Balancing Life in a High-Stress Job

By Susan Riegler

You’re driving down the highway after a long day of work. Your mind is wandering between a case you are working on and what you will have for dinner when, out of nowhere, a car swerves into your lane. Without thinking, you hit the brake and grasp the wheel harder, maneuvering to miss the other car. Adrenaline has just coursed through you, and you notice some physical changes in your body. You can feel your heart beating rapidly, you notice your vision is sharper, and you seem to have an acute awareness of everything around you. You have just experienced how a stress reaction can be a good thing. Our bodies are designed to adjust to the physical and emotional demands placed upon us and maintain homeostasis, or a relatively steady internal state. We are, however, machines that can become overwhelmed by extended periods of strain.

A body’s response to stress is complex. It involves the nervous system, adrenal system, and cardiovascular system and triggers responses that include the body’s temperature, level of attention, arousal, appetite, and breathing, to name a few. In short bursts as described above, our bodies can “rise to the occasion” and bring us through the highly stressful situation, then return us to an internal state of normalcy. Prolonged stress, however, can overwork these systems and throw the body out of stasis. This can lead to short- and long-term psychological problems such as tension headaches, anxiety, lack of concentration, relationship issues, and depression, and it can also lead to medical conditions such as digestive problems, sleep disturbances, and heart disease. It is important, therefore, to look for ways to reduce the negative results of too much strain.

Stress and the Law

Everyone experiences stress, and each career has its own set of challenges. The practice of the law, however, seems to bring special difficulties when it comes to stress. As clinical director of the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program, I have seen too many lawyers ignore serious and disruptive symptoms of stress. Even faced with physical problems and mental exhaustion, legal professionals will tell me, “Once this trial is over, things will get back to normal.” But times of acute stress are exactly when one should exercise some stress management.

As we know, lawyers tend to work a greater number of hours than other professionals. Law firms have large minimum hour requirements that can restrict the development and maintenance of a personal life. For sole practitioners and those working in smaller firms, additional strain may come from having a large case load but limited or no support to catch the overflow of work. Individuals in a small practice also may take on more than they can reasonably handle because some clients are not paying their bills. The result is that they overcommit themselves and become even more overwhelmed. In contrast, lawyers with few clients may have difficulty finding new ways of marketing themselves and finding new business—another cause of stress.

Lawyers in small firms and sole practice also are more likely to become emotionally connected to their clients and their cases. Caring too much for others without caring for yourself can result in a secondary traumatic stress disorder known as compassion fatigue. If you have ever sat with a friend or family member who has been going through a difficult time such as the loss of a loved one or a relationship problem, you know that you can be exhausted at the end of the conversation. For some of you, the nature of your work is to take on the expectations and anxieties of your client. You forget that you must be as kind to yourself as you are to the people around you.

You have options when faced with stressful situations. One approach is simply to accept your circumstances as unavoidable. “Life is hard and then you die,” as my father put it so succinctly. This is a pessimistic attitude and allows you to continue wallowing in stress while doing nothing about it. Another approach is to avoid stress through distraction or self-medication—using drugs, alcohol, food, gambling (pick your self-destructive behavior) to numb or distract yourself from reality. This option often introduces lawyers to disciplinary agencies. Alternatively, you can choose to deal with the stress in a healthy way and use techniques to prevent yourself from falling victim to the long-term physical and mental impact of prolonged strain.

Manage Your Stress at Work

The feeling of being overwhelmed can lead to what I call “project paralysis.” There are lawyers who spend a half-hour a day making “to do” lists but end up doing nothing. When you have many tasks to accomplish and little mental energy for them, even the smallest tasks can appear daunting. Lists can be helpful but need to be adjusted somewhat if you are feeling particularly short on time. One suggestion in altering your morning list would be to identify the top three things that need to get done and then do them right away. It helps to start with the things that you have been avoiding the most. Get the unpleasant phone calls or e-mails out of your way so they are not lingering in the back of your mind, sapping energy while you try work on other things.

Procrastination in lawyers often originates from perfectionism. When you do not know how to begin a project or it seems too big, it is tempting to put that matter aside and do something else. If you allow no room for mistakes or are too afraid of making an error, it may be difficult to tackle new endeavors. You may not know how to get started, but when you are feeling lost in paperwork and your files are stagnating, it is helpful to take a step forward in any direction. Just start somewhere!

One thing that every lawyer can do to manage stress as it relates to work is to manage the expectations of others . It is not just young associates who say “yes” to every piece of work that crosses their desk. Consider the following: A client calls you while you are in the middle of a big project. As always, the client is asking for something to be done immediately. In that moment you have a choice. If you say “yes,” even though you know that you cannot possibly complete both your original task and this new assignment in a single day, you sell yourself short. You have added to the feelings of anxiety about the first project and introduce resentment toward the client and the new task. Consider instead a more even-handed approach. Explain to the client that you have committed to completing something else for another client; then give a realistic time frame for the new task. In this way, you let your client know that you are a lawyer in demand as well as one who keeps his or her promises. It is an effective approach and a good habit to maintain.

You also need to manage your clients’ expectations regarding your accessibility through modern technology such as e-mail and cell phones. Just because we can always be available does not mean that we should always be available. While you are working on a project or in the middle of writing a brief, try to minimize your interruptions to the extent possible. E-mails and voice mails can be tedious interruptions. When you truly need to concentrate on a project, close out of e-mail and do not answer your phone. If you allow for every interruption, you will add time to your tasks. It can take several minutes to remember where you left off and return your attention to the issue.

Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Another downside of technology can be the increase in stimulation during the day and into the evening. Although this alone is not responsible for insomnia, it can make rest more complicated. Sleep disturbances are common these days no matter what your profession may be. However, the high expectations of clients, habits of multitasking, and a tendency to have auditory and visual stimulation almost constantly throughout the day adds to difficulty falling and staying asleep.

There are three common types of sleep disturbances that frustrate people. The first type is the difficulty or inability to fall asleep, which is referred to as “initial insomnia.” High-stimulation days and increased amounts of stress add to the challenge of turning the brain off at night. The second type, known as “middle insomnia,” involves waking in the middle of the night to find your mind racing with worry and your heart beating faster. The third type, “terminal insomnia,” refers to waking up too early and being unable to fall back to sleep.

One natural way to manage all types of insomnia is to intentionally decrease visual or auditory stimulation before bedtime. Slowing things down about 15 minutes prior to attempting to sleep can help you phase out some of the chaos in your mind. Our brains need to process what we have sensed during the day. Minimizing stimulation toward the end of the day helps you cycle down, just as your computer does. This is why many experts suggest not having a television in your room and perhaps reading a book instead before bedtime.

Additionally, keeping a note pad by your bed can be helpful. This technique is used to acknowledge and then eliminate concerns that pop into your head during the quiet moments before bed. Start by making two columns on a paper. Let’s call the left-hand column “things I can control.” Once your environment becomes silent, you tend to remember the things that you forgot during the day or to ruminate over things you do not want to forget for the next. These can be tasks such as a phone call you need to make or an e-mail you need to send. Let’s call the right-hand column “things I cannot control.” This column is for writing down things that you are needlessly replaying in your head, such as “How will opposing counsel respond to that e-mail I sent yesterday,” or the swirling thoughts about a conversation you want to have with someone. Lawyers often replay and restructure interactions that they have had or need to have—and this can create even more stress than the actual discussion. Writing out what is on your mind eases the responsibility of the brain to keep replaying your worries and allows you to put them aside for reexamination in the light of a new day.

Make the Most of Your Personal Time

Many lawyers have had the experience of being in the office worrying about things that are going on at home, then coming home only to worry about things that need to be done at the office. This lack of presence in the moment doesn’t only hurt you—it’s problematic to the people who care for you as well. They may see you as preoccupied and even uninterested simply because your brain is still in work mode. Your lack of eye contact, frequent checking of your phone and e-mail, and general distractibility are a few ways that you demonstrate you are mentally elsewhere.

If you use all your energy at the office on work, you will be unable to provide attention to the part of your life that matters most. Merely going through the motions at home adds little to the quality of your life and adds enormously to personal and professional frustration. You don’t have to miss out on the best parts of your own life. Learn to make good decisions regarding the free time you do have. Be in the moment.

Ask for Help

Lastly, ask for help when you need it. I know, this goes against everything you believe in. But the people who care for you do so in good times and in bad. When they come to you and ask you to lend a shoulder or give some extra help when they are struggling, you are happy to do it. For most of us, it is a nice feeling to be relied upon. Give those people around you the chance to be there for you as well. It is difficult to be emotionally and mentally available to others if you do not have a support system of your own. Take responsibility for reserving your own energy, as well as time for those people who support you.

The Time Is Now

In recent months I have been asked if the poor economy is responsible for the increase in calls to lawyer assistance programs across the country. I have told them that, by all statistics that I have seen, legal professionals topped the lists for depression, anxiety, and chemical dependency long before last fall. In my opinion, it is one more reason for lawyers to make an effort to get their lives in balance and take the time to take care of themselves.

Creating greater balance in your life can start by taking some small steps. Try scheduling time to work out during the week, even if that means simply taking a walk around the block. Give yourself healthier food options throughout the day. Sadly, we often “reward” ourselves with foods that are bad for us. If you tend to work through lunch, try bringing in something tasty and healthy from home. Most importantly, allow time to do something fun.

Your perception of control over your life can positively influence your ability to manage stressful situations. Perseverance and confidence can go a long way in helping you press on in the face of difficulty. A positive attitude and a healthy dose of supportive friends and family are also extremely important.

The sole practitioners and lawyers who work in small firms need to take a good hard look at how they are working and living and ask themselves if they could be making better choices for themselves. As your practice and your family grow, life becomes increasingly complicated, and there are greater demands on your time. It is imperative that you carve out some time for you.


  • Susan Riegler, MA, MS, is clinical director of the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program, Inc., a not-for-profit organization that helps Illinois lawyers, judges, law students, and their families with alcohol abuse, drug dependency, and mental health problems. She may be reached at sriegler@illinoislap.org.

    Copyright 2009

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