Training the Stressed Lawyer

by Cheryl Canning*

I was recently engaged in a discussion about the importance of resiliency in the workplace. The topic intrigued me. I had never really thought of resiliency as something that would be a necessity in the workplace. In my mind it was more about the ability to cope with personal crises. Through a series of recent events however, I came to appreciate its importance in all aspects of life, and I have developed my own theory as to how to build up one’s resiliency. My theory has not been tested or proven through scientific study. It is merely the result of my own observation.

The year 2011 was going along at a normal pace with nothing really extraordinary happening. Until October. In October one of the senior partners at my firm was appointed to the bench, which caused an flurry of activity within the firm as people scrambled to make sure the files and clients were all well taken care of. This partner was also part of our management committee, so that left a vacant position. I took on some of the files, and discovered that one of them was scheduled for a three week trial in just over a month. Another one was heating up to the point where a number of discoveries would have to be done within a few weeks. My carefully planned schedule, which already included a number of discoveries and another trial, was suddenly jam packed and actually overlapping in some cases.

I also stepped into the vacated position on the management committee, which was something entirely new to me. I’ve always considered myself a lawyer and not a business manager. I wasn’t sure how to merge the two. To add to the challenge, as part of my new duties, I took on two major projects that were at a crucial point and required a great deal of care and attention.

It was at this same time, that my brother passed away. This one event, in and of itself, changed my life and the way I looked at the world. I had been lucky enough to never have lost a loved one before. The grieving process was new to me. I felt as if with one phone call, a piece of my world had been wrenched away, never to be returned. In the midst of all of the work-related changes that were going on, I now had to face a very personal and permanent change.

I was asked to deliver the eulogy at my brother’s memorial service. Saying no was simply not an option in my mind. I knew I would go, but the thought of dropping everything that was happening at work to fly all the way across the country for the memorial service threw me into a complete panic.

Work life balance is a topic that is discussed so often it has almost lost its meaning. As a lawyer, a wife and a mother of two boys, I constantly feel the competing pull of work and family. I practice the balancing act each and every day and try my hardest not to fall too far to one side. The competing interests of my work and the need to face the loss of my brother was an entirely different situation. I couldn’t see any possible way to maintain the balance at that point. I couldn’t fathom the thought of not going to the memorial service, but I also couldn’t see how to take the week needed to go and not have some sort of catastrophe at work.

I had my moments of tears, of rage, of frustration. In a moment of pure clarity though, I knew what my priority was, and what I had to do to ensure that the fallout on the other side of the fulcrum would be minimized. I knew that I would take the trip and give it my complete attention. I knew that before I left I would prepare my work to address true emergencies, and have everything set up to be resumed on my return.

In short, I suddenly knew that I would be okay. I will always miss my brother. I will still have lots of work to get done. I still have to deal with the new and unfamiliar challenge of managing a law firm. But I will be fine.

Not everyone gets through those sorts of challenges okay. For some, major changes, especially when they come one on top of the other, are a stress that is just too much. The person breaks down, either temporarily or less often, permanently. Why do some make it through and not others? Why was I one of the lucky ones?

I know that there are lots of theories and expert recommendations out there on how to increase one’s ability to face adversity, to be resilient. In my own observation and experience though, I believe that a commitment to work life balance on a daily basis will naturally lead a person to a place in which they are more capable than others to face and cope with change.

Achieving work life balance is something that requires patience and daily practice. You need to work at it consistently. When you do, you become accustomed to facing daily stresses and challenges. It becomes easier. When your life is not balanced, you are constantly in a state of flux, vulnerable to the unexpected.

I like to think of work life balance as the training ground you need to be able to perform at the big event. A runner wouldn’t go out and run a marathon without training for it. If they did, their body would revolt against them. It would be shocked by the new and unfamiliar stress that has suddenly been thrust at it, and quite simply, it would break down. I believe that your mind is much the same. A stressful event such as the loss of a loved one or being asked to take on new duties (or both at once) is the marathon. If you can get through it you will be stronger for it. If you aren’t prepared, you will be humbled and weakened.

You need to train for the marathon. You need consistent attention to your lifestyle to be ready to finish the marathon intact. Daily attention to maintaining your balance will leave you calmer, more focused and better capable of facing the challenge ahead.

My life isn’t always balanced. Sometimes, like when a trial is approaching, it feels entirely unbalanced. But like having a bad run or suffering a injury, you have to be patient, do what needs to be done and wait for the time to pass. Then you can return to the balance and continue the training.

As for me, I am at about mile 21. The worst is behind me and I can see the finish line. My legs are burning and I can feel the pain but I know that once the marathon is over I will live to run another race. Because I am resilient.


Cheryl Canning is a partner at Burchells LLP in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is the Atlantic Representative for LPAC and Chair of NSLAP.

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