Got stress? What to do before the burnout hits

  • June 22, 2017
  • Ann Macaulay

Many young lawyers struggle with high levels of stress and often leave the practice of law altogether because of it. Conflict, long hours, demanding clients, competition and the constant pressure to be perfect can be stressful for even the toughest, most experienced lawyers.

Fortunately, there are many ways to cope before burnout hits. Most people typically start with the basics to fight stress: exercise, eat and sleep properly, take vacations, meditate, practise mindfulness and don’t isolate yourself from others. But there’s even more that can be done.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help, says Gary Mitchell, CEO and founder of On Trac Coach in Vancouver. “Don’t try and do it on your own. You may think you’re the smartest person in the room but often you’re not because other people have other skills. Surround yourself with those other people.”

Mitchell advises lawyers to make a business plan to get them thinking like a business person, “because it is a business. Have a plan for where you’re headed.” Having a big-picture plan can take some of the pressure off, and in the short term he recommends making a daily to-do list. That gives you a handle on your time and the confidence that you can manage your day.

Stress is normal

“We all experience stress,” says Deborah Glatter, Director, Practice Excellence, Advancement & Career Development at Cassels Brock & Blackwell in Toronto. “It’s normal and it’s not anything to hide and there are things you can do about it.”

But young lawyers usually won’t come forward to talk about it unless their firm has set the stage by socializing the issue, says Glatter. “They think somehow that they are emotionally not prepared for this or don’t have what it takes to deal with the stress. I think that’s one of the reasons that we see so many young lawyers leaving the profession.”

She advises lawyers to “put coping mechanisms in place and use resources around you and know that you’re not alone.” Talk to your lawyer friends about their levels of stress. “It’s okay to put on a strong face to the client, that’s as it should be, but your colleagues are feeling just as stressed as you are and it would probably be helpful to talk about it.”

Glatter says that research shows that lawyers are typically risk-averse pessimists. “I believe that law school makes us that way because you spend all of your time looking for the snail in the ginger beer bottle. It’s your job to stand in the way of disaster and disaster is everywhere around the corner from the lawyer’s perspective if he or she is doing their job right.” Her firm brings in experts to talk to lawyers about becoming more optimistic in their outlook.

Cassels provides conversational Spanish lessons during lunch hours, which forces lawyers to get out of their offices and to be with other people.. Since “you’re not thinking about work, you’re forcing your brain into a different area and getting a break from the pressure,” she says.

Cultivate resilience

Valerie Cherneski, an executive coaching consultant based in Montreal, teaches young lawyers to practise resilience. “Greater resilience is correlated with less stress and anxiety and a better ability to handle tough situations,” she says.

“There is an innate stress level for lawyers that is above the baseline of many other professions,” she adds, and people who are more resilient don’t give up as easily. “They set targets and they achieve them because they’re able to get back up and stay the course when they’re knocked down.”

Cherneski says you should expect to be knocked down. “You’re going to receive rejection. You’re going to be overwhelmed by your workload. You’re going to come up against an angry partner. You’re going to be the person at some point not chosen to work on a file.” These things can often derail new lawyers, she adds, but “if you expect it as a normal part of your daily life, it’s much easier to make sense of it and to pick yourself up and move on.”

It’s not a reflection on your abilities or personality, she adds. “It doesn’t matter how successful you are, you’re going to have an upset client at some point, you’re going to be in conflict with the other side or with other lawyers on the file. It’s built into the nature of the work. It’s ironic that lawyers aren’t trained from the outset to expect it.”

There’s a difference between seeking perfection and seeking excellence, she adds. One sets you up for failure and sabotages you, the other drives you. Learn from negative experiences and decide “whether you let it hold you back or let it fuel your fire.” Consciously take action to move forward and don’t dwell on the past.

Accept, learn, detach and move on

To help pick yourself up again, Cherneski’s advice is to “go to the ‘why’ right away: ask why are you there and why does it matter for you to pick yourself up?” Think about your short- and long-term goals, then detach and move forward. “Choose to learn from the experience and use it to fuel your success versus derailing yourself.”

There’s constant pressure to meet billable targets and to work with the firm’s best partners and clients. “Firms are naturally competitive places but if you fall into the trap of letting that drive you, you’re going to be very dragged down by it and it’s going to cause a lot of stress and anxiety,” says Cherneski. Comparing yourself to others will only derail you more easily. “Spend your very valuable time and energy focused on your own path and your own work.”

Find at least one way to beat stress that fits with your lifestyle. Some people are sporty, so exercise works for them. Others find mindfulness and meditation are simple practices to fit into their daily routine. Life is not going to get any easier as you gain seniority and your personal life gets more complicated, so “if you build resilience as a young lawyer, you’re directly impacting your ability to succeed in your practice and in your life,” Cherneski says.

Ann Macaulay is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.

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