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FIVE EASY STEPS TO MORE EFFECTIVELY HANDLE THE OVERWORK AND STRESS OF A LAWYER’S LIFE

(By Carl R. Ficks, Jr., J.D.) March 23, 2022

Lawyering is like swimming laps in a cauldron. You’ll never go the distance unless you treat it like an endurance sport. With the right strategies, though, you’ll not only have an awesome career, but you’ll enjoy a great (and long) life too. This article will show you how to handle the overwork and stress. So let’s dig in.

On March 3, 2022, Bloomberg Law Analysis released the results of its Attorney Workload and Hours survey, noting that 52% of the respondents felt burnout in 2021 Q4, up 8 points from Q3 alone. Naturally, 46% of the respondents indicated that their well-being worsened in Q4, up 16 points from Q2.

The data supports this maelstrom. In October, 2021, the International Bar Association released the results from its “Mental Wellbeing in the Legal Profession: a Global Study.”  One in three respondents indicated their work had a negative, or extremely negative, impact on their wellbeing.  The same month, the New York State Bar Association released a similar report, noting the greatest impacts on lawyer well-being as lack of boundaries for “down time” or “never off,” client expectations and demands, and financial business pressures. 

woman in black long sleeve shirt covering her face with her hands

The impact? Not good. In The American Lawyer’s 2020 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey (May ‘21), 37% of the respondents said they felt depressed in 2020; 71% said they have experienced anxiety; and 14% said they have a different mental illness, all numbers up from the 2019 survey.  Then there’s extra weight, particularly now. According to the American Psychology Association’s 2021 stress survey, a majority of adults (61%) reported pandemic weight gain, with a median weight gain of 15 lbs. Per the APA, “significant weight gain poses long-term health risks [and] people who gain more than 11 pounds are at higher risk of developing Type II diabetes, mellitus, and coronary heart disease…” 

Fitness categorically made me a better lawyer, and it will come to your rescue if you let it. As noted in Athletico (Jan. ‘22), “[e]xercise has been shown to reduce depressive symptoms and prevent…form[ation]. It also has a strong correlation to preventing cognitive decline. Exercise can reduce inflammation…and positively affect mental health and well-being.”

Most people will gladly stand in line for 20 minutes at Starbucks for their morning coffee but will not dedicate 20 minutes to fitness. This is completely paradoxical and needs to change. 

Here’s a “how to” fitness guide in five easy steps:

1) Formulate a Goal

Do you want to simply feel better, run a marathon, or something in-between? Just as a second-year associate should not first-chair a patent infringement case, the goal should be attainable, so start small. How about a 5k (3/1 miles) road race? A recent 5k I entered had a course limit of 80 minutes, or just about 27 minutes per mile. YOU. CAN. DO. THAT.

You should be passionate about your goal. A half in, half out box check will not work, and will sabotage a feeling of satisfaction, of meaning, of progress, of a task completed, of a mission accomplished.

2) Institute a Plan

Your fitness and wellbeing demand a plan. Airlines file flight plans. GPS apps give you driving plans. Lawyers fashion estate plans. Cities employ urban planners. Architects design building plans. You get it. Give yourself permission to make the plan about you. Lawyers are in the service business, and if life has derailed your health or fitness, then you cannot be “in service” to anyone. Uber drivers must maintain their vehicles, and without a car that runs, an Uber driver is just…a person. 

You should also avoid suffering in silence – there’s no need to play “hard ass.” If you’re fetched up on the rocks when instituting a plan, then ASK. FOR. HELP. It’s not a sign of weakness. And it can also lead to great things.

3) Carry Through with the Plan

The third step is to carry through with the plan…you know…by actually doing it. A good place to start is to compete against yourself. This is about you – not whether you can run faster, bike farther, or climb a higher mountain than your neighbor. And the beauty of this is there are no mistakes here – it will be like a 6th grade science project except this time, you’ll actually enjoy it.

Flexibility is also critical to a successful fitness plan. There are days that the “busyness” of life interferes, and that’s okay.  If a business trip scuttles your scheduled workout, simply walk the airport terminal while waiting for your flight. Here’s what the fitness plan is NOT: an order from the court – if you deviate from it, you will NOT be sanctioned.

You also need to listen to your body. It will talk to you, so if you need a rest, take a rest. If you think you are hurt, go see a clinical expert. Much like legal work, the “ostrich” thing doesn’t work in fitness – the sand will suffocate you. 

4) Kick Some Butt Along the Way

The fourth step focuses on kicking some butt along the way. You know – that dirty three letter word…FUN. Make the most of the experience, because no one is making you do it. Keep that scheduled long run with a friend, despite snow in the forecast. Take your family along to a “destination” race like Disney and make a long weekend out of it. Remind yourself of the lyrics in “Ends of the Earth”, when Kenny Chesney sings “what good is livin’ a life you’ve been given if all you do is stand in one place.”

5) Savor, Reflect and Reassess

The fifth and final step is to savor, reflect and reassess. Soak in the journey. Marvel at the sunrise or the majestic flight path of a red-tailed hawk caught in the jetstream. Embrace small milestones, much like you celebrated after negotiating your first deal, taking your first deposition, winning your first motion, or cross-examining your first adverse witness.  Lawyers are just well-dressed firefighters, racing from one conflagration to the next. Try your level best to throttle back, just a bit, so you can enjoy your accomplishment before tackling the next “thing.”   

It also helps to reassess. I had a torrid love affair with running for years, then it fell out of favor and I abandoned it for a few months. After some quiet reflection, I realized I had taken the joy out of running by enslaving myself to my watch. It was all about time, time, time (much like the billable hour). I ditched the watch and fell back in love with the jealous mistress of running. 

You are on this earth for a finite amount of time. Make it happen, and make it count. Don’t drown in the cauldron of lawyering. You owe it to yourself to leave a brighter legacy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Carl Ficks helps busy professionals and their teams get fit again so they can be less stressed and more productive. His “Friday Ficks” newspaper column and speaking/podcast appearances provide strategies, tools and inspiration to stay resourceful and resilient. The founder of No Surrender, LLC, Carl teaches that fitness and wellbeing are the cornerstones of success. Carl is a marathoner, endurance cyclist and former 30+ year trial lawyer who brings hard-won wisdom and real world experience to his work. You can find him at www.carlficks.com and reach him at carl@carlficks.com.