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The Real Truth About Lawyer Stress (& How To Reduce It)

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The legal industry has been talking about how to reduce and better manage lawyer stress for years yet little has changed. Why is that?

As a practicing lawyer for over 18 years and now a lawyer coach, I’ve come to realize that the primary factor behind our lack of progress is our limited understanding of the true causes for lawyer stress.

If we want to effectively manage (and then reduce) lawyer stress, we must understand the underlying reasons for it. Which is exactly what we are getting into below.

Before moving forward, I want to clarify what I mean by stress management. Stress management goes beyond coping with stress. It involves:

  • Learning how to reduce stress levels in the moment,
  • Changing how you think about stress itself, and
  • Knowing how to preempt stress from ever occurring in the first place (through proper stress prevention strategies).

This is about how you show up in everyday life.

Let’s talk about the real causes for lawyer stress (so you can effectively manage it once and for all).

 

Lawyer Stress, Anxiety & Mental Health Statistics

You’ve likely heard of the 2016 ABA/Hazelden Betty Ford Study on Substance Abuse and Mental Health (you’d have to live under a rock not to have heard something about it over the past 8 years). It made big news – for good reason. When you saw them, you might have nodded your head in agreement.

After all, we hear lawyer burnout stories all the time (like this one from 2023). Lawyer burnout feels commonplace. But why is that? Have they changed for the better (at all) over the past 8-10 years?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Despite the legal profession’s focus on lawyer stress, anxiety, depression and mental health, recent ALM Surveys prove that not enough has changed for the better. One could even argue that things have gotten worse:

 

Lawyer Wellbeing Statistics Infographic

 

Clearly, the legal profession has a problem.

When asked about the source for mental health struggles, most lawyers cite the legal profession itself (along with their firm environment and/or policies). When asked to be specific, they typically mention high billable hour requirements, the need to be available 24/7, unreasonable client demands, and lack of sleep.

But is that true? Are the high levels of lawyer stress, anxiety, depression, and addiction due primarily to external factors such as these?

Could there be more to it than that?

In my experience as an attorney who practiced in Big Law for over 18 years and now as a coach to lawyers, there is more to it than that. And it’s a big reason why we’ve made such little progress over the past 8-10 years. Because it’s near-impossible to properly handle stress if you don’t understand all the things causing your stress.

The Real Cause of Lawyer Stress

If you want to fully handle stress (and keep stress levels low), it’s essential to differentiate between external stress triggers and internally-caused stress.

External stress triggers originate from outside factors, such as:

  • A client moving up a deadline.
  • Getting a call from your child’s school that he/she is ill.
  • Weekend client calls to your cell phone.
  • Being notified that you will not be put up for partnership.
  • Getting an unexpected ruling on a big case.

These are the things that happen to and/or around you that can cause stress. Things you have no real control over.

When it comes to practicing law, external events that feel stressful are frequent. Which is why we attorneys tend to excuse our high stress levels as just “part of the job” and/or “the nature of the beast”. But we are forgetting something when we think that way… Internal stress.

Internally-caused stress arises from your thoughts, beliefs, and emotional responses to these external triggers. Recognizing this distinction is important because you have control over internal stress (not external stress triggers). You even have control over how you think about external stress triggers.

 

External vs Internal Lawyer Stress Infographic

 

Where Most Lawyer Stress Comes From

We’ve already seen that most attorneys cite external factors for the vast majority of lawyer stress. In my experience, this is what most people believe (it’s not just us attorneys).

But is that really true? Does most lawyer stress originate from other people and circumstances?

Simple answer: no.

The vast majority of stress – for anyone – is caused by what you think and how you feel (all the internal stuff). Because you react out of those thoughts and feelings. And that reaction has a ripple effect.

And when it comes to attorneys, this is even more pronounced than with the average person (something we will get into more below). But to help you better understand why the majority of lawyer stress is thanks to internal factors, I want to introduce you to a simple equation…

E+R=O (And Why Understanding This Simple Equation Is Key To Understanding Lawyer Stress)

The best way to understand why internally created stress is so significant when it comes to lowering lawyer stress levels is through the following equation:

 

Infographic explaining why understanding E+R=O is necessary to lower lawyer stress levels

 

This equation clearly shows where you do – and do not – have control.

You cannot control the Event. Even if you had some part in it happening, once it has occurred you can’t do anything about it. And although you can influence an outcome (through your response), it is not determinative of your outcome. Other people, circumstances and occurrences will also influence the outcome (which, in the equation above, are part of the Event).

The only thing you can control is you (i.e., your response). And what we are getting at are:

  • Your thoughts + beliefs.
  • How you feel (your emotions).
  • Your actions, decisions and choices.

This is why focusing on internal stress is so powerful. It’s where your control lies. And it’s also why ruminating on something that has already occurred and/or obsessing over what you want to happen isn’t just fruitless but stress-inducing.

E+R=O In Action

Let’s say that a client calls to move up an (already) aggressive deadline. You might think something like…

  • “Not again, this always happens.”
  • “How could I not have planned for this?”
  • “This is impossible.”

Which creates a host of emotions (frustration, anger, disappointment, and/or discouragement). If you do not process these thoughts and emotions properly, you are likely to then:

  • Snap at your assistant (telling – not asking – them to work late).
  • Give unclear instructions to team members.
  • Forget to call your spouse to tell them you’ll be home late.

But if you take 15 minutes to calm down, work through your feelings, and reflect on your thoughts, you’re less likely to react in this way. Instead, you might choose to:

  • Reframe the situation as a learning experience (and chance to prove yourself to the client).
  • Inspire team members to offer to work late before you ask (and do a stellar job).
  • Explain to your spouse what’s going on.

Both scenarios deal with the same initial situation yet have very different consequences. Which would you prefer?

A Real-Life Example (Courtesy of the COVID shutdown)

When everything shut down back in March 2020, I had just started my first lawyer Mastermind for attorneys wanting to build their book of business. The shutdown occurred between our 1st and 2nd meeting, right after we set their business development strategies (that ALL included networking)

Needless to say, the shutdown threw a big wrench into their plans. And we had no idea how long it would last.

Was that stressful? Of course.

But each person had a choice in how to deal with that stress (and the trigger event – the COVID shutdown) internally.

They could believe that their networking would not work (since it was always done in-person before), and give up on that piece of their plan. Or they could believe that they could still network (via phone, Zoom and LinkedIn), and not give up on that piece of their plan.

Imagine the difference – not just in their results – but in their stress and anxiety levels under each option.

Thankfully, the mastermind was the perfect place to help them work through their internal emotions and thoughts about what might not work (and the catastrophizing that the mind loves to do). This enabled each of them to choose option A and successfully grow their books despite the upheaval caused by the shutdown.

How The Mind Works (& How That Contributes To Lawyer Stress)

Now that you know how important it is to take control of your thoughts, beliefs and feelings (before they take control of you), you’ll want to gain deeper understanding around how your mind operates.

Because having a basic knowledge around what you are attempting to counteract is crucial for effective control. And it’s equally important to comprehend how your legal training contributes to your brain’s pre-wired inclination to amplify stress.

Your Brain’s Negativity Bias

You’ve probably heard that your brain has a negativity bias. But what, exactly, does that mean?

The brain’s negativity bias refers to its tendency to focus more on negative experiences and information than positive ones. This bias is a protective mechanism for readily anticipating potential danger/risk and avoiding these dangers/risks through proper planning.

So, yes it protects you (which is why you do not want to get rid of the bias completely).

But it is a double-edged sword because it:

  • overemphasizes potential risk and negative information,
  • leads to heightened stress levels if not effectively managed, and
  • limit your choices so that you can remain “safe” and not take risks.

Your Mind’s (Many) Thoughts

Throughout each day, numerous thoughts swirl within your subconscious mind daily. Exactly how many remains a topic of debate but it is evident that the number is exponentially higher than the thoughts you are consciously aware of.

These thoughts tend to be repetitive, creating a cycle of recurring patterns in your mind. The more you think something, the more deeply you are likely to believe it (especially if it conforms to your brain’s pre-wired negativity bias).

And even though you are not consciously aware of all of these thoughts, they do have an impact on how you feel. Especially if you are in an already pressure-filled, high-stress environment (like the legal profession).

What Your Mind Needs (That It Doesn’t Get Enough Of)

Think of your brain as similar to a muscle. Muscles need rest and relaxation in between strength and conditioning. Otherwise they end up breaking down – injury occurs.

The same goes for your brain. It can’t be exercised continuously and be expected to perform at optimal levels.

Yet most lawyers do not live by this principle. Instead, we overload our schedules, attempt to do everything, and never give our brains an opportunity to think freely and unwind.

And note: some of those subconscious thoughts within your mind are trying to surface, but they won’t if you don’t make space for contemplation.

The Lawyer Brain

Lawyers tend to be highly motivated, driven and success-oriented. We like to compete (and win). We also desire to be recognized for our successes. I like to call this “gold-star syndrome” because it’s an offshoot of our desire as kids to be awarded gold stars for doing good work.

But we aren’t just high-achievers. We are perfectionists who place heightened values on others’ opinions of us. We are people-pleasers as a result.

All of these traits tend to exacerbate our stress levels (and makes it pretty obvious that at least part of the lawyer stress problem is thanks to these traits).

But then add to the above our lawyer training. We are trained to:

  • Put clients first.
  • Have/know the answers.
  • Be risk averse.
  • Plan for every potential outcome.
  • Be skeptical (and poke holes).

This further heightens our natural instincts to do more, push ourselves harder and people-please.

Although all of these traits and characteristics can be advantageous for our clients, they are not good when applied to ourselves and how we live our lives. Yet most of us do exactly that.

Add up all of the above (our brain’s inherent negativity bias, our overcommitted schedules, our high-achiever traits, and our lawyer training), and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that lawyer stress is so high.

 

Common Lawyer Traits That Cause Lawyer Stress Infographic

 

The Science Behind How To Lower Lawyer Stress Levels

What Brain Plasticity Has To Do With Lowering Lawyer Stress & Anxiety

Your brain has a plethora of neural pathways. Every time you think a thought, it creates or reinforces a neural pathway. The more you think something, the more likely you are to believe it.

I liken neural pathways to hiking paths in the forest. When they are cleared, they are obvious. If you decide to go your own way, you alone will not create a new path. But if thousands of people followed you and took the exact same path, then a new pathway would become evident.

And if people keep following your new path and ignore the old one, then that older path will eventually become overgrown.

This is similar to how neural pathways within your brain behave when it comes to your thoughts. You have created a habit in how you think, what you think, and how you tend to react to certain things. The good news is that you can change these habits (including what you think and how you perceive stressful events).

Research shows within the neuroscience field shows that you can break old habits and form new ones (including within your habitual thoughts, feelings and beliefs) through specific practices.

Why Your Perception of Stress Itself Matters

We’ve all heard that stress can kill. A University of Wisconsin study found that participants in the 1998 National Health Interview Survey who had experienced high levels of stress and stated that it had adversely impacted their health had a 43% increased risk of dying prematurely.

But this study wasn’t all bad news because it also found that those who had reported high levels of stress yet did not believe it to be harmful to have had the lowest risk of dying (even when compared to those who had reported low stress levels).

What this means is that your perception of stress matters – a lot! That’s a game-changer for everyone, but especially when it comes to lawyer stress. Because your mind and health will be positively impacted simply by changing your perception of certain interactions and events from negative to at least neutral.

How might that look?

When a difficult client calls, reframing it away from “I can’t stand dealing with this client” to “This is an opportunity to test my client management skills”.

And when dealing with an aggressive deadline, reframing it as an opportunity for your team to shine as opposed to hyper-focusing on how much everyone is working.

The Answer To Lawyer Stress? Focus First On Rewiring Your Mind

Now that you know the science behind how:

  • Your brain is pre-wired,
  • To change what/how you think,
  • Your perception around stress (and stressful events) impacts your health,

What can you do with that information?

It’s time to learn how to rewire your brain to effectively counteract your brain’s negativity bias, your lawyer training and your emotionally reactive habits. This is the answer to changing your habitual internal and external reactions so as to prevent future stress (and even change how you view external trigger events over time). And it is the answer too few are focusing on when it comes to improving lawyer stress and anxiety levels.

Lawyer Stress Solution Strategy 1: Increase White Space For Your Brain

Creating mental white space is the thing your brain craves yet rarely (if ever) gets.

Instead of overstuffing your calendar to the nth degree, schedule time into your calendar for quiet reflection (maybe even time for some free mind wandering). This will provide you with:

  • Self-awareness around stress triggers.
  • Awareness around how stress manifests within your body.
  • Better understanding around when (and how) you tend to react emotionally.

Knowing these things are foundational for taking control of the “R” within the E+R=O equation. It will enable you to better understand and plan around common stress triggers, be more aware when stress is starting to take over and respond appropriately (not react out of emotion).

Giving your brain space will enable subconscious thoughts to bubble to the surface. You will likely realize things you didn’t (that could be impacting your stress levels).

And your mind will have space to wander.

Contrary to what most people believe, mind wandering itself is not bad. In fact, your brain needs time for mind wandering. It is how your brain makes connections and creatively solves problems. Scheduling time for mind-wandering will enable you to think more creatively and be more present when you don’t want your mind to wander off.

Lawyer Stress Solution Tip: Schedule daily mind-wandering.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Go somewhere quiet and relaxing.
  2. Have a notebook and pen with you.
  3. Set an alarm (10 minutes or more).
  4. Sit back and let your mind wander.
  5. Take note of anything you feel is important.

Yep, that’s it. You will be surprised how much this activity – even done just once per week – will help improve creativity while also enabling you to be more present in daily life.

Lawyer Stress Solution Strategy 2: Move Your Body (Yes, It Helps Your Brain)

You know that exercise is great for your body. Did you know that it’s also a great stress reliever (and also stress preventative)?

Exercise relieves stress and then helps keep stress levels low by:

  • Increasing endorphins (your body’s feel-good neurotransmitters – this is especially the case for aerobic activities).
  • Assisting your body to work through the impact of the fight-or-flight response (within exercise) in a healthy manner.
  • Shedding bodily tension (through movement).
  • Forcing your mind to focus, thereby forgetting daily stressors.
  • Relaxing your body (after you are done) and improving mood.

Moreover, exercise is a way of being in control of what you are doing. You have control over your own body, what you do and for how long. This can improve your outlook and even confidence levels.

Lawyer Stress Solution Tip: Make hard feel easy.

Too many of us look at exercise as a chore we must do to take care of ourselves. But it doesn’t have to feel that way. It can be enjoyable, something you look forward to.

Please note that you can choose the type of exercise you take on. You do not need to do what others do or what you think you should do. Exercise is really about moving your body.

So… How do you enjoy moving your body? What did you enjoy doing as a kid?

Lean into these questions and get creative to make exercise more enjoyable (even feel easy).

Lawyer Stress Solution Strategy 3: Utilize Proven Mindset + Mindfulness Tools

Time for a reality check: this is life, stressful events will occur (both at work and within life).

But that doesn’t mean that these events (and the thoughts/emotions that come from them) have to take you down. Because there are tools scientifically proven to:

  • Quickly calm your mind so that you can reset.
  • Create a positive, grounded outlook overall (even when stressful things happen).
  • Change how you think (including your actual thoughts).

This is what will enable you to take control and be resilient to stress when something unexpected and/or negative occurs (instead of going into the dreaded lawyer stress spiral).

What are these tools? Think meditation, mindfulness, gratitude, journaling and cognitive reframing (among others).

Tools you’ve already heard about yet don’t use often enough (maybe hardly ever).

What these tools will do for you is three-fold. They will improve self-awareness around your thoughts, how your emotions get in your way and common stress triggers. Taking control of your emotions and thoughts isn’t possible without that self-awareness.

But they do not stop there because they also will enable you to process your emotions, and the thoughts/beliefs behind them, more effectively so that you can relate to them in a more positive manner. This is key to making better choices. Choices that are responsive as opposed to reactive (and will keep you from getting caught up in a stress spiral).

Finally, they’ll empower you to see yourself in a different, better light. And to become more confident in your choices. This is a game-changer for how you feel generally.

Lawyer Stress Solution Tip: Make It A Practice

Lawyers love structure and clarity. And to have a clear path that gets us to a final destination. Which can hinder us from using the tools referenced above.

Because when it comes to cultivating your mind to be more stress resilient, there is no destination. Some days, weeks and even months, you will feel like you have stress in hand. But then something unexpected will occur that causes added stress. That’s to be expected.

Use the tools to live more fully. As part of a regular practice so that you can create consistent habits that lean into when life happens.

Some of the tools will likely be used often, others will be in your toolbox for when you need them. Regardless of how often you use any individual tool, make sure you think of what you’re doing as a practice – for life.

Final Thoughts For What’s Behind (& How To Reduce) Lawyer Stress Levels

Here’s what you should know…

Instead of trying to avoid negative emotions, it’s important to acknowledge and embrace them as a natural part of life.

The aim is to reach a point where you can comfortably handle these uncomfortable feelings, rather than suppressing or dismissing them. By processing them in a healthy way, you can respond with complete control.

Ultimately, the goal is to transform your mindset – how you perceive yourself, your abilities, others, and the world. This shift in mindset is crucial.

Lawyers often overlook this aspect, but it can significantly reduce lawyer stress levels because it’s the first step toward feeling empowered to:

  • Establish boundaries with peers, colleagues, and clients.
  • Politely decline additional work when your plate is full.
  • Let go of concerns about others’ opinions.

This is your way forward to shaping your own career path and finding happiness as a lawyer.

Next Steps: Get The Legal Mindset Mastery Toolkit

I know you’ve heard of meditation, mindfulness and gratitude (and also most of the other tools mentioned above). But perhaps you’re not quite sure how to use them (or how to be more consistent in using them)? I have just the thing for you…

Introducing the Legal Mindset Mastery Toolkit for banishing lawyer burnout, which contains 10-evidence based mindset and stress management tools for rewiring your mind to think, feel and be better (with step-by-step instructions for how to use each one).

The tools mentioned above are all in there, along with some others you might not have heard of (that are just as powerful). Get your copy of the Toolkit here.

Recommended Articles & Podcast Episodes For Managing Lawyer Stress


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Hey there, I’m Heather

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FORMER BIGLAW LAWYER (FOR 18+ YEARS)

LAWYER LEADERSHIP & BUSINESS COACH

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