For lawyers, the stress and anxiety of working long hours with tight, inflexible deadlines can be taxing, not just on the brain of the individual working under such conditions, but on the physical well-being as well. The thing about stress and anxiety, though, is often the physical symptoms are masked by emotions. One may simply attribute being irritable or being tired to simply working for long periods of time. Yes, working long hours contributes to both of these issues. Yet, so does trying to ignore, push aside, or mentally block emotions, like fear or unhappiness. It takes work to manage both a heavy workload and the emotions that one feels. While everyone’s experience is different, often when you push emotions aside, all you are doing is allowing those emotions to grow stronger, and as they grow stronger, ignoring them gets harder and harder. It certainly did for me. As managing these feelings gets more difficult, so does being able to sleep, relax, or focus. Lawyers need to have the ability to focus even for extended periods of time. And therein lies the rub.
Being a lawyer is very challenging. The law is not black and white. Applying it is not a straightforward endeavor. You have to think through various potential scenarios. You have to analyze possible risks and balance those risks with the demands of the client. Decisions need to be made quickly and yet strategically. Add to this the fact that in today’s environment lawyers are now being asked to perform more work with even less time and fewer resources. It should come as no surprise, then, that stress and anxiety plague the profession. For far too long the profession has ignored the mental strain of working as a lawyer. As a result, we see periodic stories of lawyers suffering, sometimes dramatically, from dealing with both being a lawyer and being mentally pushed to the max. Some of these stories, sadly, involve the lawyer taking his or her own life. One of my friends from law school did just that.
So, the question is, what do we do about this growing problem? I have a few thoughts. First, let’s start by addressing self-care head-on during those formative years in law school. Let’s make taking care of yourself a required subject addressed during the first and second years of law school. During the first year, have students learn about healthy coping skills and what mental health means. During the second year, address it in context using scenarios drawn from reality. Let’s have folks who work as counselors and therapists speak directly to law students. The world is not always a friendly, fun place. Individuals need to understand the reality of working as a lawyer and accept what they are signing up for.
Second, let technology help you manage your work. We should start teaching students how to use technology in law school starting with the basic tools of the trade – Word, Excel, etc. Then, once in reality, encourage yourself and your colleagues to use more advanced technologies to automate tasks, especially those that are time-consuming, but repeatable, routine, and relatively low-risk. Let technology help you with responding to common requests, drafting agreements, creating templates, responding to routine redlines. Use the time this frees up to focus on more strategic, higher-risk work and, more importantly, time on yourself. Give yourself breaks. Get up from your desk. Get some fresh air. Go for a brief walk. Take time off and by time off I mean time not working at all. We, as human beings, are not automatons. We need to give ourselves time to refresh and recharge. We do not have unlimited energy, time, or lifespans. Life is far too short and precious to let it be consumed entirely by work at the expense of ourselves.
Third, the billable hour model is unhealthy. It is clearly financially lucrative, but at what cost? There is certainly a cost paid by clients both in terms of high cost and responsiveness. Yet, that is not the price I am talking about here. The price I am alluding to is a much higher one. The price is often our own lives. This is not right. This is not safe. It simply cannot continue as is unabated and indefinitely. I have seen some firms either reduce their billable hour requirements or allow for some of the hours to be spent on things other than client work. This is a very small step in the right direction. However, truly the model needs to be reimagined for a new world, a world driven by data and technology. A world which puts our own humanity first and our work second and not the other way around.
The legal profession is an odd one. Odd in the sense that it operates seemingly in an alternate universe where human emotion is of little consequence, human consciousness is given little consideration, and the work to be done is all that matters. This goes against how we function as human beings. We are emotional and complex individuals. We know what we are. We know who we are. We know what we value and what we do not. The law doesn’t care about any of these things. However, just because the law doesn’t care, doesn’t mean that we, lawyers, who interpret and apply the law to varying scenarios, should not care. We absolutely should. We should care because our clients are human beings and act as human beings. We as lawyers are human beings and act as human beings. We need to bring our own humanity back into the fold. We, presumably, serve as lawyers, because we enjoy being lawyers. Enjoyment is an emotion. We need to listen to our emotions and to ourselves. To do otherwise is, in essence, a failing attempt to deny our own humanity.
Focusing on your own well-being has been a stigmatized topic for a long time. It has been considered something that is known by a few and talked about by none. Yet, problems related to mental health are both pervasive and pernicious. Countless lawyers suffer from such problems. Push fear of talking about it or shame derived from talking about it aside. You, me, anyone suffering from such problems have nothing to be afraid of and nothing to be ashamed of. If you or someone you know appears to be feeling unhappy, sad, or not their normal selves, do not ignore them. Check in with them. Talk to them. Support them. Likewise, if you are feeling sad, lonely, depressed, or anxious, seek out help without delay. Be honest with yourself and your feelings. No job, no project, no client, no company is worth the cost of you losing yourself.