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Ask LawyerSlack: How Do You Handle The Stress Of Being A Lawyer?

It’s time for another round of “Ask LawyerSlack!” I get a question from you, dear reader, and throw it to the wolves share it with the denizens in LawyerSlack. The folks in LawyerSlack then ridicule the question provide their thoughts on the readers question. Up this week: stress.

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How Do You Handle The Stress Of Being A Lawyer?

I’m fond of saying that a lawyer is a magnet that only attracts problems. People come to lawyers to because they’re hurt and want to sue someone. Or they’re in trouble with the law. Or they’re anticipating problems – they want a will drafted or your to review a contract. People go to lawyers because they have a problem that needs fixing. And for the privilege of being a lawyer, we agree to put their problems ahead of our own. That can be tough. It can wear on you. Along those lines, someone wrote in and asked:

How do you handle the difficulties of being a lawyer? What do you do to productively channel the frustration and stress that comes along with the job? Hobbies? Exercise?

I threw the question to LawyerSlack and asked what they did to handle stress (besides drinking or prescription painkillers). Answers were all over the place. But there are some general themes: exercise, family/friends (pets included), hobbies, and “just dealing with it.” Drinking alcohol is a common theme as well. As has been reported repeatedly, lawyers tend to have alcohol problems. It’s seemingly part and parcel of being a lawyer. But as in all things, moderation is key.

Here is an edited selection of responses, grouped into some loose categories.

Pets And Video Games

  • I exercise. Usually 4-5 times per week. Right now, I play on two different soccer teams, enjoy running with my dog, and take my bike out with some regularity. Surfing on weekends. Also video games. – Sean Lynch
  • I drink, play with my dog, and play video games. But I’m in-house and leave at 5 most days, so it’s not all that stressful.
  • Drinking, video games, and playing with my dog was my answer. I also eat a lot of Mexican food.
  • I play with my dog. The dog park is a nice place to get away from lawyers for a little while too. Or watch old movies to unplug from my email and work for some time. Or, sometimes it feels good to vent to other lawyers who may know the jerk attorney you’re up against and can commiserate with you. Or use a punching bag. – Julie Isen
  • Like many others, I rely on my dog to keep me sane.  In addition to his general companionship, he’s certified as a therapy/comfort dog, so I visit the VA a couple times a month and visit with the residents.  It’s a good place to unplug and it’s rewarding to see the happy faces a dog brings out.  Also video games. And drinking.  But mostly the dog.
  • I recommend drinking, playing with the dog, video games, and getting out for social events.  My wife actually keeps me pretty sane too.  She’s there on bad days to tell me “fuck work, let’s go grab a beer and some tacos.”  If you get too stressed, do not be scared to go talk to someone.  While it is work and you have to get it done, there is no reason you need enjoy your life less as a result. Note though, that our job is partially to absorb and solve stresses for our clients. Fishing is a great stress reliever too.  Last summer, I was about ready to jump off my damn balcony.  I loaded up and flew my fatass to Alaska with my dad for 10 days.  I came back refreshed with about 100 lbs of halibut.  Eat, drink, and be merry.  It goes a long way. – Joshua W. Sage – Sage Dixon Law Firm, PLLC

Find Some Muggles To Talk To

I don’t really stress about anything (or maybe I just don’t recognize how it might manifest?).  All I can do it put my best work out there; the the extent it doesn’t work out isn’t something I can control, so I’m not terribly bothered by it.

Advice for people that are not me?  I guess I would say that you need to be aware of how you are structuring work.  You need to set concrete, small goals, which build up to the overall goal.  Each time you complete a small goal, you’ll feel more confident and accomplished (it helps ward off that abstract feeling of looming shit over your head).  It’s like monkey bars.  You don’t try to swing from first to last, you gotta take a bunch of obnoxiously small steps in between to make sure you get to  the end.

Keep talking to people.  If legal folks are tiring you, then go find some Muggles to hang out with.  If Muggles exhaust you, then find more lawyers.  Worst thing is to turn around one day and realize that the only people you know are your family; they’re great and all, but it ain’t the same. – Habeas Porpoise.

Family

  • My wife is a public school teacher and not only is her job much more stressful than mine she makes about a quarter of what I do. It really helps to keep it in perspective that it could be much, much worse.
  • I don’t tend to get overly stressed by the work, except when preparing for trial or getting ready to argue significant motions. When I started as an associate, I worked for a high-maintenance partner and developed a habit of letting things roll off my back. But when I do start to feel an accumulation of stress, I like to play with my kid (who is far more stress-inducing that practicing law) and go for a run. I really find fly-fishing relaxing, but who has time for that?!  – Jeremy W. Richter
  • I work hard to leave my practice to the times when I am working. Along with this, I am very careful about getting notifications about practice-related stuff in off hours. Further, I spend a lot of time with my family and participate in hobbies where I work with  my hands to blow off steam. Also, working out helps a lot. – Chris Ambrose

5th year associate, working for a big litigation defense firm

Were it only as easy as asking a bunch of lawyers! There is no magic pill and no one size fits all fix. I do some of my best writing under pressure so I embrace stress to a degree. But learning how to shut it off when you go home can be difficult, so don’t feel bad if you struggle with it. Every single one of my mentors has said to me at least a dozen times “I was thinking about this case in the shower/while making dinner/on my walk and ….” so don’t assume it’s unproductive to think about work outside the office.

That said, and to repeat damn near everyone else’s responses, find the one (or three) thing that’s cathartic for you. I work out and play video games when I need to give my brain a rest. On the days I can’t get it to shut up about work I force it to think about something else, for me that’s non-legal reading or homebrewing. And I keep doing it until my brain gives up.

If the source of your stress is not the work but your boss then learn to identify the helpful bits and ignore the rest. If your boss is a yeller and you’re very much not, well it’s ok to GTFO and find a job where your boss/co-workers don’t contribute to an already stressful job. I’m lucky that I really like my boss and that definitely makes up for some of the shittier aspects of my job.

I’ve also resigned myself to having no work-life balance, a ton of debt for many years, and probably having all my hair turn grey much earlier than it would’ve otherwise. So finding some zen is gonna be helpful too.

Channeling Stress

  • Everyone has their own way of dealing with stress, unfortunately I am a procrastinator (like many others) so invite the stress upon myself. However, there are three big things in my life that help me “get away” from it all. First, I exercise at least 5 times a week. Not only is this positive physically, but it helps me put that stress into actually feeling better about myself. Second, I love music, specifically electronic music, and have taken up producing this at night. It helps me get creative outside of my legal world. And lastly, I’ve been a skydiving instructor for a while now. I am certainly not as active as I used to be, but there is NO way for me to think about the stresses of work when jumping from an airplane!
  • I try to leave my practice behind at 5 o’clock. The distance I can put between the personal and professional worlds lets me relax when I get home. Also, LawyerSlack – where I can commiserate with fellow lawyers throughout the day.
  • I commute by bike instead of driving or taking the train because it helps me clear my head.  Also, getting out of private practice helped a lot with my stress levels.  In-house has its issues, but at least I’m not required to track every six minutes of my day.
  • Generally speaking, as a lifelong procrastinator, stress has been a motivator for me. So, rather than being a debilitating force, feeling stress is usually a signal to get my stuff together. This is true in all areas of my life. Having had some family and friends pass away in recent months, my automatic response is always to think “what can I do?” I channel that stress into a desire to do something about the thing that’s stressing me.
  • Lose your soul. That is the most important part. Perhaps join a cabal. Either that or become a master of compartmentalization. Work stuff stays at work. Home stuff stays at home. Maybe try keeping more than one cell-phone if you fancy. If you have a hobby you enjoyed as a kid, take some time to foster that hobby. YOLO. -MLK  (PS: My initials are truly MLK.)
  • I drink, usually after cardio. I come home and four days a week, I hit the stationary bike while putting on a mindless show that requires no effort and doesn’t require me to remember what happened previously. I fix dinner, when I cook, or I go out to eat. I’m a bachelor, so my mood only ends up impacting me. I will putz around with a tech project, like making a smart mirror with my Raspberry Pi, before deciding I hate the outcome and want to do something else with it. Weekends are spent with friends, at the lake, in the summer. It is hard for me to feel stressed on the water. I mellow the fuck out when I walk down the gangplank to dock. And then it is Monday and I’m back at it. Stress is just a part of being a person, let alone a lawyer. So you let it happen, take things in stride and remember that other people are experiencing it as bad (and many more probably much worse) as I am. -BS

Boozy Barrister

Holy shit, is this a real fucking question? Like, you’re actually asking how to deal with the stress from clients and you don’t want us to say booze? Man, you’re gonna need to buy yourself a tumbler, some scotch, and a great big bag of “don’t give a shit” to survive here.

It’s a job. Like any stressful job you just do it, get through it, and get your damn money. That’s the first and last priority: Get paid. Your clients have problems, but they aren’t your problems, and for all of the idealistic claptrap we spout, at the end of the day all we are are legal gladiators paid to fight for someone. Remember, no matter how the court case ends, your time gets billed and you get to go home. That’s the first step.

Step two is to find something that’s cathartic. I like to shoot shit. It makes me feel good to make shit go boom. Or some other physical activity that lets you transfer the stress into force: marital (I meant martial, but fuck it, it stays *bow chicka bow wow*) arts, going to the gym, hitting little white balls with clubs, etc. Nothing’s better than physically working your stress out through harmless yet destructive means.

Step three is to associate with the furries. Always associate with the furries.

Maintain Barriers

Obviously, stress is the name of the game. You signed up for this, whether you knew it or not. Your job is to turn somebody else’s problem into your problem, but you don’t get the benefit of being able to call the shots in all the same ways if it was your problem originally.
Personally, I am a procrastinator, which means I need a certain level of stress in order to keep me motivated. After all, if it weren’t for deadlines, nothing would ever get done.

However, I’m also so practitioner, which means that I am not only a full-time attorney, but I am also a business owner, which, frankly, is significantly more stressful. There is no one else for me to pawn the blame off on. There is no one else to pick up the slack when I go on vacation or am sick.

The best advice that I can give you is to maintain barriers. The second best piece of advice that I can give is to communicate those barriers to your clients. Part of the reason that many attorneys have stress is that they have over promised what they can deliver. Set reasonable expectations in conformity with what you know that you can reasonably achieve. – Tripp Watson

There you have it. How dozens of lawyers handle the stress in their day. Hopefully there is something there you can use for inspiration to help you handle the stress of the job too.

Got a question for the hivemind? Shoot me a DM on Twitter: @associatesmind

Or if you absolutely must do it the old fashioned way, you can email me with the subject line “Ask LawyerSlack” at associatesmind@gmail.com.

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