Lawyers are high achievers by necessity. To succeed in the competitive, pressure-filled legal industry, successful attorneys have exceptional work ethic and perseverance. But that heightened capacity, unfortunately, also applies to increasing levels of lawyer stress.
While any career in legal inevitably comes with some level of stress, an abundance of stress can negatively impact your physical health. Stress can manifest through mental health issues and physical symptoms like headaches, muscle pain, and digestive issues. Too much stress can even result in conditions like insomnia, burnout, and anxiety.
Why is being a lawyer stressful? Every day, attorneys juggle challenging deadlines, long work hours, and complex matters. In addition, attorneys often have to communicate with clients in emotional situations. And, while practicing law is demanding no matter where you do it, certain practice areas like family or criminal hold additional emotional stressors. Add in bonus burdens like law school debt and it’s a near-perfect recipe for heightened stress.
Being a lawyer doesn’t mean you’re doomed to live with high stress. You can’t avoid it entirely, but you can choose a thoughtful approach to stress and take care of yourself. In the following post, we’ll dive deeper into why being a lawyer is so stressful and what impacts stress can have on your physical and mental health. To help you get your stress in check, we’ll provide ways to better cope and manage lawyer stress.
Why is being a lawyer stressful?
Lawyers face multiple stressors every day. In addition to the pressure of helping clients through important or difficult legal matters, they also have to stay on top of an ever-changing industry and manage heavy workloads. Here are a few key reasons why being a lawyer is so stressful.
Whether you’re working remotely or interacting face-to-face, it is incredibly difficult to navigate challenging client personalities while shouldering and sharing the emotional burden of your clients’ situations. For example, if your client is going through a divorce, the stress of the situation can impact you as a lawyer.
It is also not unusual for clients to take their negative feelings and stress from their legal situations out on their lawyers. This can add to the emotional and mental toll lawyers experience.
Practicing law is high stakes. Attorneys need to apply their professionalism to emotional or disturbing situations—in practice areas like criminal law, where you might be working on assault or murder cases. Working with clients or being around people who have experienced or are experiencing significant trauma and stress can take a toll on lawyers.
It’s not a stereotype: Lawyers work very long hours. Most lawyers work outside the usual nine-to-five workday preparing court documents, communicating with clients, and catching up on non-billable work.
According to the 2018 Legal Trends Report, 75% of lawyers regularly work outside of regular business hours. Additionally, the report tells us that the average full-time lawyer works 49.6 hours each week and logs an extra 140 hours of unplanned work. This equates to about 3.5 weeks of extra, unplanned work a year. Those long days and unplanned hours add up over time and contribute to high lawyer stress.
The law is constantly changing
An attorney’s learning isn’t over the day they graduate from law school. In the legal profession, ongoing lawyer training is important—lawyers need to stay up-to-date with constantly changing rules and regulations in the law and important fields like cybercrime and data security.
Law school debt
Money is a big source of stress for anyone. The process of becoming a lawyer is highly expensive—student debt is all too common for law school graduates. According to a 2020 survey by the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, the average student debt of participating attorneys (with a median age of 32) is $160,000. Also, more than 75% of participating attorneys had at least $100,000 in student loans at graduation.
Starting a legal career with a lot of debt can seem insurmountable at first when you graduate and have to start paying it all back. This means many lawyers are practicing with personal financial burdens weighing on them from day one.
How lawyer stress can affect you
Just as there are multiple sources of lawyer stress, the consequences of unmanaged stress can impact you in overlapping ways—physically, mentally, and socially:
Stress is a normal human response to life. But constant stress—the kind that many lawyers deal with—can take a negative toll on your body.
Acute bouts of stress and chronic stress can manifest into physical symptoms like fatigue, trouble sleeping, muscle tension and pain, stomach and digestive issues, headaches, and more. One major reason for this: Stress activates a human “fight-or-flight” response in the body and the release of stress hormones. An overabundance of stress hormone in your body can lead to physical symptoms.
An abundance of stress is an enemy to the mental wellness of lawyers. Unchecked, excessive stress can contribute to long-term mental health issues. This includes issues like depression, anxiety, and substance-addiction problems—all of which are prevalent in the legal profession.
When you’re stressed, your relationships with friends, family, and even yourself suffer. Stressed-out lawyers get into a cycle of working and having work on their minds constantly—even on the weekends or when spending time with loved ones. If stress leads to overwork that tips the scale of your work-life balance in a negative way, that means less time—or less quality time—with the people you care about.
7 tips to cope
Encountering stress is inevitable in the legal profession. But the way you handle it can make a big difference in how stress impacts your career, health, and emotional well-being.
As health psychologist and 2018 Clio Cloud Conference speaker Kelly McGonigal told us, there are active things that lawyers can do to counteract the effects of stress:
“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.”
Here are six strategies to mitigate lawyer stress:
1. Go to therapy
Talking to someone like a trusted counselor or therapist that you feel comfortable with can be a powerful step for lawyers to proactively improve their mental wellness. In addition to helping you develop good coping mechanisms so you can manage stressful situations better, therapists can act as a non-judgmental sounding board.
Moving your body with physical activity is time well spent for busy lawyers. Regular exercise is good for helping to keep your body healthy. Exercise also helps you relax and combat stress by stimulating endorphins and reducing levels of stress hormones.
3. Know your limits and draw boundaries
As lawyer coach Terry Demeo discusses on Clio’s Daily Matters podcast, a lack of firm boundaries is a major source of lawyer stress. This means feeling like you need to be on call and responsive to work 24/7.
To help manage stress, it’s important to set and express your workload limits and boundaries. For example, if you’re a solo lawyer, set a realistic limit for how many clients and how much work you can take on. Then, make sure you stick to it. If you work at a law firm, if possible, tell your boss when too much is too much. While this may seem uncomfortable, knowing your limits can help keep the detrimental effects of lawyer burnout at bay.
You should also set clear expectations with your clients about how much of your time is available to them. Set these expectations at the start of their client journey. Then, have a system in place to maintain it. Instead of dropping everything on the weekend to respond to an email in detail, you could send a one-line response (or set up an automated reply) to confirm receipt. This lets the sender know you have gotten their message and you’ll respond in full at a later time.
4. Keep up your hobbies
It’s important to recharge your batteries regularly. This means making time for non-work activities that bring you joy.
This could mean returning to a pastime that you once loved but have neglected because of work pressure. This could be the time to pull out your old sewing machine or juggling clubs, for example. Or, it could mean making an effort to explore new hobbies. To help counter stress, Kelly suggests activities that let you immerse yourself in something you find pleasurable—or challenging.
5. Make time for loved ones
Another lawyer stress solution could be sitting in your home or at the other end of a phone call. Connecting with your loved ones can be a wonderful way to manage stress. If you’ve had a long, stressful workday, try unplugging from your devices and spending time with the people in your life who make you feel happy.
Don’t stress about making elaborate plans all of the time, either: A simple video-call catch-up with a family member, playing a game with your kids, or watching a movie on the couch with your spouse can be an effective way to relax and recharge.
6. Practice mindfulness
You can’t eliminate stress, but you can change how you respond to it. This is why mindfulness is so powerful. Mindfulness—or learning to pay attention and stay present in a moment—may seem simple, but it can be challenging to slow down and focus your stressed mind. You can learn more about mindfulness for lawyers here.
Just as you use tech tools to help your law firm run more smoothly, you can also use technology to adjust to a mindfulness practice easier. Meditation apps like Headspace can help guide you through a mindfulness practice when you feel disconnected or zoned out.
7. Set goals
Similarly, setting lawyer goals can be a powerful way to leverage focus for reduced stress. Think about it: It’s much easier (and less stressful) to run with a finish-line in mind than it is to run aimlessly. That’s why setting and working towards goals can give you a stronger feeling of control. And, as Kelly notes, “As soon as you introduce any element of control or autonomy, people become more resilient, even if the situation hasn’t changed.”
Set goals that turn your attention to the bigger picture in your life and career. You can ask yourself, for example, where you want to be in a year, two years, and five years down the road.
Keep stress in check
It’s no surprise that being a lawyer means that you’ll encounter stressful situations. But that doesn’t mean that you have to be in a constant state of stress. Whether it’s due to your workload, the emotional toll of legal work, or the pressure to keep up in a competitive industry, stress can have serious impacts on our physical, mental, and social health. While these stressors won’t go away, you can react to them and manage your stress more positively. The key is knowing how to handle stress and having strategies to smooth the peaks. From exercise to talking to experts to practicing mindfulness, the way that we respond to stress is within our power, with some practice.
We published this blog post in May 2021. Last updated: .
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