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Coping with Stress

The topic of this paper is not a typical legal one, which for the most part, we are accustomed to hearing. However, it is a subject which is of concern to many members of our profession. Having practiced for what seems like 100 years (actually since 1960), I can identify with stress and the effect it can have upon you both mentally and physically.

What is stress?
There are many authors who have written on the subject, one of whom has defined stress as your reaction to any changes which require you to adjust or respond.1 Others have said that stress is usually defined as a psychological response to negative or positive environment changes. How an individual may respond to stress depends on how the event is perceived.2 Dr. Roger Henderson, a general practitioner, said that there are probably as many definitions of stress as there are causes, since stress means different things to different people. Some thrive on the adrenaline of a frantic lifestyle and constant crisis while others feel tense at the slightest deviation from their routine. Most people fall between the two extremes, but it is interesting to note that everyone needs some stress to function normally. Stress gets us out of bed in the morning and through the day and a stress-free life would be too dull to contemplate. However, when feelings of tension, pressure or strain begin to affect the quality of our lives, it is time to take a quick look at our situation and see what we can do to repair the damage.3

While there may be many definitions of stress, it reminds me of a quote from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when asked if he could give a legal definition of obscenity. His response was “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” While I may not be able to define stress, I certainly know it when I feel it.

What are the causes of stress?
Anything that requires you to adjust to a change in your environment can cause stress. I have always maintained that life involves a series of adjustments. While at an early age, they may not seem so significant, going from junior high to high school can be an adjustment. Certainly going from high school to college involves an adjustment. Next we have to adjust to entering a business or profession and certainly choosing a partner for life is a significant adjustment. If we change jobs and have to deal with different people, we have to adjust. The loss of a loved one or a change in marital status involves an adjustment. All of these adjustments come with stress. Your body will react to these changes with physical, mental and emotional responses. Since all of us have our own ways of coping with change, causes of stress can be different for each person. Common causes are:

  • Death
  • Marriage
  • Job Change
  • Money Problems
  • Heavy Traffic
  • Illness
  • Pregnancy
  • Deadlines
  • Confrontations
  • Legal Problems
  • Accidents
  • Divorce
  • Moving
  • Crowds
  • Retirement4
  • Specifically as it relates to lawyers, the Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) of the Louisiana State Bar Association published an article appearing in The Professional Lawyer, May 1994 Edition, by Barbara Harper and Donna L. Spilis wherein they list “Stressors” reported by lawyers surveyed as follows:

    • Inadequate time to complete jobs satisfactorily
    • Competition — turning every encounter into a win-lose situation
    • Self-criticism — focusing on weaknesses, rather than strengths
    • The absence of recognition or reward for good job performance
    • Powerlessness — the failure to see available choices
    • Hurrying — constant pressure to perform better and faster
    • The comparison of achievements, or lack of them, to those of peers
    • Pessimism
    • The unrealistic expectation that life should be problem-free
    • Lots of responsibilities but little authority or decision-making capability
    • The inability to work with others because of basic differences in goals or values
    • Job insecurity due to pressures from within or to the possibility of a takeover or merger
    • Prejudice and bigotry expressed by colleagues of a different age, race, sex or religion
    • Concerns related to being responsible for employees
    • Not being able to use personal talents or abilities effectively or to full potential
    • The FUD factor — Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt

    There is an interesting article by Jim Galloway, Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program dealing with technology and stress. He says that the use of technology speeds up the pace of everything, particularly with the advent of fax machines, email, mobile phones and wireless handheld email devices whereas in the “old days” things were simpler and slower. Today, technology creates a pace which is faster and faster and as a result can create stress. The bottom line is that dealing from the “old” to the “new” is a change which generates stress and the reality is that technology will always be changing.

    Because lawyers’ livelihood rests in large part in managing, processing and dispensing information, technology can ease our lives in many ways but it is also demanding and time consuming. What happens when you are under a deadline and the computer shuts down? What is worse than dealing with automated phone system which takes your time and energy to navigate through the menus? What happened to the old days “when you could place a call and speak to a real live person?” What happens to the “old school lawyer” who is not conversant with the use of computers and has to deal with electronic systems which are in place in certain court clerks offices? This can all add to the stress of practicing law. Undoubtedly, the use of technology may allow us to become more efficient, more effective and able to respond more quickly and thus, reduce our stress level. Certainly its use can translate into a more profitable practice, which can be a stress-reducing factor.

    What are the symptoms of stress?
    Physical symptoms are:

    • Pounding heart
    • Tightened stomach
    • Neck and lower back pain
    • Headaches
    • Dryness of mouth/throat
    • Insomnia
    • Fatigue
    • Disruption of digestion
    Behavioral symptoms are:
    • The inability to sit still/concentrate
    • Increased smoking and/or drinking
    • Loss/increase in appetite
    • Proneness to accidents
    Personality changes are:
    • Emotional tension or alertness
    • General irritability
    • Depression
    • Hyperexcitation
    The impact on lawyers’ professional performance may be:
    • Procrastination
    • File stagnation
    • Failure to respond to messages
    • Excuse-making
    • Lowered productivity
    • Fewer billable hours

    As a result of all of this, the lawyer may experience isolation, a deterioration of communication and lowered self-esteem.5

    Another by-product of stress is “legal burnout.” Burnout is a serious problem that affects students, lawyers and those who have been practicing for several years. It is particularly prevalent among lawyers in large firms. In a study conducted by Justice Breyer in 2000, he found that 66% of lawyers in large firms leave the firm in the first five years of practice.6 Many of these lawyers cite lack of balance between their personal lives and their professional lives, dissatisfaction with the practice of law, too many billable hours, as reasons for leaving the profession.7 Burnout has been defined as “feeling of physical and mental exhaustion that may start from stress at work, but can extend to many parts of one’s life.”8 The result is “lower productivity, cynicism and confusion … a feeling of being drained and having nothing more to give.”9

    Stress and stress-related disorders such as burnout or depression are unique to the legal profession. While the public as a whole only suffers from psychological disorders at a 2% to 4% rate, the legal profession suffers from this problem at about a 25% to 35% rate.10

    The causes of burnout are those that are similar to the “stressors” referred to above, some of which are as follows:

    • The increasing number of billable hours that need to be earned
    • Being responsible for other people’s money, family and their individual freedom
    • The high expectations placed on lawyers by themselves, their families and the public
    • The low image that lawyers have with the public
    • The adversarial nature of the practice of law
    • Increased competition due to more lawyers entering the field than ever before
    • Increasing complexity in the law
    • The need to take on work that is uninteresting in order to succeed financially
    • Taking on more work than the lawyer can handle
    • Being forced to take on work that is outside of their area of expertise11

    Stress and burnout have far-reaching consequences for lawyers. They work more hours than almost any other profession and they are four times more likely to be depressed than the general population. Along with alarmingly high levels of suicide, they have double the national average of substance abuse and they have higher levels of serial marriage and divorce than the population at large.12

    How do you cope with stress?
    In researching this subject, I found numerous articles via the internet, most of which suggest the same or similar techniques on how to cope with stress.13 If we want to continue to practice law and reduce our stress level, recognizing that we will probably never be stress free, we must keep a positive attitude and accept the fact that there are events that we cannot control. We should be assertive rather than overly aggressive and guard against becoming angry, combative or even passive. We must learn to relax, exercise regularly, eat well-balanced meals, get the necessary rest and sleep and by all means, do not rely on alcohol or drugs to reduce stress.

    One of the universally accepted methods of coping is learning to relax. Some relaxation techniques are as follows:

    • Recognize what activities you consider relaxing
    • Be specific when exploring your options
    • Go for walks
    • Meet with friends
    • Read for pleasure
    • Listen to music
    • Take a bath
    • Be realistic about the amount of time that you can dedicate to “downtime.”
    • This time should be incorporated into your daily routine
    • Remember that is called BALANCE — not be used as a procrastination tactic
    • Begin practicing relaxation techniques
    • Meditation
    • Guided imagery
    • Deep breathing exercises
    • Progressive relaxation (muscle relaxation)
    • Decide when relaxation technique works for you and practice daily
    • Find several techniques that work for you so you have an array of options.14

    One of the components of relaxation is learning to utilize various breathing techniques. I must confess that I know very little about the art of Yoga, but it is my understanding that it does encompass certain breathing exercises which are useful in combating stress. Taking deep breaths from your abdomen helps you to relax quickly. You can practice this technique when waiting in line or stuck in traffic, when put on hold during an important telephone call, when bothered by something someone has said, when you are overwhelmed by what you need to accomplish and when in pain.15

    Of all of the techniques, the one I find most helpful is exercising. Exercising regularly is the key to dealing with stress, since the body can better fight it if it is fit. I have long been an advocate of exercise not only to deal with stress but for overall health. Eating healthy and maintaining a proper diet has a literature of its own. If I had a formula for longevity besides picking the right parents, I would say that it is a combination of regular exercise and eating properly.

    Rest and sleep are important, since this gives the body time to recover from stressful events. Some people have trouble falling asleep; others fall asleep easily and then wake up later and can’t fall back asleep. More than 100 million Americans have experienced some form of insomnia. Some tips for better sleeping habits are: not napping during the day, limiting caffeine and alcohol, not smoking, exercising early in the day, not eating large and heavy meals before bed and incorporating bedtime rituals such as listening to soft music or sipping a cup of herbal tea, which cues your body that it is time to slow down and begin to prepare for sleep.16

    Laughter and humor can play a key role in dealing with stress. Voltaire said, “The art of medicine consists of keeping the patient amused while nature heals the disease.” The health benefits of laughter are said to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, elevate mood, boost immune system, improve brain functioning, protect the heart, connect you to others, foster instant relaxation, and make you feel good.17

    Another diversion in the form of relaxation is playing games, many of which can be found on the internet or participating in card games, such as bridge, poker or playing scrabble and monopoly with friends or family. I have often heard that as you grow older, it is important to keep your mind active and certainly we tend to do that practicing law. However, activities such as working crossword puzzles and playing games which activate the mind may help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s.

    Recreation is important, especially for those who enjoy outdoor activities such as fishing, hunting, playing golf and tennis. For us who play golf, getting out of the office on a nice day can do wonders for our morale.

    Equally important is taking time off from the practice of law, which can be in the form of weekend retreats, vacations or even sabbaticals. I am reminded of the Mac Davis country music song entitled “Happiness Is Seeing Lubbock, Texas in Your Rear View Mirror.” I think there are times when happiness is getting out of Memphis and putting the pressures of practicing law behind you.

    Some additional stress relievers for those of us who practice law are:

    • Do not work for free. Clients who cannot pay their bills lead to frustration, which can lead to doing a poor job for the client, which in turn leads to malpractice suits
    • Use the “one touch approach.” Complete as much of the paper work as you can the first time you touch it. This gives the lawyer a sense of accomplishment and lessens the possibility of not completing it.
    • Do not take on every client. Conduct a cost benefit analysis on every client to determine if their case is worth the time to take it on.
    • Seek out more profitable clients and eliminate the clients who are unprofitable.
    • Just say “No”. Lawyers have a tendency to always want to take on more work. There will always be times when people ask you to do more than you can. These pressures can come from work, family and social organizations. Know your limitations.18

    What if the lawyer has difficulty coping?
    Each lawyer must make his or her own stress assessments. If he or she believes that they are being burdened with excessive stress levels, then they should seek some form of professional help which would involve a stress assessment. This can only be accomplished if the lawyer recognizes and admits that he or she feels “stressed out.” Help can only come if a lawyer comes to grips with the problem and if not, inappropriate behavior patterns may emerge resulting in excessive alcohol use, drug abuse, depression and even suicide.

    In 1988, the American Bar Association created the Commission On Impaired Attorneys and in 1996, its name was changed to the Commission On Lawyer Assistance Programs (COLAP). Its primary goal is to advance the legal community’s knowledge of impairments facing lawyers and respond to these issues. The Commission consists of members of whom many are recovering from chemical dependency. Its efforts have been successful in aiding the introduction and support of programs in both state and local bars. In 1980, only 26 state bar programs existed, whereas today all 50 states have developed lawyer assistance programs to deal with these problems. These programs employ the use of intervention, peer counseling and referral to twelve-step programs to assist in the lawyer’s recovery process.19

    Although the local bar association at one time had a similar program, lawyer assistance is now handled through the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance program, which has been established pursuant to Tennessee Court Rule 33. In addition to providing for the establishment of the program, the Rule also establishes a commission (Rule 33.02), the director of the program (Rule 33.03), the enlistment of volunteer counselors (Rule 33.04), the services to be provided (Rule 33.05) and referral procedures (Rule 33.06). Referrals may be made from the Board of Professional Responsibility, the Court of the Judiciary, the Board of Law Examiners or other disciplinary agencies (Rule 33.07). It is also important to note that confidentiality attaches to the programs (Rule 33.10) and any person reporting information to the commission members or its employees or agents is entitled to immunity (Rule 33.11).

    If a lawyer becomes disabled for reason of mental infirmity, illness or because of addiction to drugs or intoxicants, Section 21, Rule 9, Supreme Court Rules sets out the proceedings to be followed. There is every reason to believe that some of the lawyers that find themselves in this situation have lost their battle with stress and the pressures of the practice of law.

    To sum up the lawyers’ battle with stress, the President of the State Bar of Montana stated:

    “We lawyers can’t banish all stress from our lives any more than we can return to pre-electronic practice. The pressures and demands that produce stress won’t go away. There may be some things we can do to ameliorate those pressures and demands, however. First, we can recognize that making lots of money isn’t the be-all and end-all of practicing law. As Arizona Chief Justice Thomas A. Ziaket reminded us at our Annual Meeting last fall, we are a profession, not a business. We can acknowledge that fewer hours may be better and more productive hours, declining to take on matters that we know we don’t have time to handle. Except for genuine emergencies, we can stick to our schedules and honor our priorities despite the insistence of e-mail. We can gently explain to our clients why a thoughtful lawyer – one who gets and gives a little time – provides better advice and secures better results than a harried one. We can include family, friends, public service and even fishing in our lives and not feel guilty about it. We can exercise regularly, eat and drink moderately and get enough sleep.”20

    Henry L. Klein is an Attorney at Law with Apperson, Crump & Maxwell, PLC in Memphis.

    1 Stress: How Can I Cope? The Cleveland Clinic Information Center
    2 The Professional Lawyer, May 1994 Edition by Barbara Harper and Donna S. Spilis,
    3 Stress Symptoms And Signs by Dr. Roger Henderson,
    4 Stress: How Can I Cope? Article on Health from The Cleveland Clinic Information Center,
    5 The Professional Lawyer, May 1994 Edition by Barbara Harper and Donna L. Spilis,
    6 Pack, Robert (2005) The Tyranny Of The Billable Hour'
    7 Billinsky David (2005) Burnout
    8 Sweeney, Paul & McFarlan, Dean (2002) Organizational Behavior. McGraw-Hill Higher Education., p. 260
    9 Gorkin, Mark (2005) The Four Stages Of Burnout.
    10 Krieger, Lawrence (1998) What We’re Not Telling Law Students — And Lawyers — What They Really Need To Know. 13 Journal of Law and Health 1, p.3
    11 Practice Management Guidelines (2005) Personal Management.
    12 Sells, Benjamin, The Soul Of The Law,
    13 The University of Iowa - University Counseling Service - Coping With Stress.;
    Louisiana State Law Bar Association, Lawyers Assistance Program.;
    Cleveland Clinic Health Information Center, Stress: How Can I Cope?; Johnson, Kevin L., Legal Burnout,
    14 University of Iowa - University Counseling Service Coping With Stress
    15 University of Pittsburg Medical Center, Coping With Stress,
    16 Tips For A Good Night’s Sleep
    17 Humor And Laughter,
    18 Johnson, Kevin L. Legal Burnout,
    19 American Bar Association Legal Assistant Programs,
    20 The Montana Lawyer Magazine, March 2001,

    Inside Board Notes
    Coping with Stress - By Henry L. Klein
    Ethics Opinion Spotlight - By Laura L. Chastain
    Suicide and Our Profession - By Robert S. Brandt
    Disciplinary Actions - By William W. "Tripp" Hunt, III

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