According to many studies, lawyers (especially family lawyers) have some of the highest stress, depression, anxiety and addiction levels of any profession. Some studies have cited that attorneys have three times the level of alcoholism and depression than the general populace. Even though lawyers have known these statistics for years, nothing seems to be changing. I was a trial and family law attorney for 27 years, and participated as a counselor and intervention specialist for my state’s bar association section helping lawyers with addiction problems. I saw first hand the effects of stress and addiction.
Many law school students graduate with huge debts for law school (and college) tuition and expenses. According to US News and World Report, as many as 90% of the 2015 graduating class of many well known law schools graduated with debts of well over $100,000 (76% of Yale graduates owed $123,000). That is a huge amount of debt for any lawyer to bear when they are trying to start a practice, even if they landed a lush job at a big law firm. No wonder stress levels are high.
The competition for clients and fees is huge. What happens is that many lawyers feel like they have to fight the opposition, the opposition’s lawyers, the judge and then their client when it is time to be paid. I was a divorce lawyer for many years and family law is one of the most time consuming litigation categories which results in hourly fees that few clients can afford. Oftentimes lawyers can feel like there is no safe haven in the career that they thought would bring satisfaction and fulfillment.
What I am about to suggest may sound radical to some in the legal profession…but these practices can save lives and careers.
Let’s start with meditation. The object of meditation is to stop thinking for as long as we can. I call it “brain recess”. For most lawyers that would be like asking them to breathe in a vacuum; after all, that is what lawyers are trained to do, think. Meditation is the absolute last thing our legal minds want to do, but it is absolutely critical to our well being that we detach from our thoughts for a few minutes a day. Meditation is like engaging the clutch on that hamster wheel in our mental cage so that the thoughts stop spinning around and around. There are as many different types of meditation as there are lawyers; find the kind of meditation that appeals to you (pun intended).
The second concept to consider is breathing. Yes, breathing. Most lawyers (as well as the general population) do not breath deeply enough. The problem is shallow breathing cuts off adequate oxygen to the frontal lobe, which results in higher brain function shut down. When we sense fear or threat, we automatically start breathing faster and more shallowly. This results is the fight or flight syndrome, also known as panic. When we focus on breathing deeply, we supply enough oxygen to our frontal cortex which is our analytical brain and we can reason. Otherwise we stay in a state of panic and fear as if being chased by a wild animal, snakes or spiders and our ability to analyze and make good decisions is compromised.
The third concept is what is now being called “mindfulness”. I call it “paying attention”. When we detach ourselves from our thoughts, we can actually master them faster. The whole notion of the power of positive thinking only works if we are controlling our minds, not the other way around. Lawyers train their minds to work a certain way, to anticipate problems. We have to detach from that unique ability long enough to stop anxiety from setting in. We can control our thinking, but we have to be aware that we are thinking. We can control our thoughts if we are aware of them. If we are afraid, we can be aware of the feeling of fear. If we are stressed, we can be aware of the feeling of stress. We can then turn our thoughts to a positive theme and let go of the negative feelings. It is easy to do with practice.
When we gain control of our thoughts, we can realize that we are simply good people who are doing legal work for a living, not lawyers who are trying to be good people. When we fall into the trap of identifying ourselves as lawyers we are letting the tail wag the dog. Many lawyers I know are compassionate, peaceful, and happy. My observation is that they have not let the legal mind overtake their conscious mind. Lawyers who are caught in a loop of “win at all costs”, “get that client no matter what”, or “how do I pay my bills” have fallen into a lose-lose mindset. When we perceive practicing law as a “win-lose” scenario, we also fall into the lose-lose mindset. What we have to do is consider ourselves as counselors as opposed to warriors and add tools like breathing, meditation and mindfulness to our toolboxes.
By using these techniques to eliminate stress and anxiety, practicing law can be fulfilling and successful. For those lawyers who feel spirituality is not for them, they should reconsider. It may save their life and their license.
James Gray Robinson, Esq. was a third generation trial attorney, specializing in family law, for 27 years in his native North Carolina up until 2004. Since then he has become an individual and business consultant who works with a wide range of people, professional organizations, and leading corporations. Robinson’s mission is for all people to have fulfilling, peaceful career experiences and work environments. At the age of 64, Gray passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney. You can learn more about his work by visiting www.JamesGrayRobinson.com and to begin a dialogue about supporting you and/or your business, write him directly at James@JamesGrayRobinson.com.