The law has a stress problem, but understanding an issue makes you much better able to manage it. With this in mind, we take a closer look at stress and the problems it can lead to, why it’s such an issue for lawyers — and the practical steps you can take to manage work pressure.
Behavioural experts define stress as the “biological and psychological response experienced on encountering a threat”(3). Sometimes referred to as ‘fight or flight’, it’s an essential part of the body’s emergency response system. Your brain senses danger and therefore triggers the release of certain chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol to equip you with the means to deal with it.
A certain element of stress can actually be a good thing. Let’s say, for instance, that you are about to start cross-examining a witness: positive stress responses such as a slightly raised heart rate, heightened awareness and increased concentration can be just what’s needed to help you think on your feet.
Stress becomes a problem when you are no longer in control of it. If you’re frequently in crisis mode and feel unable to cope, it can have serious physical, mental and professional consequences.
In 2018-19, almost 13 million working days in the UK were lost due to stress, making it the top reason for workplace absence(4). To try and plough on without taking time off, it’s also common for sufferers — lawyers included — to self-medicate through alcohol and substance use. For instance, in one survey, 1 in 5 lawyers reported problematic alcohol or drugs use at some point in their lives, and three-quarters of these said it had arisen after they had entered the profession(5).
Common signs of problematic stress include the following:
Physical: Insomnia, exhaustion, weight changes, muscle aches, feeling faint, headaches, digestive problems, a pounding heart and chest pain.
Mental: Panic attacks, feelings of restlessness, guilt, anger, insecurity, mood swings, forgetfulness, hopelessness and anxiety.
Behavioural: Problem avoidance and procrastination, becoming withdrawn and an unwillingness to engage with your colleagues, irritability with colleagues and clients, personal neglect.
The issue of stress in the workplace is a well-documented phenomenon across the legal profession, yet it seems that the sector struggles to tackle this problem. Various aspects of the working environment and culture at the core of the legal industry factor in creating workplace stress issues for lawyers:
From the never-ending stream of deadlines through staying on top of targets, life as a lawyer can sometimes feel like being hit by pressure from every angle. Day-to-day relationships can also be stressful to negotiate; particularly the difficult conversations you need to have in order to manage the expectations of clients.
Too often, competition rather than collaboration is the driving force in a law firm. In this type of environment, churning out the bills and maintaining healthy work-in-progress becomes all-important, while asking for help or admitting that you have too much on is seen as a sign of weakness. Long hours are also seen as the norm rather than an exception — compounded by the possibility of being contacted about work 24/7 via mobile.
It’s an atmosphere that can be particularly damaging to inexperienced lawyers. As an example, the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) found that a quarter experience “extreme” work stress, while 1 in 3 admitted to making mistakes that wouldn’t have happened if they were not overworked(6).
In areas such as crime, family, housing and immigration, legal aid cuts have forced firms to rethink the way they operate; something that can place considerable pressure on individual lawyers(7). Survival for firms can sometimes mean over-reliance on junior caseworkers on complex matters, thereby piling on extra stress, while increasing the likelihood of mistakes being made.
Meanwhile, in civil litigation, lawyers are dealing with the onward expansion of fixed recoverable fees as a replacement to traditional hourly billing(8). For the lawyers whose job it is to run these files, the pressure is on to get them concluded as quickly and efficiently as possible to keep the numbers up.
The first step is to recognise that you have a problem — and that you’re certainly not alone in facing it. Next, it’s about putting together a workable plan to tackle it — and this usually involves taking a good look at your caseload to see what can be done to make it more manageable. For instance, do you need to reduce the number of files so you can stay on top of everything? Is what’s currently expected of you realistically achievable? Would some extra administrative support or technical assistance help you become better organised?
Treating the symptoms and underlying causes of stress can go a long way in helping you regain control of your workload and reach your full potential. For more information on the legal industry and issues affecting lawyers, visit our Insights Hub.
In the lawyer’s ideal world, monthly billing and work-in-progress targets are always on track, deadlines are never missed, while senior partners and clients alike are singing your praises. And to top it all off, you even have time to enjoy life outside of the office.
Right now, new technology is making it easier for lawyers to work with digitised documents. Most lawyers are familiar with pdfs: the standard file format for storing scanned documents, as well as for exchanging them with other parties. On the flip side, if you have ever tried to edit, copy or search through text in such a file, you’ll know just how frustrating pdfs can be to work with.
Logic might suggest that to operate as efficiently and productively as possible on complex problems, a culture of collaboration would be a must for any legal organisation. But while the adjectives, cut-throat and competitive seem to be frequently levied at law firms, that phrase, collaborative seems to rarely get a look-in.
For any forward-thinking lawyer, the benefits of legal technology (or ‘lawtech’) are hard to ignore. In areas such as case management, research, communications and more, tech is helping to boost productivity, drive efficiency and, most important of all, deliver better outcomes for clients.