How Women Lawyers Can Manage Stress and Find Balance

Vol. 16 No. 3

By

Ms. Hundley is Assistant Government Relations Manager/Legislative Coordinator for the Port of Houston Authority in Houston, Texas. She is a member of the ABA’s Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division, Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice, Section of State and Local Government Law’s Transportation and Homeland Security Subcommittees, and Young Lawyers Division’s Minorities in the Profession and Women in the Profession Subcommittees. She is also a member of the Houston Bar’s Young Lawyers Association.

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.
Helen Keller - US blind & deaf educator (1880-1968)

With costs to U.S. industries exceeding $150 million each year, job-related stress is increasingly recognized as a key factor in understanding employee dissatisfaction, lowered productivity, absenteeism, and turnover. For working women, conflicts between work and family responsibilities are leading causes of stress. In particular, to succeed in a prevalently male profession, it is common for women lawyers to feel that they need to exhibit independence, hardiness and resilience to cope with and meet the same demands as their male counterparts in the workplace. In doing so, they risk a loss of social support in the workplace, which makes them feel isolated and causes them to naturally internalize failures.

As a career choice, practicing law attracts many stressors. Some lawyers thrive on the “adrenaline rush” that is caused by stress. Although some stress is healthy, too much can cause some serious problems. Numerous studies demonstrate links between chronic stress and symptoms of poor health, including risk factors for cardiovascular disease and poor immune function. American statistics show that 75 to 90 percent of visits to primary care physicians stem from stress-related problems.

So what can we do as women lawyers in an environment that attracts and breeds so much stress? We can strive for balance between work and family, create a support network of friends and co-workers and keep a relaxed and positive outlook on life by taking the following steps to a healthier and happier lifestyle.

A person needs at intervals to separate from family and companions and go to new places. One must go without familiars in order to be open to influences, to change.
Katharine Butler Hathaway - U.S. author (1890-1942)

Take a vacation

I know what you’re thinking: when do I have time for a vacation? You always have time; you simply need to take it. Various studies have confirmed that when an individual is overworked, he or she is more prone to mistakes and becomes less productive. So, imagine what you could accomplish if you would take the time for a short retreat. Still not convinced? According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employees who must take time off work because of stress, anxiety, or a related disorder will be off the job for about 20 days. It’s your choice; you can either take a forced vacation, or one of your choosing at a more convenient time. Your vacation doesn’t have to be a week in Bermuda. Simply take a weekend in a nice hotel; away from home chores and work. You can simply lounge by the pool, order some room service and watch a good movie. Don’t even think about taking your laptop or BlackBerry! Make your reservation at least one week in advance. It gives you something to look forward to during the work week. Then take your suitcase with you to work, leave from the office to your vacation and leave the Blackberry, laptop and cell phone in a desk drawer. If you must make yourself available, take your cell phone or Blackberry, but don’t answer any calls. Allow your voicemail to pick up—that way you screen your calls to be sure it’s a real emergency and not your administrative assistant asking what kind of sandwich you want during the working-lunch meeting next week.

To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.
Confucius - Chinese thinker and social philosopher (551-479 BCE)

Take time out for yourself

If you feel you absolutely can’t take a “vacation,” you should at least take one day to yourself. Because most women are natural nurturers, and the practice of law is fundamentally based on acting as stewards of the court and of our clients, burnout can develop from exposure to the constant needs of others and from the strain of having to continually convey sympathy and empathy to others’ needs. Take time to meet your emotional and spiritual needs. Make an appointment with yourself to take an entire day away from the office, family, phone, Blackberry, etc. Plan a day at the spa, or manicure and pedicure, or a hot bath and good book in a quiet and empty house. Take time to relax and exhale. Just this small amount of time for yourself will do wonders for your spirit and will have you bouncing back to the office with a lighter load.

The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.... A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen - Nationally recognized medical reformer, educator and best selling author

Spend time with your loved ones

Stress is a normal part of living. Everyone faces it to some degree. The causes of stress can be good or bad; desirable or undesirable. Properly handled, stress need not be a problem. Similar to taking time out for yourself, it is also important to spend time with those you love. Because of the everyday pace of dealing with opposing counsel, belligerent judges, needy clients and suspicious co-workers, the time spent with those you know love and care will help you re-evaluate the frustrations you internalize. Even on a very busy day, find a few minutes to slow down and relax. Talking over a problem with someone you trust can often help you find a satisfactory solution. Learn to distinguish between things that are worth fighting about and things that are less important. Always remember to never underestimate a hug from someone you love.

The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.
Jane Addams - American social worker, sociologist, philosopher and reformer (1860-1935)

Volunteer your time

Being healthy doesn’t mean focusing only on oneself. There are plenty of opportunities to refocus your priorities and de-stress your life. One of the best ways is to volunteer your time. Many of us believe that we barely have time to breathe, much less time to be a volunteer. However, many law firms have pro bono opportunities, and many businesses have active volunteer groups. Take full advantage of these occasions. If your law firm or business doesn’t have this program, perhaps you can suggest that they should. Volunteering is a great occasion for your firm or business to promote positive community relations and to increase employee rapport. When you volunteer, you take time out of your busy day to do something for people less fortunate than you, and you have the opportunity to make a positive difference in their lives. When you choose to volunteer, do something that is outside your daily practice. For example, if you are an assistant district attorney, volunteer with an organization that allows you to provide positive influences on children or the elderly. You will be amazed at what an hour of volunteering per week can do to relieve stress in your life.

Only through our connectedness to others can we really know and enhance the self. And only through working on the self can we begin to enhance our connectedness to others.
Dr. Harriet Goldhor Lerner – U.S. psychotherapist and author

Begin or join a club

There are many clubs to start or join such as book clubs, scrapbook clubs, wine tasting clubs, cooking clubs and hiking clubs. You can find clubs on-line on search engines like Citysearch.com, or you can Google® for local clubs. One great website that I personally use is www.bookmovement.com. This free site assists you in setting up a book club and helps with organization by sending out reminders and book suggestions to members of your club, which is a real time saver. You can also sign up to win free books. Many of us don’t feel we have time for extracurricular activities. But just an hour a week or once a month would give you the opportunity to meet with friends, make new friends, and give you the chance to decompress. What better way to relieve stress than to do something you thoroughly enjoy?

It is remarkable how ones wits are sharpened by physical exercise.
Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (Pliny the Younger) - Lawyer, author and natural philosopher of Ancient Rome (63-ca. 113)

Take time to exercise

Some of us don’t want to admit studies have shown that exercise actually reduces stress. (Even though sometimes, trying to figure out the equipment at the gym seems to cause stress!) Not only do you reduce stress at the gym - by punching and kicking that exercise bag - but you also start looking healthy and feeling great. Usually, as little as 15 to 30 minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week will help you have a healthier heart, eliminate excess weight, tone up sagging muscles, and sleep better. Think how much of a difference all these improvements could make!

Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.
Charlotte Whitton - Noted Canadian feminist and first female mayor of a major city in Canada (1896-1975)

Because many women lawyers feel the need to prove to themselves and their co-workers that they are just as good as their male counterparts, we tend to overwork and over exert ourselves. Stress can be a real factor in our health problems and strained family life. Use one or more of the aforementioned ideas to decrease stress and find balance in your life, and you will see a definite change in your attitude, health and job performance. Then, and only then, will your goals to a healthier life and ability to demonstrate your capabilities will be achieved.

Ms. Hundley is Assistant Government Relations Manager/Legislative Coordinator for the Port of Houston Authority in Houston, Texas. She is a member of the ABA’s Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division, Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice, Section of State and Local Government Law’s Transportation and Homeland Security Subcommittees, and Young Lawyers Division’s Minorities in the Profession and Women in the Profession Subcommittees. She is also a member of the Houston Bar’s Young Lawyers Association.

Reprinted from 101 Practice Series (American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division)

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