- Legal work, and Biglaw in particular, has unique ways to cause stress that can affect your career and personal life.
- Stress can adversely affect your body and mind and create feedback loops that cause more harm if unattended to.
- There are various ways that lawyers can manage or mitigate stress arising out of their work.
Stress is a reaction to pressures or threats that we face in life, often uncertainty, loss of control, or feeling overwhelmed. It should be no surprise that your occupation can be the source of immense stress, and law is no exception. Legal work can come with some unique causes of stress: difficult clients, billable requirements, intense workloads, competitive environments, and financial burdens just to name a few.
Learning how to deal with stress in general and the causes of stress that specifically affects lawyers can make legal work more enjoyable, sustainable, and fulfilling.
Lawyers are impacted by multiple kinds of stress
Not all stress is made equal. First, some light stress in manageable doses can do more good than harm. An example of good stress is the kind you feel when a deadline or exam is approaching. Good stress can serve as a motivator to be productive and temporarily increased cortisol levels can boost focus and performance.
Cortisol is the hormone that regulates your physiological stress response and can induce the “fight or flight” feeling that is often crucial for surviving and behaving under exceptional circumstances. Good stress is usually acute stress, or stress that occurs for short periods of time in response to a temporary situation.
However, in the legal profession, well-being often takes a back seat to billable hours. The more stressors added, and the more those become permanent stressors, the bigger the toll on your risk of burnout and overall mental health. Striving to real that work-life balance everyone talks about is often much harder in a law firm.
Chronic stress is long-term stress that occurs under prolonged pressure. More commonly than acute stress, chronic stress can be caused by both internal and external causes. Prolonged emotional states such as anxiety, frustration, or anger can cause chronic stress, but so can the outside world if you just can’t seem to catch a break.
Chronic stress that would otherwise be acute stress can arise from one’s job, relationships, illness, or a car’s persistent check engine light. One 14-hour workday to file a motion can be acute stress, but an accumulation of such stress, such as a 70-hour workweek or 250+ billable hour month can become chronic stress. Both internal and external causes can adversely affect each other, creating a cycle that causes even more stress. Work can make you anxious, but anxiety can also make work more difficult to manage.
Finally, there is traumatic stress, which is usually induced from life-threatening experiences paired with immense fear or helplessness. While traumatic stress (and PTSD which sometimes follow) is very serious, the probability that a civilian occupation will cause traumatic stress is rather low. Generally, the stress that accompanies a career in law (or a legal education) will either be a high volume of distinct acute stresses or chronic stress.
How stress affects a lawyer’s body and mind
Muscle tension is almost a common physical reflex to stress in order for the body to guard against pain. Muscle tension, particularly prolonged muscle tension, is related to migraines and are associated also with muscle tension in the shoulders, neck, and head.
Stress can also induce nose and lung constriction, affecting the respiratory system. As breathing becomes more difficult, the pipeline of oxygen becomes compromised making it harder to focus for extended periods, reducing sleep quality, and generating lethargy.
The cardiovascular system can also be affected by stress, leading to elevated heart rates and high blood pressure. Prolonged negative cardiovascular effects can increase the risk for heart attack and stroke. Stress can cause both over and under-eating. Bacteria in the gut can be affected by stress and can complicate mood regulation.
The bowels are often affected, reducing the efficiency of nutrient absorption, and hastening the speed at which food moves through the body. Furthermore, the nervous system, the reproductive system, and immune system can all be adversely affected by stress.
Psychologically and behaviorally, stress can cause a lot of change and damage. Not only will the physical effects in turn affect mood and behavior, but the negative changes in behavior will often lead to even more effects on the body. Appetite issues can cause anxiety, and substance abuse becomes a quicker solution than a well monitored diet. Restlessness can cause emotional flares of anger and reduce motivation and focus.
Chronic fatigue will often lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed. The need to escape from stress can lead to social withdrawal or cause someone to replace sleep and exercise with substances or escapism outlets.
Stress management techniques are very popular for supporting physical health and mental wellness when you work in the legal industry. Sometimes it might be hard to see distinct lines between your personal life and your professional one, but working to create those boundaries is important.
If you notice that your levels of stress are constantly rising, whether it’s due to general lawyer burnout or the ongoing impact of the pandemic, you might want to seek out stress management techniques. Similarly, there are lawyer assistance programs that help you work through stress from your law firm job. Remember that you’re not alone, whether you work in a small firm or in big law.
How legal work uniquely causes stress
Every occupation comes with its own unique ways to put pressure on an individual. Even from the inception of the legal career, college students undergo a very competitive process to get a high GPA and LSAT score for law school admissions. Not only do most law schools make students compete with each other for grades, but the job search process can also be very competitive one. Finally, even before practicing law, the massive student loans commonly incurred by law students can cause chronic stress in the background for decades, especially if starting salaries or career trajectory remains uncertain.
Practicing law is usually a service that involves interacting with people. Clients, judges, opposing counsels, witnesses, and partners all carry the potential to bring difficult and frustrating interactions to a lawyer’s work. Law is often high stakes and often affects large sums of money and real people’s lives. In criminal or family law, disturbing facts or evidence can arise, and a lawyer might find themselves situated too closely to the stress of their clients or the litigation itself.
Lawyers generally work long or unpredictable hours, even outside of Biglaw. Estimates show that lawyers as an aggregate average close to 50 hours worked per week and lose over three weeks each year to unplanned work. Additionally, because the law is constantly changing, lawyers can rarely feel comfortable with their knowledge base and ability to win cases or run deals.
Finally, lawyers often have to deal with the stereotypes or expectations placed on them by family, friends, or even strangers for being a lawyer. Lawyers are commonly called immoral or incompetent, despite many of these people seeking out free legal advice. Stress can arise from having to maintain personal and professional boundaries.
Specifically for Biglaw, the turnover rates are alarming, probably because the career is prone to high stress levels. Long hours are unavoidable, and work can be so unpredictable that it regularly encroaches on your sleep or personal plans. Vacations are rare and hardly guaranteed. The reward for good work is usually even more work. Many firms still have an up-or-out policy, and many enter Biglaw with an understanding that they will not be there for long.
Tips for lawyers trying to manage stress
There are ways to manage stress that are not even more harmful to the body (e.g., turning to functional alcoholism or binge-watching television).
Regular physical activity is one of the most recommended ways to counteract stress. Many of the physical responses to stress can be acted on by finding ways to loosen the muscles, get oxygen into the lungs, and improving sleep and appetite. Exercise can also create a time and space away from the stress-inducing work environment. Finding time to exercise regularly may be difficult but it is one of the more effective ways of dealing with both acute and chronic stress.
Relaxation techniques can be effective as well. Breathing exercises improve the body and meditation can help the mind. Even a short time in the sun or a mid-day power nap count as relaxation and can act as brief but healthy resets during a stressful day. As a warning, some forms of “relaxation” might actually have the opposite effect. Television, video games, social media, and “relaxing” substances can be harmful if done in high volume and often come with their own stress-causing consequences.
If you are dealing with severe chronic or traumatic stress, consider therapy. Because psychological disorder is not defined by a definite bright line, depressive tendencies or prolonged states of anxiety might be better dealt with by professional counseling or psychiatric treatment. “Soft” therapies such as spending time with loved ones, pets, or engaging in restorative hobbies (e.g., gardening, cooking, playing music, painting) can also be effective in combating stress.
Sometimes, you feel overwhelmed because you should be. If work is inevitably going to demand more out of you than you can handle, perhaps you will need to outsource your life. Home cleaners, laundry services, meal prep services, daycares, and nannies are just a few ways that both time and energy can be saved as opposed to doing it by yourself.
Home gyms can reduce the commute to a commercial gym, and while expensive at first, can become a valuable long-term investment. Even one of these can free up the mental and physical bandwidth allowing you to sustainably manage the rest of your responsibilities and keep your earning power alive for longer.
Stress, since it can be caused internally, can also be mitigated internally. Consider gratitude exercises, meditation, journaling, or stoicism. Emotions and mood are not tangibly measured in the human body and are measured in the form of physiological responses, so while you can’t simply will away muscle tension, it is possible to chip away at anxiety or frustration by working on your mental wellness.
Finally, for those in Biglaw, consider if law, your employer, or your particular line of work is causing you too much stress. It’s okay to realize that you don’t want to be a full-on lawyer who deals with the court system or billion-dollar corporate transactions. Maybe you aren’t really a people-person (or conversely feel starved of human contact in your niche hyper-technical transactional practice) and want to switch practice areas or do your work at a larger or smaller scale.
Perhaps your firm’s culture, the pace of work at your office, or even one particularly stress-inducing partner are stressful in ways that you expect another environment would not be. Talk to a recruiter if you think that might be the case.
Joseph Kim is a 3L at Notre Dame Law School. Joseph grew up in California where he developed an interest in working with music, powerlifting, and bowling. He's been a member of the FIRE community since before law school and plans to pursue FatFIRE following graduation.