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August 16, 2019 Article

Give Yourself Some Room to Breathe

Stress is a major problem in the legal industry. Try these three steps to embrace flexibility as a way to manage stress.

By Precious Williams Owodunni

For much of my life, I’ve lived in a bubble of high achievement. Starting at Yale undergrad, then at Yale Law School, and later at Goldman Sachs as an investment banker, I was surrounded by motivated people with sky-high standards who largely seemed to attain the lofty goals they set. While that environment definitely produced excellence in many cases (and the beloved busyness in almost all), high achievement also has a dark lining that has fully come to light for me only in the decade that I’ve been advising successful attorneys as a strategic consultant.

My attorney clients operate in high-stakes environments where the futures of people and companies are often at risk. That pressure drives (and is used to justify) a perfectionism that is plaguing our industry and putting in danger the very success it’s supposed to engender. For well-meaning attorneys in this industry (among others), I’d like to introduce the concept of “professional self-care.” Professional self-care doesn’t involve the golf outings, spa appointments, and beach vacations that are so hard to carve out and thus only episodic. Instead, it’s a daily regimen of simple ways to introduce flexibility into your mind-set and to succeed while showing yourself grace. 

The State of Stress in the Legal Industry

Professional self-care is increasingly important as the stress lawyers undergo comes into sharper focus. According to a study conducted by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation that involved 12,825 licensed and employed lawyers across 19 states in the U.S.,

  • one in three practicing lawyers is a problem drinker,
  • 28 percent suffer from depression, and
  • 19 percent exhibit anxiety-related symptoms.

While these issues have many root causes, we cannot ignore the fact that they are showing up in the legal profession more than in others. And though the aforementioned study and other efforts, including those by the ABA’s National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, have helped immensely in documenting these industry issues, we still have a ways to go.

What’s the Solution?

We know the problem. But how do we make it better? Undoubtedly, shifts are necessary from employers—from how we train leaders, to the mental health benefits companies offer and attitudes toward discussion of mental health, to diversity and inclusion practices.

While those employer-level changes are vital, there are also practical things you and I can do to minimize stress and maximize career fulfillment. I urge you to explore three key ways to introduce flexibility into your professional life, starting with battling the disease that most high-achieving professionals fall prey to at some point—perfectionism.

Step 1: Give Yourself Grace

Law is inherently high stakes, and lawyers are held to very high standards—by judges, law firms, and, often more so, by themselves. Accordingly, the legal industry attracts the overachiever or the go-getter who is most at risk for perfectionism (or a “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection”). In some contexts, this high standard is completely appropriate. In many others, we can afford to give ourselves some grace.

I’ve found this to be difficult—to not apply the same level of intensity I do for an important client project across all aspects of my life. A few summers ago, I found myself meticulously organizing my children’s summer camp schedules in Excel. I entered all the appropriate data . . . and then spent a rather substantial amount of time formatting the output sheet. While that time would be well spent on outputs I deliver to consulting clients at work, it wasn’t necessary for a piece of paper that would be placed on my fridge to coordinate pickup.

To avoid the perfectionism pit, realize that different environments or situations demand different things from us, and that’s OK. Applying an appropriate standard to the work at hand (which can also mean removing it from our plates) helps us not get bogged down in a perfectionism pit. We can allow ourselves to not “give 110 percent” 100 percent of the time to all things. That might mean spending less time on certain tasks, outsourcing some domestic duties, or delegating projects that don’t absolutely need our expertise to succeed. Let’s give ourselves the grace to do so. For instance, my time would have been better spent with my children than perfecting the camp chart.

Step 2: Ask Yourself When “Good” Is Good Enough

When we’re tempted to fall into perfectionist tendencies, it’s helpful to consider whether the task really merits the amount of time and energy we’re expending on it. In other words, “When is ‘good’ good enough?” “Done” can be better than “perfect” (and perfectly acceptable in many instances). Considering the stress statistics for lawyers, it could be a lifesaver, literally, to learn to distinguish between those things that merit our meticulous attention to detail and those that benefit from our letting go.

This prioritizing is also an important lesson for leaders and managers. It’s often said that people don’t leave a company; they leave a manager. Our ability as managers to recognize when good is good enough affects our ability to keep people. When we give ourselves some flexibility, we silently give those around us permission to focus not on “not messing up” but on doing well. And we’re all more comfortable, collaborative, trusting, and productive for it.

Step 3: Be Cognizant of How You Talk about Yourself—to Yourself and Others

One of my favorite quotes is this: “Be careful how you talk to yourself, because you are listening.” We are often our own worst critics. The previous steps are about starting to adopt a mind-set of professional self-care. This one focuses specifically on translating our mind-set into words. Our mind-set and the related narrative come to life in

  • how we talk about ourselves to ourselves, or self-talk;
  • how we talk about ourselves to others, or personal branding; and
  • how we judge ourselves—with a lens of perfectionism or a lens of grace.

The term “self-care” often elicits images of a spa day or shopping spree, but self-care is much deeper and far more basic and necessary to mental health than small luxuries. It is a daily practice of assessment and acceptance that applies to both our personal and professional lives. When you make a mistake, do you berate yourself, or do you think, “Now I know for next time”? When you talk to others about yourself, do you exude confidence and comfort with who you are, or do you diminish yourself through your words or actions? How we perceive and treat ourselves is very apparent to others, and they will often see us the way we see ourselves. Accepting ourselves for the imperfect, but perfectly capable, people we are is the ultimate act of professional self-care.


I encourage professionals in the legal industry and beyond to give themselves some flexibility. To not be perfect. To embrace when “good” is good enough. To speak kindly and generously to, and of, ourselves. Professional self-care is not a panacea for all that is wrong in our industry or world, but it is a solid place to start. Start your ascent.

Precious Williams Owodunni is the president of Mountaintop Consulting in Houston, Texas.

Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).