Coping with Stress and Avoiding Burnout: Techniques for Lawyers

  • October 13, 2009
  • Owen Kelly

Stress is a fact of life for all of us, and lawyers are certainly no exception. Stressful events can vary greatly in severity, but they activate a series of common biological and behavioral responses that help us cope with the situation. While these changes are adaptive in the short-term, prolonged stress can lead to physical and mental illness.

Workplace challenges can have a particularly profound impact on wellbeing. Indeed, the professional and interpersonal environment in which lawyers function appears at times to have been tailored to elicit feelings of distress! Read on to find out more about stress and the human response, and how lawyers can take steps to cope with stress in their everyday lives.

How Stress Works

Early civilization may hold the key to understanding how we respond to stressful events. Take the example of an attack by a predator. Imagine a group of early humans collecting water from the local river. From over the riverbank a lion appears and heads slowly towards the group. One of the individuals on the edge of the group looks up and suddenly notices the lion… scary stuff …or is it?

A fundamental aspect of the stress response is appraisal of the event to determine whether it poses a threat or not. While this appraisal occurs rapidly, it is influenced by the individual’s prior experiences (“I’ve been attacked by a lion before!”), the controllability of the event (“It’s okay, I have a way of defending myself?”), the predictability of the event (“The lion always attacks”) and finally, the duration of the event (“It will it be gone in a minute”). The more uncontrollable, unpredictable, and longer-lasting the event, the more stressful the event appears.

If the lion is appraised as a threat, a series of physical and behavioural processes are initiated to help the individual survive the encounter.

Physical changes include an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, blood flow to muscles and the release of adrenaline and cortisol (a stress hormone) from the adrenal gland, all of which prepare the individual for either “flight or fight”. Additionally, neurochemical messengers are released in the brain to further help the individual cope with the stressor. These changes act in concert to afford the individual the best possible chance of successfully evading or confronting the lion.

Behavioral changes include a reduction in feeding and sexual activity (it would obviously have been a bad idea for our ancestors to stop for a snack or start mating while being pursued by a lion!). As well, the individual may use a variety of behavioral/emotional coping strategies. These include problem-focused strategies aimed at impacting the stressful event directly (e.g., finding a rock to throw at the lion), and emotion-focused strategies geared towards reducing negative emotions associated with the situation (e.g., blaming others for not alerting you to the presence of the lion earlier). In general, problem-focused strategies may be most useful when the outcome is controllable; however, as you may have experienced, the effectiveness of a particular coping strategy depends on the context in which it is employed.

While these adaptations are well suited for dealing with short-lived stressful events, they are less ideal for the myriad of chronic, uncontrollable and unpredictable stressors that characterize modern life as a lawyer.

Today the proverbial lion has been replaced by the demanding partner, daunting billable hour targets, unpredictable schedules and unreasonable clients—all of which can seem inescapable, uncontrollable and unremitting. Over the long-term, prolonged activation of the stress response by these types of chronic stressful events can cause excessive “wear and tear” on the body and lead to the development of a host of physical illnesses, including heart-disease and Type II diabetes, as well as mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

Stressors for Lawyers

It’s no secret that lawyers confront daily challenges that cause significant distress. In particular, solo and small-firm lawyers often face unique challenges in their day-to-day work-life:


Solo and small-firm lawyers are often expected to perform a variety of tasks that might otherwise be handled by teams of professionals in larger practices (human resources, accounting, marketing, etc.). Additionally, while a larger firm may be able to devote considerable resources to a given task, a smaller firm may be forced to place individuals under intense strain for prolonged periods of time. Workload can take on an air of uncontrollability that may exacerbate an already stressful situation.

Long Hours

The tendency of lawyers to work long hours comprises a chronic, unremitting stressor, which is often viewed as uncontrollable and something that must simply be tolerated. Working long hours can be particularly harmful because it removes the lawyer from important sources of social support, including family and friends, which can ordinarily help buffer against the negative effects of stressful events.

In addition, long-hours may be at odds with maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which is necessary to deal with the demands of our busy lives. For example, it may be difficult to find the motivation or energy to prepare a healthy meal or go to the gym after three straight 14-hour days.

Lack of Vacation

Many lawyers complain of a real (or perceived) inability to a take a vacation. Of course, this has potentially serious implications for both mental and physical health, and can be attributed to a variety of factors.

First, workload and demanding clients may simply not permit them to be away from the office for extended periods of time. There is also a pressure on lawyers, especially those who are self-employed, to take on projects to remain competitive in the marketplace or to keep from feeling like they are “missing out” on potential business. Similarly, cues from coworkers and management may make the individual feel as though it would be unwise for them to take an extended vacation, even when entitled to it. Of course, even when a lawyer is able to sneak away for a week or two, modern technology ensures that we are never out of reach of those who are trying to contact us.

Billable Hour Expectations

Billable hours can, in effect, penalize efficient lawyers, as well as the use of time-saving technology. In addition, expectations surrounding billable hours may deter lawyers from engaging in a sound cost-benefit analysis of a case. Indeed, lawyers may end up spending hours on an exceedingly stressful case or file that they may have been better off passing on in the first place. Furthermore, some may find it hard to balance the expectation of billable hours with the distress caused by charging clients for each hour worked, especially if they know that the client may have limited funds.

Lawyers may also find themselves pressured by clients to perform their job in a certain fashion to ensure that the process is expedited in the most cost-efficient manner. Of course, the client’s perception concerning the hours billed comes after the fact, and is often predicated on “the problems they have” or whether the case was dealt with to their advantage. So, for the lawyer, there is a degree of unpredictability with respect to the client’s behavior.

Interpersonal Difficulties

Whether facing criminal prosecution, financial distress, family or marital breakdown or public humiliation, lawyers must often interact with individuals who find themselves in perilous circumstances. To put it politely, clients may not always interact with their lawyers in a constructive fashion.

Lawyers are acutely aware that their client may be depending on them for freedom, quality of life, custody of a child or financial viability. Lawyers may feel enormous pressure to preserve some aspect of a client’s wellbeing. For self-employed lawyers and those in smaller firms, they may have to negotiate sensitive issues with clients themselves (e.g., missed payments). To make matters worse, a lawyer’s hard work for his or her clients often goes unrecognized. The fact that “lawyer jokes”, almost invariably unflattering, remain commonplace is testament to this.

Finally, lawyers may have to frequently deal with colleagues that are under similar pressures, which itself may be stressful.

Recognizing and Coping with Depression

The chronic, unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of events experienced by lawyers can lead to a downward spiral, culminating in burnout (low grade depression, anxiety, dissatisfaction, lack of motivation and negative perceptions) and major depression. Indeed, lawyers report substantially higher levels of burnout, depression and suicide than most other professions. Unfortunately, some lawyers may seek relief from these symptoms by abusing alcohol or other drugs, which puts the lawyer at risk for disciplinarily action, as well as legal and financial troubles.

It is important that lawyers recognize symptoms of depression in themselves, as well as in their colleagues. While everyone feels sad or blue at one time or another, depressed individuals experience symptoms for prolonged periods of time, and in the absence of circumstances that might otherwise reasonably account for their symptoms (e.g., death of a spouse).

Symptoms of major depression include:

  • depressed mood
  • decreased interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • changes in body weight
  • sleep disturbance
  • fatigue
  • feelings of worthlessness or guilt and recurrent thoughts of death.
  • atypical symptoms (often found in women) such as moodiness, hyperactivity, weight gain, increased sleep and heightened sensitivity to rejection by others.

Both atypical and typical depression can be treated successfully with antidepressants (e.g., Prozac) or through cognitive behavioral therapy.

Because lawyers suffer from depression at particularly high rates, they are also at increased risk for suicide. Here are some signs that an individual may be contemplating suicide:

  • a family history of suicide
  • substance abuse
  • prior suicide attempts
  • intense perfectionism
  • feelings of hopelessness, guilt or worthlessness
  • suicidal ideations (i.e. joking about suicide)

Obviously, the suicidal individual should be strongly encouraged to seek professional help, such as a family physician, psychiatrist or trained counselor.

10 Stress-Coping Techniques for Lawyers

These 10 tips can help lawyers deal more effectively with distress, and to avoid the negative effects of day-to-day stress:

1. Get adequate sleep: although sleep is vitally important to the restoration of the body and mind, many of us practice sleep deprivation on a daily basis by using an alarm clock. Sleep deprivation has many deleterious effects that impair our ability to deal with stressful events, including irritability and reduced cognitive function. It is generally thought that 7-8 hours of sleep is necessary in order to feel refreshed for the coming day, and of course, as we age, a nap during the day may be of benefit, even if it means slightly fewer billable minutes.

2. Exercise frequently: research suggests a positive association between exercise and the improvement of symptoms of depression and anxiety. Exercise can also serve to promote self-esteem and contribute to better overall health, both of which foster resiliency in the face of stressful events.

3. Use social support: Friends, family, colleagues and intimate partners can be an important source of social support; a vital coping resource. They can help us to see the situation differently, solve problems, lend tangible assistance and provide emotional support. Social support has even been demonstrated to reduce the body’s physiological response to stressful events. Be sure to identify and effectively use sources of social support, and use them for the right reasons.

4. Participate in activities: activities can be a great temporary distraction from day-to-day hassles, as well as serious stressful events. Activities put us into contact with individuals who share similar interests, as well as provide opportunities to spend time alone. By occasionally getting lost in these activities, we remind ourselves that there is more to life than work.

5. Take vacations: we all need the occasional vacation to recharge our batteries and avoid burnout. Take personal responsibility for taking the vacation time you are entitled to and leave the cell phone and laptop at home. If possible, plan vacations well in advance and schedule work around them.

6. Gain control: controllability is a major factor in how stressful an event appears to us. Where possible, take steps to gain a tangible sense of control over your environment. However, keep in mind that despite our best efforts, certain events will be remain beyond our control. Focus only on those aspects of the situation that you can reasonably expect to influence.

7. Use problem-focused coping strategies: use problem-focused coping (e.g., talking openly about a problem, politely but firmly confronting a problem client, making a “to-do” list and carrying it out) as opposed to emotion-focused coping (blaming others or yourself, ruminating about the problem without doing anything).

8. Remain flexible: look beyond your initial impression of a stressful event and try reframing it in another light—perhaps there is an upside you’ve overlooked (e.g. “we lost the revenue of a demanding client, but hey, that’s one less headache to deal with”). Similarly, if one coping method doesn’t appear to be effective in a particular situation, try alternative strategies. By remaining flexible, you will be able to meet the shifting demands of your environment.

9. Manage your workload: While tempting, you don’t have to do everything yourself! If you have your own practice or are in a management position, ensure that you hire competent people from the outset and give them plenty of responsibility. If you are working in a small team, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you are feeling disproportionately burdened by a case or file. Finally, where possible, insist on scheduling projects or cases in a way that avoids you having to work extended hours.

10. Create numerous short-term goals: all of us need periodic reinforcement to feel as though we are accomplishing our goals and to keep us motivated. Make sure you set a series of small goals, in addition to a few larger, long-term aspirations. The completion of each small task will foster a sense of accomplishment, diminish your worry about your workload and motivate you to pursue further objectives.

Help is Available

Despite your best efforts, you may need occasional outside advice on how to best cope with work-related stress. Fortunately, services and outlets are available to help lawyers deal with stressful aspects of their profession:

1. The CBA’s Legal Profession Assistance Conference (LPAC) – Dedicated to helping lawyers, judges and law students and their families with personal, emotional, health and lifestyle issues through a network of Lawyer Assistance Programs, a national 24-hour helpline and through provincial programs.

2. Family physician – Your family doctor is a vital resource for dealing with stress-related problems, as he/she can provide you with information, resources and treatment for a variety of illnesses, including depression and anxiety. If he/he refers you to a psychiatrist, forget the stigma associated with a shrink. Instead, remember that depression is a common problem, likely reflecting excessive use of biological resources.

3. Professional stress management consultants – Stress management consultants can provide up-to-date and effective advice on how to create a less stressful work environment, as well as facilitate the education of both management and employees on the harmful aspects of stress and stress prevention.

Owen Kelly is a researcher in social neuroscience at the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research, and the Department of Psychology, Carleton University. He is also a partner in Stress Biometrica, a consulting group specializing in the assessment and evaluation of organizational stress.

person carrying a heavy load



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