just trust my instincts and explain to the client that I cannot meet their deadline or handle their matter. I give them referral names, but I try to really be true to what I have already committed to for clients and what I know I can actually do within the timeframe given. Sometimes the best service for the client is referring them to someone else. It is hard to remember that in these economic times, but over the years I’ve gotten better at trusting my instincts.”
Your staff can also make a difference. Schumacher says, “Any lawyer who has a successful practice is likely to have excess demands on their time. In addition to just saying ‘no,’ perhaps the better response is to convince yourself that others can do as good a job or better at some of the items that I am being requested to perform. Recently I have begun to look at managing time and work load in much the same way as I handled coaching. The real role is to manage the various players who may be staff, firm lawyers, outside vendors, and clients in a team effort to reach particular goals. If you cannot say ‘no,’ learn to effectively delegate. If part of your personal theory is to surround yourself with people who are brighter than yourself, then use the ability of those people to accomplish matters that need to be done.”
Mulligan agrees. “I rely heavily on my secretary and paralegal. I delegate a lot of work to them. They have access to my email and my calendar. Because my cases deal with massive amounts of email, when I’m traveling they make sure they review everything and have another attorney review it. The team approach, as Tom Schumacher describes, works well for me, especially with the larger pieces of my litigation work.”
Mulligan says that for the team approach to be successful, his staff must be good at knowing the details of his work. “They know the local court rules, federal rules of evidence and so on.”
Schumacher adds, “Have systems and backup systems. Have a good staff person working with you. Your support person needs to know everything that is going on in your day. My calendar has matters starting from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. They need to remind you when you leave at night what is going on that evening and what you have prior to 8 a.m. the next morning. Yes, these items are also on my calendar, but it still helps to have a personal reminder. Also, have a smartphone that is synchronized with your office calendar and email. This allows you to check matters easily when you are not at the office. It acts as another backup to your office systems.”
The demands on your time arising from matters other than work for your clients can also take a toll. Keep your focus and energy on what you can do and what you can control. You cannot make a judge rule differently or make your client change his or her personality. But you can control how you balance your professional and personal lives, the quality of your work, how you eat, and how often you exercise.
How you handle your nonclient demands often dictates how you handle your clients and cases. Schumacher says, “In my practice there are law demands from clients, there are administrative demands from staff and firm attorneys, there are management demands of running a law business, there are social and marketing demands of the firm, there are family personal and social demands, and as my mother always says, there is the demand of taking some time to just take care of yourself.”
Behnke adds, “I try to practice the one-touch rule. When I have nonclient activities or obligations, I try to do them right away rather than setting them aside. If I set them aside, those deadlines loom too, and it gets stressful. It always makes me feel much better when I just do the task and I can check it off my to-do list.”
And finally, Schumacher says, “When your wife tells you it’s time for a vacation, take one!”
WisLAP Helps Lawyers Cope
Lawyers who may need help can contact the State Bar’s Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP). This program provides confidential assistance to help Wisconsin lawyers, judges, law students, and their families cope with problems related to the stress of practicing law by maintaining a professionally staffed telephone helpline and a support network of trained volunteers.
Confidential support is available at (800) 543-2625.