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Law Practice Today

December 2023

Your Legal Practice, Ethics and Morality: How Stress Complicates Things

Katayoun M Goshtasbi


  • The stress of practicing law (and managing life) can shake your self-confidence, and potentially lead to ethical lapses.
  • Common examples include violations of confidentiality and communications with clients as stress causes you to act out of character.
  • There are techniques to lower your perceived stress and lessen the likelihood of crossing ethical lines.
Your Legal Practice, Ethics and Morality: How Stress Complicates Things TRDINA

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Some days I marvel at the stressors in all our lives. How could it there be so many tasks, events, and people that need our attention? Never mind all the substantive work that must get completed in a typical day as a lawyer. 

By now, you are likely aware how negative stress can impact your health and well-being in so many ways. Anytime you are stressed, your practice may suffer, as may the rest of your life. You may work slower and less effectively, and maybe even develop anxiety. 

Plus, stress doesn’t always allow you to see the bigger picture. You may not always see the logical next steps, thus missing how one action impacts other actions down the road.

But how does this negative stress impact your legal ethics? Specifically, how can a lawyer’s moral standing change under stress, turning into a possible ethical violation?

Using my formal research results on stress and self-confidence, in this article I will examine and provide my top three solutions for managing how stress impacts the ethics of legal practice.

Stress & Self-Confidence Research Findings

According to my findings, there is a direct, inverse correlation between your negative stress and your self-confidence. This is even true for the most self-confident person. It’s physiological. 

When you are stressed, you cannot see yourself in the best light, nor perform at your peak and you will not come across as emotionally resonating with your audience. Your audience will not think you are as self-confident. That often translates into looking like you don’t know your substantive practice area, when nothing could be farther from the truth on a day and time when you were not so stressed.

It also means you may commit an error that can get you in trouble because you are so stressed. In fact, according to LAWPRO, 62% of malpractice claims come from these types of human errors.

While this may seem very unfair, it is a fact of life for all of us. 

Your stress may impact your personal level of responsibility for your practice outcomes. Personal responsibility isn’t just about you. It’s about how your decisions could impact others, including your clients, colleagues, and staff.

When you are stressed, your values may come in conflict with the pressures of your practice and responsibility. It may also cause you to come in direct conflict with personal accountability. Accountability is different than responsibility. Accountability means that, while you may not be directly responsible for an outcome, you will be held accountable as a practice leader. This is why creating the optimal environment at work for everyone to thrive is key. 

How the Lines Can Blur

When you are stressed, you tend to do things that you would normally not do. For instance, you may misplace your keys, forget to shave, or respond/communicate in a manner that even shocks you. Stress makes us behave out of character and against our higher wisdom. 

It’s one thing to misplace your keys. The headache is all yours to bear. It’s another thing when due to stress you act out of character and against your higher wisdom to the detriment of your clients, your practice violating your morals, and possibly the ethical rules. It’s not uncommon to have the pressure of practice and life get to us. 

Here are two common examples and pitfalls to watch for.

Violations of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct 1.6 (Confidentiality) and 3.3 (Duty of Candor to the Tribunal): I have witnessed lawyers sometimes suffer from such extreme stress causing anxiety and fear that they lose patience and/or perspective, leading them to either not keep things confidential verbally or in writing per Rule 1.6, OR keep things (too) confidential when they shouldn’t do so, per Rule 3.3.

Violations of Rule 1.4 (Communications): A lawyer must communicate to a client in several situations in order to not violate Rule 1.4. These include situations where the client’s informed consent is required by Rule 1.0, or consulting the client about how the client’s objectives will be met. Perhaps the biggest ethical violation here happens when lawyers are so busy and stressed that they go against their morals and violate Rule 1.4(a) (3) by not keeping the client reasonably informed about the status of a matter. Often, it comes down to what was “reasonable.” When you are not stressed, your definition and viewpoint on “reasonably informed” communication with your client may be vastly different than when you hardly have time to breath let alone communicate with your clients. This is also the area where lawyers often lose referrals, impeding practice growth, because clients walk away feeling unheard, unwanted and like a commodity. 


If you are reading this and thinking to yourself that it’s easier said than done, I understand. I have been in pressure cooker situations during my legal practice. I am your biggest cheerleader. I believe in taking small steps and doing your best because that is all you can do. What matters is to start with your morals so you can sleep at night. Here are the top four things you can do to create an environment where everyone thrives, has lower stress and be in accordance with the ethics rules:

  1. Stay self-aware: You may find yourself on autopilot, running from one meeting to another. You can’t fix what you don’t notice. Consciously going about your day as you practice will help ensure you catch any moral or ethical traps before it’s too late. The easiest tool to do so is your breath. Stop, take a deep breath, and see the bigger picture with yourself at the center of the picture.
  2. Slow down: Life moves so fast that you may believe that you have to move just as fast in order to keep up. Technology and caffeine have likely sped up your life in challenging ways. Becoming more self-aware requires you to first slow down during your day. Human errors can often be prevented if we were moving slow enough to have self-awareness around our behavior and ensuing actions. Again, use your breath as your tool to slow down. Stopping to take a deep breath allows you to oxygenate, assess the situation, focus, ground, decide and take morally, ethically sound next steps.
  3. Find support: Whether you have someone who can mirror back to you your behavior when you are stressed or have a colleague that can double check some of your actions, and even proof substantive work, don’t be shy or too proud to seek out support. The world is running very fast and there is no room for your ego to hijack your ability to utilize others. We all could use a second pair of eyes or honest people who are willing to gently tell us when we are going down a road that won’t serve us best.
  4. Forgive yourself: You are human. Assuming you are doing your best, if you encounter a situation that morally or ethically impacts you and your practice, don’t beat up on yourself. The stress of the situation will likely make things worse, and you’ll find yourself in a pattern that’s hard to break. Instead, stop and assess what you can learn from the situation. This requires that you forgive yourself in order to move forward, repair the violation and ensure it doesn’t happen again.

As lawyers, we all define success in our practice differently. Regardless of how you view success, stress will catch up with you in more ways than you think. To avoid having your practice stress impact your morality and ethics, know that stress can impact your self-confidence, causing the lines to blur in your practice. Using the tools of self-awareness and slowing down will help you be in control of your practice. Using support and forgiveness will allow you to not feel like you are in it alone, allowing you to be kinder to yourself and thus, your clients, staff, and colleagues.