No one likes stress. It makes your hands sweat, your heart race, and your chest tighten. If you’re a lawyer, or a legal professional, you likely know this feeling all too well—the stress of helping clients through important or difficult legal matters is something you encounter daily.
However, when approached in the right way, stress doesn’t have to be bad for you. In fact, it can help activate an internal process that helps you better deal with demanding situations.
Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist, Stanford University lecturer, and international best-selling author, spoke at the 2018 Clio Cloud Conference about her research into stress and how to best manage it. She also sat down with us to talk about other ways lawyers can handle stress better.
1. Take off your armour
When you’re dealing with a stressed client, your first reaction might be to keep your guard up: To be empathetic, but only to a point, so that you’ve got your armour on and the other person’s stress can’t infect you.
However, Kelly says you’ll actually have better success dealing with a highly stressed client if you can let their stress be a little bit contagious. This is because taking a client-centered approach and being truly open and empathetic with your clients—rather than nodding and acknowledging their situation but still keeping your emotional armour on—helps your clients feel heard and calms them. Opening up also clarifies your own goals and better sets you up to address the situation.
“Let yourself connect and feel what the situation is, and then get clear about what your role is, so you can shift into effective management of the situation,” Kelly says. “This will help [your client] shift gears and join you in problem solving as well.”
2. Detoxify stress, but don’t numb it
There’s no such thing as a stress-free life. As Kelly points out, feeling a lot of stress can simply mean that you’re engaged and finding meaning in your work and life, and many professions that are critical for society—such as the legal one—inherently come with high levels of stress.
The question then, shouldn’t be about removing stress, but about how to best deal with stress. Activities that aim to deal with stress by numbing it are often ineffective, so Kelly suggests turning to activities that are proven to counteract the effects of stress.
“One is exercise, one is social connection, another would be deep flow immersion in something that is pleasurable and possibly also challenging,” she says. “Often, coping better with stress means looking for activities that increase joy or meaning or connection—activities that strengthen you—rather than choosing the mindset that you’re just looking for something that will let you fall asleep at night.”
3. Take care of your whole self
Kelly defines stress as what arises in your body and in your brain when something you can about is at stake. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the most serious type of stress professionals like lawyers face isn’t work related—it’s personal. This means that managing stress as a lawyer means taking care of your whole self.
If you’re feeling the stress of taking care of an aging parent, or a sick child, or if you’re worried about troubles in your relationship, take steps to manage those stresses as well as your professional ones.
This is especially important to consider for law firm leaders. To help employees manage stress effectively, implement policies that encourage balance and self-care. Kelly says that to change behaviors, self-care can’t just be acceptable: It needs to be either demonstrated and encouraged.
“You can’t just tell people ‘no, really you need to take your time off, you can’t just accumulate it for 20 years.’ It needs to be shown from the top down, and it needs to be enforced and rewarded,” she says.
4. Choose your stress
When rats are shocked in a lab, they’re more resilient when they’re given an element of control over the shocks. The same is true for humans under stress. “As soon as you introduce any element of control or autonomy, people become more resilient, even if the situation hasn’t changed,” Kelly says.
Thus, sometimes being ‘good’ at stress simply means making a conscious choice about the type of stress you’re going to undertake. For lawyers, that might mean choosing between the stress of chasing a career in Big Law, versus the stress of starting a law firm.
Another element of this is dealing with the unexpected—for example, the unexpected aspects of running one’s own firm—by tying it back to your choices and values, and seeing stressful situations as a vehicle to move you towards your long term goals. “So often you have to learn how to frame the moment of stress in a context of meaning,” Kelly says. “You might think ‘I have to figure out this marketing thing and it’s hard and it’s not what I trained for,’ but to see it as a vehicle for what you did choose.”
5. Use tech to mitigate stress—the right way
Meditation apps can be helpful for practicing mindfulness, and can be especially useful when used to intentionally facilitate stress management rather than to simply zone out or disconnect.
However, Kelly believes that technology can be more useful for helping to manage stress in another way—by encouraging positive, personal connections.
“There are all sorts of studies that have found that when you tell people ‘you have to take a picture of something that makes you happy every day,’ that makes people happier. It makes them even happier if you tell them they have to send it to someone in their lives,” Kelly says. “There are also studies showing that if people are feeling anxious about something and they send a kind text or even just like a funny text, if it’s something positive and social to someone in their life, it makes them feel more confident better able to handle what they’re about to do.”
Note that this doesn’t mean mindlessly scrolling through social media.
The people you care about in your life are your best resource for managing stress, so if you’ve had a long day at the firm helping clients with difficult legal issues, don’t forget to make time to text a friend or family member—it could make a big difference in how you feel.
Stress comes with being a lawyer, and indeed, with any career in legal. There’s no avoiding it, but with a thoughtful approach to stress, it is possible to make stress work for you, and to be better positioned to help the clients that you became a legal professional to serve.
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