A guide to well-being in the legal profession: 7 tips for sound mental health
Mental health is crucial for lawyers. And, unfortunately, it is so often neglected. Lawyers end up selflessly surrendering to their tense pace of work, believing that this is the only way they can achieve success. Just because they don’t know that it can be different.
The narrative should be changed. We at Loio are doing our best to help lawyers improve their mental health. That’s why we have prepared this mental health guide so that lawyers could figure out what mental health is, see what’s going on among their peers, and come up with an action plan for successful change.
The attainable perfect future of lawyers
Let’s try to envision what a fulfilled and successful lawyer should probably look like. Their first and foremost characteristic would be their power over time, followed by confidence in all of their decisions and a healthy work-life balance.
This lawyer would have enough energy to be at their best when helping their clients because they would know when to recharge and how to manage their time. This lawyer will embrace technology to delegate all the unfulfilling mechanical tasks and focus on more higher-value jobs. This lawyer will be much happier overall as they will finally have time to spend with their families and friends, or pet a dog or a cat, or take on drawing and wine-tasting.
In the end, everyone would benefit from this new reality. Law offices will make more money, more people will get access to high-quality legal services, lawyers will be happy with their jobs, and, thus, they will be more productive.
This scenario would be just perfect, wouldn’t it? However, it is not common yet. Let’s see where we stand now — and then we’ll switch to the ways to fix this.
The fixable not-so-perfect present of law practitioners
According to the American Bar Association report of 2020, 28% of surveyed lawyers have experienced depression throughout their legal career. Meanwhile, 19% report dealing with severe anxiety, and 11,5% confess to having suicidal thoughts. In addition to these upsetting numbers, 21% of the survey participants were qualified as problematic drinkers.
Even though lawyers are not the only ones who suffer from depression, mental health issues are still prevalent in the legal profession as compared to other professions. As research shows, it all starts in law schools: as many as 96% of law students experience significant stress, in contrast to 70% of med students and 43% of grad students. Why does it happen? Probably, because law is an adversarial setting, and legal professionals are struggling to withstand it from the very beginning of their university studies and throughout their career.
When we asked a lawyer and certified life coach Olivia Vizachero about the current mental health trends in the legal profession, her answer wasn’t so optimistic either. Here is what she told Loio:
“Unfortunately, law school doesn’t teach future lawyers thought and emotional management, despite how essential those skills are to practicing law successfully and sustainably. Instead, many attorneys struggle with managing their minds, constantly worrying about “what if,” catastrophizing about the possible worst-case scenarios, doubting their skills and abilities, shoulding themselves, and obsessing over what their colleagues and clients think about them. When practicing that kind of thinking, they experience an array of negative emotions. Feeling anxious, overwhelmed, behind, confused, worried, inadequate, guilty, and ashamed starts to become second nature.“
She added: “Experiencing these negative emotions on a consistent basis over time takes a toll. Attorneys will please supervisors and clients by overworking themselves in an effort to make good impressions, only to overpromise and underdeliver.”
Let’s now try to overview the main reasons for these trends.
Why do lawyers have mental health issues?
There are several key triggers to mental health issues, which seem to be quite common among legal professionals. Would you recognize yourself in the following paragraphs?
First of all, lawyers stress too much. One of the challenges lawyers have to face almost every day is dealing with difficult clients. This part of the job is considered the most challenging by 22% of attorneys surveyed in 2020. This and other challenges are becoming even more stressful under the pressure of tight deadlines — “to be done due yesterday” is not a joke anymore.
Secondly, lawyers overwork. “The long hours I work” is yet another tough aspect of the job for 18% of the survey respondents. Experienced lawyers like Lisa Lang even talk about overwork culture as the biggest problem of the legal profession. According to the Bloomberg Law Survey of 2021, one-fifth of law firm lawyers report billing over 80 hours in their busiest week, while the real number of hours they work in such weeks can reach up to 100. But even an average week of the lawyer is quite overloaded — in law firms, it equals 54 hours per week, which is quite more than a standard workweek of 40 hours.
Thirdly, lawyers spend a lot of time on monotonous tasks. Administrative work is also reported as the most back-breaking aspect of the job by 17% of the survey respondents. Alongside tight deadlines and difficult cases, lawyers are bound to complete a lot of mechanical work which steals their motivation. Proofreading contracts, sending documents back and forth, converting PDFs, etc. are often being done at the expense of more high-value tasks, draining the lawyer’s energy and motivation.
Furthermore, unrealistic expectations lawyers often encounter also maximize their stress level and may lead to burnout. An experienced lawyer and life coach Angela Han has shared her thoughts on this issue with us. When we asked her why mental health issues are so common among lawyers, she said:
“Because we are expected to provide the correct answers, every time, ASAP, all the time. When we don’t meet these superhuman standards, all of a sudden we are sub-human. There is no in-between. So we never get a chance to be the human beings that we are. When we can’t be who we are as human beings, we lose touch with everything that gives us purpose in life. When we lose touch with our purpose and values, we lose motivation or overwork ourselves. Here we see the textbook picture of what burnout looks like.”
A distressing mix of these and many more factors leads to unacceptable outcomes — lawyers ceasing to love their job and, eventually, enjoy their life. This, in turn, may lead to a decrease in productivity or even burnout. The worst thing is that everyone is affected: not only a lawyer who struggles from burnout is suffering, but also the business they work for along with their clients.
But how can you as a lawyer know there is something wrong with you, especially when the issue is still in the bud?
How to know you have burnout
Burnout is one of the most common mental health conditions, and it can even act as a risk factor for developing depression. In short, burnout is a state of both physical and emotional exhaustion caused by protracted stress. It is very important to be aware of its symptoms, and know when it’s time to help yourself out. You can see the signs of burnout in the infographic below.
Now that we figured out the roots of the problem and even know when to take action, it’s high time we talked about the ways to fix the situation.
Mental health tips for lawyers
- Set the boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries can be very helpful for a lawyer’s mental health. It may seem very challenging to do, and it actually will be in some cases. However, as soon as you feel that you have control over your life and the allocation of your both emotional and physical resources as a lawyer, you will understand that it was worth trying.
Olivia Vizachero recommended setting these boundaries by defining your “enough”:
“Define “enough.” Ambiguity breeds anxiety. Often, attorneys have not taken the time to define what “enough” means to them. For example, how much work is “enough” work? What is a good “enough” work product? What does responsive “enough” mean in their practice? When enough remains undefined, their brains fall victim to the horizon effect, constantly chasing something that feels outside of their reach. As a result, their default thinking becomes “I’m not sure what enough is, but it’s not this,” which brings on feelings of inadequacy. By defining enough in concrete terms with measurable metrics, attorneys can monitor their progress and more accurately access the job they are doing.”
It may feel very hard to delineate such spheres as work and personal life immediately. Such a big step requires time, effort, and preparation. So, we recommend starting with small steps:
- Allow discomfort
It is impossible to completely avoid feeling discomfort. Therefore, it is best to make friends with it. Or, at least, let yourself experience it.
Here is what Olivia Vizachero said on that matter:
“Almost nearly all of my clients struggle with what I’ve coined “The Three Ps: People-pleasing, Perfectionism, and Procrastination. Each of these issues is caused by the same underlying behavior pattern: avoiding the most immediate discomfort. Attorneys say yes when they should say no because they are unwilling to feel temporarily guilty or scared. They indulge in perfectionism and take too long to complete work because they are unwilling to feel inadequate or imperfect. They procrastinate on assignments because they are unwilling to feel bothered or confused or annoyed. When attorneys are unwilling to feel these negative emotions they resist and avoid them. The key to overcoming The Three Ps is being willing to experience these types of temporary discomfort. If there’s no feeling you are unwilling to feel, there is no result you are unable to create.”
- Ask for help
When we asked Angela Han what advice she would give to lawyers struggling with mental health issues, she said:
“Ask for help from a mentor or a coach or anyone you can trust and resonate with and do so knowing that you deserve help. No great thing was done by one person. And if it costs time and money, ask yourself what it would cost to go on without help.”
Indeed, approaching a skilled specialist such as a therapist or a mentor can help you reveal your inner needs and pain points. Sometimes even small talk with another person can make you feel better. So, don’t be afraid to open up and externalize your issues: probably, there is a person out there who went through similar problems and/or knows how to help you.
- Engage with other lawyers
Entering a community of people who can relate to your problems can also make you feel better. This will help you understand that you are not alone — many other lawyers also stress a lot, work long hours, and struggle to detach themselves from their job on weekends. As a member of such a community, you can not only get to know some great people but speak about your problems out loud and team up with lawyers who are going through the same thing. The Lawyers Depression Project is a great example of such a place — it is a peer-to-peer support group for legal professionals who suffer from mental health conditions or just don’t feel good. You can also browse such communities and forums on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Reddit.
Angela Han also thinks that joining communities of like-minded people can help:
“Find a community where your desired result is the norm. This is from James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. If you think it’s impossible to achieve whatever your goals are, whether it’s losing 10 pounds, quitting your job, or running a business, I guarantee you there is always someone already doing it. Find a group of people who do that and draw from their energy so you don’t feel like a weirdo.”
- Use legaltech
Though it may seem unobvious, legaltech can help lawyers improve their well-being. Why, you’d ask? Because it can take over some essential yet mechanical parts of the job lawyers actually hate to do. As mentioned above, a lion’s share of lawyers sees administrative work as the most challenging aspect of the job. The thing is that instead of doing what they really love and what they were trained for, they are forced to spend time checking that all names in the contract were properly spelled and stuff like this, getting annoyed and exhausted way faster.
Legaltech can act as an irreplaceable assistant in a lawyer’s work routine. The great thing is that even small automation can be a game-changer! There are many tools to choose from. They can be found on such platforms as G2, Capterra, and Microsoft AppSource. We would suggest starting with MS Word add-ins. An add-in for, let’s say, contract review can save hours of precious time — the time that a lawyer usually spends on mechanically correcting inaccuracies within the document.
With these free hours at their disposal, lawyers can take on more clients and focus on what they can do exceptionally well: giving legal advice.
There are already several examples of successful legaltech implementation in law firms. Some legal entrepreneurs report saving up to three hours per week with the help of IP docketing software, while others expect to cut $150,000 in operational costs with the help of MS Word contract review add-in.
- Manage time
Wise management of time is critical for one’s mental health. The way you allocate your time determines your lifestyle: it decides how long you sleep, how much you work, and how efficiently you do it. It also defines if you stress because of struggling to keep up with deadlines.
One of the tips that Olivia Vizachero shared with us was about time management. She distinguished three steps lawyers should take for managing their time properly: reclaim control of their calendars, plan their schedules, and honor their plans.
For the first part, Olivia explained that lawyers often adapt to their clients or coworkers instead of taking control over their time:
“Attorneys often relinquish control of their calendars to clients and colleagues in an effort to be accommodating, but it typically causes folks to reshuffle their schedules and never get to the big-ticket items on their to-do list. Creating boundaries when it comes to unscheduled calls or meetings is crucial for successful time management.”
She also underlined the importance of mindful planning:
“As for planning, lawyers tend to severely overestimate how much they can accomplish in a given day. When they don’t plan their schedules they unintentionally overbook themselves. Planning all tasks and actually placing them on the calendar requires them to be more thoughtful and intentional with their time. Doing this also allows them to evaluate what worked, what didn’t work, and what they would do differently each week in order to improve their time management skills over time.”
Olivia singled out the final step of honoring their plans as the hardest one because this one requires stepping out of the comfort zone. However, she shared three simple tips that will help lawyers to achieve this:
1. Start each task on time.
2. Work on it without interruptions.
3. End each task on time.
Following these simple steps can significantly enhance the quality of your lifestyle as a lawyer. This way, you will learn how to regain control of your time as well as your mental resources.
- Treat yourself as you would treat others
“It is amazing how many lawyers are exceptional at fighting for the cases of their clients, but poor at fighting for their own cases,” said Charlene Gisele, an ex-corporate lawyer in the recent Legal Cheek article. And we agree with her. Lawyers are very good at helping other people, but sometimes they dive into their clients’ stories so deep that it becomes hard for them to swim out and care about themselves.
So, treat yourself as if you were your most important client. Speak with yourself, draw your hidden desires and aches out of yourself, smile at yourself in the mirror. Though it may sound quite trite, this advice would probably be the hardest to implement. But even some baby steps in this direction will bring you closer to your perfect mental health state.
Angela Han has also touched upon this topic. She said:
“Ignore all the bullshit advice on journaling and exercising and waking up at 5 am that doesn’t resonate with you. Start with one thing that you feel excited about because you are worth the joy that comes along with it. And do that. It doesn’t have to be complicated.”
Helpful resources about mental health management
Here is the list of resources where you can discover other ways to improve your mental health or find out more about mental health in the legal profession:
- TedTalk about the importance of meditation as a way to do nothing and let your mind have a rest
- A guide to lawyer’s well-being with tips and clarifications on the issue
- A report on the lawyer’s mental health with actionable advice on making a change in different settings (for example, in law firms or in-house teams)
- Brilliant legal mind, a blog about mindfulness meditation for lawyers.
Let’s reinforce the mental health tips we’ve covered in the article. Make sure you take care of yourself and your mental health by following these seven steps:
- Set boundaries between yourself and people that make you feel bad, as well as between work and your personal life.
- Allow yourself to feel discomfort rather than trying to escape it.
- Ask for help from a specialist or someone you can trust.
- Enter communities of like-minded people who are experiencing the same problems.
- Delegate mechanical and time-consuming parts of the job to legaltech.
- Mindfully plan your time and follow your plans carefully.
- Treat yourself as you would treat others.
And always keep in mind that you are your most important client. Let your own case be on the top of your priority list.
To your health!