Who recalls watching the court room dramas in our teen years and dreaming about the allure of a life in the law. The anticipation of accomplishment and purpose as you fight for justice in an unjust world.
You study law and dream of oratorical fireworks as you argue your way through the fundamentals of justice. For a lucky few this may be what you ultimately find in law, but for the vast majority of lawyers, they find themselves stuck in tiny offices working against the clock to meet deadlines, billable hours and unappreciative bosses. For those who do practice advocacy, even the best of us, their time to speak is usually limited and the outcomes are always at the discretion of the judicial officer.
This often means that the vast majority of solicitors are disappointed by the profession and they are often left to feel overwhelmed by the massive work load, and underwhelmed by the outcomes.
Anxiety is therefore a very real issue faced by many lawyers, myself included. An anxiety disorder is a medical condition characterised by persistent, excessive worry.
Anxiety disorders can take a number of forms. Common to all of these is anxiety so distressing it can interfere with a person’s ability to carry out, or take pleasure in, day-to-day life.
A person may experience more than one anxiety disorder. Some people may also experience depression with the anxiety, or have problems with alcohol or drug abuse.
Anxiety disorders are thought to be caused by a combination of factors. Most anxious people are probably born with a genetic vulnerability to develop an anxiety disorder. Personality traits and responses to stressful life events may trigger the condition or make it worse.
Although much has been said about the topic in the last 10 years and much has been done in an attempt to change of the culture of law firms, the reality on the ground speaks towards something else. The stereotype of a ‘good lawyer’ is a tenacious, courageous, type A personality who is exceptionally intelligent and capable, and is borderline psychopathic and lacks empathy. The benefit of this quality is that very little gets to them and they are therefore less likely to burnout.
The majority of lawyers do not fall into this category, but they are burdened by this unrealistic expectation. And to top it all off, they refuse to discuss these feelings, which they often view a some sort of personal inadequacy, with their colleagues because they fear being undermined. But the truth is; most of us feel exactly this and we are suffering in silence.
Here are 5 tips to help you cope with anxiety as you practice law:
1. You are not alone- Often when we are feeling anxious or overwhelmed by the legal dilemma we are attempting to resolve; we assume that we are alone in feeling like this and everyone else has their shit together. Well that is a massive misconception. People assume that someone with anxiety is a mess who can’t leave home. An understanding of anxiety will dispel this misconception. Many of us act like we have our shit together, but in reality we too are crumbling underneath the expensive suit. Speak up, be authentic and you may be surprised to find you’ve got a friend in a colleague.
2. Be cordial to your colleagues- Traditional teachers of law teach us that we are members of an adversarial system and that we must fight for our client. That is true. We do have a fiduciary duty towards our clients and we must always endeavour to reach the best possible outcome for them. However, that does not mean that you have to be a sworn enemy of the solicitor on the other side. We, as solicitors, are first and foremost officers of the court and therefore colleagues in law. We must advocate for the benefit of our client; while at the same time treating our colleague in a cordial and respectful manner. The benefit of this will be that you make professional connections and develop a good reputation with both clients and colleagues. You would be surprised how much less stressful a matter becomes when you can pick up the phone and have a professional yet respectful conversation with your colleague representing the other side.
3. Self-care- Law is a stressful area to work in. Make sure that you schedule time in your day to work out and move your body. You know the benefit of physical exercise, so I won’t get into here. But make sure you move at least 4 time a week. As people work harder, gyms are accommodating. 24hr gym are the rage at the moment, so schedule a workout into your diary and get moving. Make sure you’re eating right, getting sleep and practising daily downtime. Mediation is a great option, but for those that can’t sit completely still, pick up a hobby and commit. You’ll be surprised how relaxed you feel when you are practising self-love.
4. Social life– Have a life outside of work and make that a priority. Switch off at a certain time every day and make sure you stick to it. When you are with your family and friends make sure you are mindful and present and enjoy those moments with the people you love.
5. Mentor- Nothing beats learning from experience and venting to someone who has been there and done that! The hardest part about this option is actually finding a mentor that you connect with and who is willing to provide you with their time and guidance. Tim Ferris advises that you should offer something to your mentors in lieu of their time. Maybe get to really know the person you wish to mentor you. Then find something in common and try and offer your mentor an incentive to entice them.
There are countless reasons why you should work on you.
Work on you to avoid burnout. Work on you as self-care. Work on you for those you work for.
But most of all work on you for you.
Senior Solicitor & Partner at Censeo Legal