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How to Better Deal With Stress in Law Firms

“Survival mode is supposed to be a phase that helps save your life. It’s not meant to be how you live”.
Michele Rosenthal, Author and Trauma Therapist.

Whether I’m coaching individual lawyers or assisting a firm with a strategic plan, inevitably the concept of stress management will arise. It could be at the heart of an under-performing lawyer; it could be blocking teams from executing on their practice group or client team plans; or it could be holding back the implementation of a new firm program. Sometimes stress is the obvious culprit; sometimes it’s under the surface and takes a while to diagnose. But it always seems to be there.

That’s because most law firms are challenging environments for those who work there. The stakes can be high, deadlines tight, clients demanding, and the issues can be complex and simply hard to resolve. Whether you’re a lawyer, Administrator or Manager this can be a high-stress environment.

Stress can come from having to do the impossible for the clients, or from self-imposed expectations. Stress can also become the motivator for those who (falsely) believe that they will do better work when under stress. But it all has the same effect. It limits our creativity, lowers our capabilities, and causes strain on ourselves and those around us.

As stress is so common in law firms, I’ve often wondered why there weren’t more programs to combat it. Part of the reason may be the natural bravado felt in most law firms where there’s an unwritten rule for professionals to simply “take it”, whatever “it” is. This is evidenced by what happens when someone leaves the profession, when it’s suggested that “they just couldn’t cut it”. In such an environment, it becomes a badge of honour to stick it out under bad conditions. In my opinion, that’s not the mark of a healthy culture…so let’s change it.

Stress Can Harm Your Mind and Body

Before we talk about how to reduce or eliminate stress in the law firm environment, let’s focus on what stress is, and what it does to us. Stress is a physiological response in our bodies when our minds detect that we are in trouble. It causes us to produce the hormones cortisol and adrenalin – often referred to as the stress or “fight or flight” response. These hormones enable our muscles to protect us from the threat at hand, either by allowing us the power to fight the enemy, or to run from it. When the threat is over, our bodies slowly dissipate the cortisol and adrenalin until we can get back to normal, healthy body management.

It’s important to note here that our fight or flight response was never meant to be an ongoing state and in fact, the continued release of these chemicals can do our mind and body serious damage.

  • Mind: Stress can make us tired, unable to think clearly, more prone to catastrophic thoughts, and susceptible to mental breakdown.
  • Body: It is widely believed that ongoing exposure to the stress chemicals can lead to general weakness in our vital organs and ultimately to disease and cancers.

You may not be experiencing the worst symptoms, but understand that ongoing stress exposes you to a continuum that can lead to these issues.

Stress Can Lower Your Productivity

Ironically, stress forces us into a part of the brain that is the least able to get us out of stress. To better appreciate this, we need to think our brains as having not one but three sections: the reticular brain, the limbic system, and the cerebral cortex.

  • The reticular system – sometimes referred to as our reptilian brain – is our smallest and oldest brain…about 100 m years old. It resides at the top of our spinal column. Its focus is on survival: fight or flight, immediate action. It lives to provide for our basic needs (food, shelter) and for the protection of the body. It tends to react…it takes over for us temporarily.
  • Next comes the limbic system – sometimes referred to as the emotional brain. It’s been around for about 50 m years. It encircles the reticular brain like a glove, and over time has become integrated with the reticular brain. Its purpose is to link physical and emotional awareness. It allows for more sophisticated feelings and emotional impulses. It embraces concepts like group protection and survival. Decisions get made in this part of the brain. The limbic system also includes the hypothalamus, which is responsible for getting us back to a set point by monitoring things like our hunger, warmth, etc. It doesn’t seek to create a new normal…it seeks to restore us to old normal.

    Both the reticular brain and the limbic system are learning brains. They can only work from what they know, from today going backwards. There are no “what ifs” with these brains. They can’t envision, they can’t invent, they can experience empathy. They have to learn by doing, and henceforth they only make decisions by precedent.

  • And finally comes the cerebral cortex, the youngest and by far, largest brain. It’s been around for about 1.5 – 2 m years. It’s large: it occupies most of the brain cavity. It’s complex: it has over 16 trillion neuro-connectors. It is future-oriented. It’s where our creativity and empathy occur. It’s not yet fully integrated with our limbic and reticular brains, which means we must consciously enter the cerebral cortex when we want to access it.

Stress and last-minute work force us to work primarily from the reticular brain. This bars us from creativity, from empathy, from vision. It also limits connections to emotion, and solutions for multiple parties. There is no way that we produce our best work from here but in a jam, it can find a quick and dirty solution based on past experience.

When stress occurs in a business environment, the solution often requires broad thinking, perhaps innovation, and usually a sense of community. None of these are accessible if we are stuck in the reticular brain.

That’s what’s happening on the inside when we live in stress. It’s physically and mentally harming us over time and reducing our capacity. And it’s forcing us to work in survival mode, and not allowing us access to the part of our brain that could potentially produce a much higher calibre of work product.

I’ve frequently heard lawyers say that they produce better work when they wait until the last minute to get something done. They feel the adrenaline helps them to be more creative and sharper. That is simply not true, although adrenaline may help them to recall past cases with more speed and accuracy.

Tips for Dealing with Stress:

  • Recognize your triggers. We tend to react with stress to certain situations. Learn what your stress triggers are so you can watch out for them (and hopefully, avoid them).
  • Recognize your symptoms. We each exhibit different behaviours and responses to stress. Learn what yours are so you can develop an early warning signal that you are moving into stress.
  • Get curious and identify what specifically is stressing you out. As long as it’s a state of being with no discernible cause, it can’t be fixed.
  • Problem solve around the stress point. Can you reduce your exposure to that person? Can you get a chunk of a project done so it is less of a worry? Can you get a deadline moved? Can you ask for help, perhaps delegate something? Can you remove something from your list? Can you approach a task in a very different way?
  • Create a plan. Large projects are overwhelming. The next step or two, less so. Take your project and divide it into logical, reasonable steps. Identify what needs to be done, by whom, by when. Then manage the project step by step. You don’t need to carry the entire project around with you emotionally. Just focus on what you need to get done today.
  • Defend your boundaries. If stress is being caused by an individual who is crossing the boundaries of how you wish to be treated, you need to hold them accountable. To do any less is to enable them; that is, to approve of their actions and (in their eyes) perhaps even encourage it. This is a big topic that I can’t do justice to in a talk. You might consider coaching for dealing with something like this.
  • Seriously. Put a sign on your wall to remind you of this. It oxygenates our muscles, including our brain, reduces our immediate stress a notch, and restarts our thought process, which we probably need.
  • If possible, get away from the situation – even for a while like a walk around the block. Do something else for a while. Clear your head.
  • Verbalize your stress – let people know so they can help you. But be careful not to appear forever needing to be “talked down from a ledge”.

If you are constantly under stress, then you either need to redesign how you do your job (and have the discipline to stick with it), or you may simply be in the wrong position. Also, consider whether your self-identify is wrapped up in being constantly stressed out. In other words, do you want to change?

Move into the cerebral cortex

In order to problem solve around stress, you’ll need to move out of the reticular system and into the cerebral cortex. There are many ways to do this. One example is to imagine your future self celebrating at the completion of the project or the resolution of the issue causing your stress. Imagine the space you’re in, what you’re wearing, what you hear. Then ask your future self: how did you do it? This process will gain access to the envisioning and problem-solving areas of your brain. You might find your future self quite chatty and helpful!

Another way to do this is to imagine you are meeting with three mentors. Bring them into a room, one by one, and ask them the same question, then listen to their answers.

This technique takes time and space for deep thought, almost like a meditation; but you might be surprised by how quickly and effectively the brain works once there.

Plan

I’m an advocate for career plans, annual plans and project plans. If I accept work from someone who might not have thought the project through, I rely on my communication skills to get the appropriate details out of them. I don’t leave much to chance, because I don’t have time to fix it afterwards, but also because I don’t want the needless stress associated with faulty (or no) planning.

In terms of project plans, the initial information I get clarity on includes:

    • What’s the end-goal?
    • When is the deadline?
    • What is the budget?
    • What are the steps required?
    • Who needs to be involved/is doing what?
    • What other support do I have?
    • To whom, when/how will I report?

Once these questions are answered I can begin to develop a game plan for that project. If I find that any area of the plan won’t work (i.e. the budget, or the deadline), I’ll attempt to revise the plan. If I find there’s no way to make it work, I go back for revised instructions.

The most effective and painless remedy to an illness is to ensure you don’t get sick in the first place. When it comes to stress, you can learn to avoid it when you recognize how harmful it is to your mind and body, when you stop believing that it’s helpful to your productivity, and when you take active steps to minimize it in your life. Law firms must stop viewing stress as a bad of honour and instead, see it as an example of a problem that might be undermining the health and productivity of members of the firm.

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