When you start a new job as an attorney it’s super exciting. Not only are you working at a job that likely pays more than what you’re used to; you are also working as an attorney–hello?! a major goal you’ve accomplished. It’s normal to be excited. But it seems that soon enough that excitement fades and it turns into stress. Yes, you’re being paid more but you’ve got student loans. Yes, you get to be an attorney, but maybe it’s not exactly how you envisioned; plus you’re working hard cases, long hours, in possibly tough atmospheres. How do we handle the realities of the day to day mental stresses?
The first step is admitting when things are starting to feel tight. One of the major problems with this industry is that we’re suppose to all be a hard ass and stoic all the time. That’s the standard right? Someone who’s not phased by any deadline, sad story, angry client etc. they just get the job done. While that would work if we weren’t human, the truth is stressors will affect you. And so it’s important that you don’t believe the hype that we should be emotionless to our environment because that is a lie. As an industry we are stressed, depressed, and often cope in unhealthy ways. Those would not be the stats if being a lawyer was mentally easy.
Of course I don’t mean that we’ll all undergo a form of depression or addiction, but what I mean is that the risk is high because the stress is abundant and in most places were taught to ignore the stress to our own detriment. For your own mental health, it’s better to create a path for yourself that allows you to acknowledge your mental health even in spite of your environment telling you that mental health isn’t important or worse that “real” lawyers don’t focus on those things.
Here’s what worked for me:
One. Acknowledge. Yes the first step is admitting there’s a problem. I’m being glib, but for a while (over two years?) I kept telling myself that none of the horrible, violent, sad, graphic stories I read about my clients affected me. So what if I was eating my emotions or started to have weird physical reactions? I just couldn’t admit that I was going through victorious trauma because I felt there was a standard I had to abide by–one that made self-care seem like it was for people who weren’t cut out to be lawyers. And above all I wanted to be a badass lawyer. But then one day, I read yet another horrifying case and it clicked that, “oh yeah actually I am human and need to take care of myself mentally.” I started approaching cases in a more nuanced way so that I could get the info I needed without having to focus constantly on all the gory details.
Two. Support. Not surprisingly, stress does not just come from clients, many times it comes from colleagues and supervisors. Imagine that. Learning to deal with people that rub you the wrong way and handling them diplomatically (and is some cases those people are higher-ups) is a necessary part of the job. But it can be mentally exhausting to have to deal with coworkers’ bull, you know? It’s so helpful to reach out to other coworkers so that you build a small support system of people that understand exactly what you’re going through, and to go to them and say, hey this just happened to get support and confirmation from that that what you’re going through is weird/frustrating/outrageous. Because sometimes all you need to help alleviate the stress is to have someone else confirm that your reaction and experience is valid.
Three. Action. Ok so we acknowledge stress at work and have a base of support while in the office–the next step is to actually be cognizant of your mental health and do something to support it. It is so easy to put yourself last in priorities. Work needs to get done, family obligations, friends, the list goes on–but your goal should be to give yourself at least an hour of time to realign and relax. That hour will look different for everyone–maybe it’s an hour of vigorous exercise, an extra hour of sleep, or of doing nothing. The point is to find what works for you, commit to your time and to reassess every once in a while. For me, I started doing yoga. Not very consistently–I average like 4 times a month. But having that time to relax and stretch out all the kinks and tightness from the week makes a difference.
Again it’s so easy to be overcome by the myth of being a lawyer. That we should have a tough, take no prisoners, intimidating bravado all that time in which nothing fazes us. It may be true way of being for some lawyers but like Hov said: men lie, women lie, numbers don’t. If this way of lawyering truly worked out for us mentally then so many of our fellow colleagues wouldn’t suffer like they do. Don’t be fooled. Take care of yourself.