After working nearly 40 years’ with the legal profession, I assure you it is one of the top stressful work environments ever. Years ago when someone would ask me how long I’d been in this profession and I would answer 10, 20, 30 years - they’d have the strangest expression of shock or amazement. My quick answer would be, “yes, I know - after 15 years most of us end up at the flea market weaving baskets”. That is really a sad truth. I know many paralegals who have left the profession after 10 or 15 years because the stress levels can be overwhelming.
The legal profession as a career choice is stressful because of stringent deadlines including statutes of limitations, which if you miss one of those you have just sunk your (and your client's) battleship. Other reasons include adamant clients who are stressed out because they are unfamiliar with the legal system. They pass that stress on to the lawyer and staff with their insecurities, continuous questions and need for reassurance. Clients do not know legal procedures, they do not know how to manage stress, and often their expectations are sometimes unreasonable. Their anxieties and emotions are passed on to the law firm.
In addition, lawyers contribute to their own second hand stress with the character traits perfectionism and pessimism. Perfectionism ensures that work is always accurate and detailed oriented. With pessimism, lawyers are always on the look-out for what can go wrong. These two traits when taken to the extreme can obviously be a recipe for disaster. No work product will ever be good enough, even if it is perfect. Lawyers correct, and re-write and re-think the most basic letters and pleadings over and over. After pleadings or correspondence have been filed, submitted, and served, they pontificate about what the result will be, whether they could have done better thereby getting a better result, or if they did everything they could.
Here is how you can reduce the level of second hand stress that affects you and your staff:
· Identify the demands of work life which are perceived as unmanageable and change them. Worried about missing deadlines? Make sure you have a docketing system and a back up. Worried about sending out perfect documents? Make sure that your forms are up to date, not saved over -- and ready for use for each new case. This will keep your staff from making errors by including information from another case in a pleading.
· Make sure you actively practice work/life balance or work/life integration. Do not become a slave to your law firm working unreasonable and unmanageable hours. Do not allow your staff to do this either. Do not create an environment where your staff feels like they have to be "on" or "connected" all the time. I know from personal experience this is difficult. What is worse is an employee who becomes a slave to their job also resents other employees who behave like "this is just a job". While you think everyone working all the time will ensure everything at the firm is running smoothly it actually has quite the opposite effect. It takes a toll on your personal life and your staff. Work life and personal life are obviously interconnected. The paycheck from a "work" life pays for the "personal" life. You (or your staff) may think you are handling and/or reducing work second hand stress by working more hours. In reality, you are short changing your personal life and that will still cause second hand stress. The same is true for your employees. Everyone needs to shut down and disconnect. Everyone!!
· Relax and recharge - and leave the office at the office. Sounds pretty easy right? Not as easy as you might think. You will have to train yourself to believe that since you have done everything you could during the day to avoid missing deadlines, talking to clients, and being prepared, that it is more than ok to turn off the office. And then do it! Remember to that once you lay the ground work for clients to expect someone to answer the phone in the evenings, weekends, or holidays or respond to email become accustomed to it. This sets an unreasonable level of expectation of your client.
· Make sure you have a social life. NOT with people from the office or people who work in the legal profession. Getting together after-hours or on the weekend at a social function with other people who work in a law firm to commiserate and discuss work stressors is not going to help minimize second hand stress. In fact, it may make second hand stress worse because discussing it with colleagues may in fact reinforce your beliefs that it is just a part of the business. Or, you may think after collaborating with other legal professionals, that you are not spending enough time thinking about or working and you may feel obligated to work more.
Don’t internalize or take client problems personal. This is very difficult to do, especially because you are dealing with real life people in real life situations who may be suffering. You cannot personally take on their problems and as much as you might want to get personally involved, it is not good for you or the client. Also, when you get too personally involved, it will begin to cloud your judgment and affect your objectivity in handling a client's case. No one will win if that starts to happen.
It is not difficult to recognize second hand stress caused by working in a law firm. It is sometimes difficult to acknowledge that it exists. You need to be proactive in separating yourself personally from client problems. Remember that continued stress can adversely affect your health and that is not good for you, your practice or your family. Trust me, I’ve been there.