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This article was originally published in June 2018 with updates made on March 9, 2023.
Regardless of how rewarding being an attorney is, it is still a difficult profession to excel in. This is particularly true for solo practitioners, who often must handle the difficulties associated with entrepreneurship in addition to legal services. As a result, one of the largest challenges of being a solo practitioner is dealing with stress.
Stress is universal, and lawyers must manage stressful situations every day. It does not matter what area of law you’re in, your jurisdiction, or the size of your practice — being a lawyer is stressful.
There’s a reason why stress management for lawyers is such a widely discussed topic. Attorneys are often overworked and overwhelmed because they are held to an incredibly high standard. There are deadlines to meet, billable hours to achieve, and client relationships to manage. This all must be done while conducting everyday business tasks and getting through answering all your emails. Often, there is just not enough time in the day to accomplish everything that needs to get done.
Solo practitioners are especially susceptible to the pitfalls of lawyer stress because they are a one-person show. They wear all the hats — they must excel in the legal profession and run their own profitable business. Mental and physical stress impact personal and professional wellbeing, so stress management can be the key to success for many attorneys. This is why it is important to be able to identify where your lawyer-related stress is coming from and properly manage it early on.
Many lawyers tend to push through under the pressure of needing to get the work done. However, if not dealt with responsibly, stress can have a significant impact on your mind and body. Studies have shown that unmanaged stress can trigger both short term and chronic ailments. As a result, lawyers are particularly susceptible to mental health issues like depression and substance abuse. Even minor levels of unmanaged stress can take a toll on your personal and work relationships. This leaves many professionals wondering: what can be done about stress?
Stress management is not about completely eliminating stress. Stress is a natural motivator to help you accomplish tasks. However, you do have control over the way you deal with stressful experiences. Do not let stress take over and control your time and energy. Rather, find a way to co-exist with stressful experiences in a way that allows you to leave it at work at the end of the day. There are some lawyer stress tips on how to improve stress management techniques that even overworked solo practitioners can embrace.
Working too hard for long hours can be counterproductive. It can cause you to burn out, make mistakes, become irritated, suffer ailments, and sacrifice other elements and relationships in your life. Set boundaries for yourself and delegate or eliminate unimportant tasks. Whether you’re feeling anxious about an impending trial date or feeling yourself becoming overinvested in your client, make sure that you set strict rules to close the computer and step away from your files after a certain time in the day.
It’s also important to take breaks throughout your day. Give your brain, eyes and body the proper rest to re-energize. Eat healthy food, drink water, move around and get fresh air. Re-center yourself before another focused work session. Your time is valuable, so be kind to yourself and be realistic about what is practical to handle today.
Whether it’s a series of sticky notes or project management software, stay on top of filing deadlines and court dates by keeping your clients and projects organized. No matter what works best for you, figure it out and stick with it. The only way to avoid undue stress — or worse, a malpractice suit — is by staying on top of all the little bits of critical information that augment to a winning strategy.
In addition, solo practitioners experience the most stress when they take on more than what they can personally handle. Do not underestimate how time-intensive a case can be, especially when you also have to consider the time you need to manage your business. Instead, know what needs to get done, have a plan on how to accomplish the work and try to stay on task by eliminating procrastinations or unproductive distractions. Keeping track of how long it takes you to accomplish a task is a great way to estimate how long a task will take before committing to it.
Nobody can achieve perfection on every task and project they do. For solo practitioners or small firms, achieving perfection is not worth the time and energy it consumes. Manage your perfectionist tendencies. Understand that you are overworked, under-supported, overwhelmed, and underappreciated. Just doing your best is the healthiest option.
To expedite tedious tasks where human error occurs frequently, use templated forms to draft official documents. That’s one place where you can easily improve the quality of your deliverables without having to channel all your spare energy into proofreading.
Stress affects everyone, but it is how we deal with that stress that can set us apart. Don’t allow yourself to feel isolated; instead, ask for help. Stress management for lawyers can come from another colleague, supportive human resource officer or mentor in your field. It can also be a coach, counselor or trusted friend who can advise and support you on non-legal tasks.
As an attorney in a stressful field, taking time for yourself is not selfish, it’s healthy. Adopting a “me first” mentality can be the most important advice for yourself. Take a break from your work and make the time to use another part of your overworked brain. Find things that make you happy, whether that is taking a pro bono case you are excited about, joining a recreational sports league or committing undivided attention to your family. Whether this is a solo walk, a social run, group yoga or friend’s trivia night, taking time for yourself every now and then can translate to a more productive working life.
If the unpleasant effects of lawyer stress are creeping in, remember these tips. By finding ways to minimize stress at work, create work-life balance and asking for help when needed, you’ll be a much more productive attorney and happier individual.