Litigators tend to be driven, high-energy people who are determined to succeed for their clients. The downside to this exciting and rewarding profession is the anxiety that it can produce. The pressure to succeed can be tremendous and the competition can surround you. A litigator feels he has to succeed in cases which are usually zero-sum with clear winners and losers. Also, litigators may feel the need to compete with colleagues within a firm. It doesn’t take too long before the job of one’s dreams in law school turns out to be a jungle filled with crouching tigers.
The Price of Pursuing Success
According to a Bellwether Report in 2019, 76% of lawyers reported that stress in the workplace was a major issue, and 66% say they experience high levels of stress. Some may feel that anxiety is an inherent part of the legal profession. After all, cases are about winning and losing. However, the legal profession has to be sustainable and livable for those who are involved in it.
Apparently, the problem is not new. A study in the 1990s found that, after researching 100 professions, lawyers had a level of depression that was 3.6 times greater than average and that white male lawyers were at a higher risk for suicide than non-lawyer professionals.
Why Is the Legal Profession So Stressful?
These numbers can’t be merely coincidental, and there must be something about the legal profession that causes stress. Perfectionism and pessimism are the two ingredients that create undue pressure for lawyers, according to Gayle Victor, who was a consumer debt lawyer for 25 years before becoming a social worker in Evanston. Her practice is focused on lawyers who are feeling undue stress.
Perfectionism is an understandable trait in lawyers who worked for years to get into a good law school, handled a demanding course load, passed the bar exam only to find that the work had just begun when they landed their first positions.
Competition within a law firm can be immense, and the slightest error can be highlighted by an opponent to gain an advantage. The need to seem flawless in front of one’s colleagues becomes a requirement. This is added to the pressure in court a litigator faces and the need to win cases to establish or maintain a positive reputation.
This perfectionism can eat into one’s self-image and rule everything they do. It can become impossible to relax for fear there is something they have left undone. A litigator may be running through a failed court appearance in his mind during the night and can’t sleep, or may replay a mental tape looking for mistakes when she should be spending time with her spouse. The external perfectionism may be internalized and eat away one’s energy and confidence.
Pessimism is another trait identified by Victor as a cause of anxiety among litigators. Lawyers, like law enforcement, often see the worst in people as part of their jobs. They are likely to therefore become suspicious if things aren’t going well in their personal lives and prepare for the worst-case scenario, the way they would with clients.
Preparing for the worst can be productive, but expecting the worst can be detrimental to one’s sense of well-being and security. The twin traits of pessimism and perfectionism are characteristic of the legal profession and understandably cause anxiety when internalized, However, they need not control a litigator’s life.
Since lawyering can be an aggressive profession, the notion of sitting cross-legged in a saffron robe and necklace of flowers and chanting sounds while inhaling incense may seem like an odd thing for a lawyer to do. However, the stereotype about the kind of person who meditates should fall by the wayside and meditation should be considered as an effective antidote to pressure and anxiety.
Meditation helps clear the mind of frenetic activity, constant self-criticism, and worry about the day ahead or yesterday’s court date. It resets the mind and clears out the “garbage” that can circulate in the mind and interfere with addition, mindfulness mediation can be practiced throughout the day while preparing lunch, during breaks, or during a brief walk around the block. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing just on the present, what one sees, hears, and feels in the moment. This can provide a haven away from the stress of the office or court.
Finding a Mentor
When we experience stress, we may just need to talk it out to find relief. This can be even more effective when if we can talk to someone who understands our concerns because they have also been there. It is useful for lawyers, not just beginners but even those who have spent years in the profession, to find a mentor who can listen, empathize, and provide advice.
Many litigators feel stuck and unable to speak to colleagues because of anxieties about competition. The notion of exposing their weakness by discussing anxiety with a peer can only create more anxiety and mistrust. Speaking to family member who can empathize can be helpful, but talking to someone who knows the ropes and the daily pitfalls can help you find ways to improve your work environment in concrete ways.
Litigators who are starting out may not feel they are in a position to change the workplace environment, but modeling a supportive attitude can go a long way to influencing others in a firm to be more cooperative. For instance, someone may be severely critical of a new associate for fear the associate may appear weak or uncertain in front of a client. However, this can make the associate even shakier and may not solve the problem. Having a supportive and productive attitude in general and avoiding harsh criticism or backbiting in the office may encourage others to do the same.
A Healthy Attitude is a Key to Great Performance
A certain amount of stress, pessimism, perfectionism, and competition is part of the legal profession, but internalizing it is not inevitable. Getting some distance from the anxiety you are feeling through therapy, taking breaks, meditating, and providing yourself with enough mental rest to gain clarity is essential for health and optimal performance. Honoring your humanity and occasional mistakes as well as those of others will make your career as a litigator a sustainable and satisfying part of your life.