Stress in Life and the Law

Illustration of stressful lawyers on the run

Stress is ever present in modern-day society. Individuals worry about money, time, families, relationships, careers. Some stress is beneficial and positive: the stress of a new baby, the stress of a promotion, the stress of personal growth. But more and more, stress is passing a tipping point from short-term, motivating, and positive, to long-term, chronic, and detrimental.

Individuals who practice the law are habitual overachievers; sadly, they are also overachievers when it comes to stress. Data from the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the occupation of >“lawyer” ranks second in the top 10 most stressful jobs. The practice of law also ranked 11th for suicide rate in 2016, lawyers are more than three times as likely to be depressed as non-lawyers, and lawyers are twice as likely as the average citizen to become an alcoholic. According to the late Amiram Elwork, a doctorate of clinical psychology and author of Stress Management for Lawyers: How to Increase Personal & Professional Satisfaction in the Law, “Because law requires objective logical analysis and close attention to details, the legal profession attracts perfectionists. These are people who live by the rule: ‘If I don’t do a perfect job in every detail, I will fail.’”

As a group, lawyers are hard-working, high-performing, intelligent, super-stressed professionals who are often on the verge of burning out.

How Stress Works

When you feel fear, or perceive a threat, your central nervous system (CNS) takes control. The CNS oversees your “fight or flight” response, and in times of stress it commandeers your body to prepare for defense or for fleeing. Your adrenal glands are triggered to release adrenaline and cortisol. Your breathing rate and heart rate increase to distribute oxygen quickly and to move blood to your body’s core. Your liver begins to produce extra blood sugar to give you a boost of energy. Your muscles begin to tense so they can respond quickly to any physical threat, and to protect themselves from injury.

Once the threat has passed, your CNS should send out the “all clear” and your systems should return to normal; however if it fails to stand down, or if it immediately “calls to arm” again because of another stressor or threat, the entire process begins again. This is when stress becomes chronic stress.

When Good Stress Goes Bad

Not all stress is harmful; in fact, for lawyers stress likely helped you reach your current level of success. There was the stress of getting accepted to a top law school, the stress of competing with your graduating class, the stress of passing the bar exam, the stress of navigating your first years as a lawyer. In proper quantities and situations, stress can be an incredibly helpful motivator.

However, when you tip into unhealthy or chronic stress, it can begin to negatively affect your body, work, and overall happiness.

Long-term exposure to stress can lead to a plethora of physical ailments including but not limited to:

  • Headaches
  • Alopecia or permanent hair loss
  • Damage to short-term memory
  • Reduction in gray matter in the brain
  • Increase in seasonal allergy flare-ups
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Narrowing of the arteries in the heart increasing the risk of heart disease
  • Increased cholesterol levels
  • Increased inflammation
  • Gastritis
  • Slowing of the digestive process
  • Irritable colon
  • Heart burn
  • Weight gain
  • Increased risk of diabetes
  • Decreased fertility
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Tight muscles
  • Eczema
  • Psoriasis
  • Acne

It comes as no shock that stress also has a major impact on our output and productivity level at work, as well as our overall work satisfaction. A recent U.K. study determined that one in three work absences were due directly to stress, and estimated that 2.5 out of three work absences were potentially caused by residual effects of stress. The Towers Watson Global Benefits survey of 22,347 employees concludes: “Employees suffering from high stress levels have lower engagement, are less productive, and have higher absentee levels than those not operating under excessive pressure.” The problem of stress in our professional lives is so pervasive that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) declared stress a hazard of the workplace, and estimates that stress causes American industry more than $300 billion per year.

The habits that helped get us to our current level of success create unsustainable levels of stress, which are wreaking havoc on our bodies, our work, and our happiness. To achieve further success, with less stress, requires a conscious change to daily practices and to law practices.