40 wellness tips to help lawyers cope with job pressure
Stress is one of the defining characteristics of becoming and being a lawyer. Applying to law school, figuring out how to pay tuition, taking finals and studying for the bar exam are difficult enough. Things don’t get any easier once you become an actual practicing attorney. No matter what type of law you practice, there are always stressors and pressure points that only get bigger as the stakes get higher.
It’s no wonder two long-running stereotypes are that lawyers drink and hate their jobs. A 2016 study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs found 20.6% of responding lawyers scored at a level consistent with problematic drinking, compared with 11.8% of respondents in comparable fields. The study also found nearly half of respondents were concerned about depression at some point in their careers, with 28% of all respondents experiencing it at mild or high levels.
With that in mind, the ABA Journal staff asked a range of attorneys, wellness experts and other legal industry professionals for tips on how lawyers can take care of themselves and not get overwhelmed.
Photo illustration by Sarah Wadford/Shutterstock.
Maintaining work-life balance
Is work-life balance real, or is it a myth? Many lawyers may feel as if they have no choice but to work all of the time.
After all, those hours aren’t going to bill themselves, and deadlines don’t just go away because you don’t feel well.
But just because you have a lot on your plate doesn’t mean you need to neglect your mental well-being.
In fact, sometimes taking a moment for yourself can make you more efficient.
1. Make self-care a priority, and give yourself oxygen first. If you are overworked, overstressed, unhealthy and not taking care of your needs, you will not be at your best for your clients, colleagues, family and friends.
—Erin Clifford, director of marketing and business development, Clifford Law Offices; founder, Erin Clifford Wellness Coaching
2. A common response to feeling overwhelmed is to push harder to get things done. Neuroscience research shows that instead of motivating us, self-criticism switches our nervous system into a reactive, stressed state. In this state, we are less able to problem-solve and feel less optimistic about—and therefore less apt to try—creative solutions; in a reactive state, we will likely struggle even more to bill hours. The next time you feel anxious, pause. Say something helpful to yourself like “I’ve got this,” or “I’m almost there.”
—Laura Mahr, resilience coach, Conscious Legal Minds
3. I always take off the Jewish Sabbath every week and Jewish holidays when they arise, which gives me certain times to rest and recharge. Even if people don’t have religious practices to fall back on, designating specific days/hours for “do not disturb” time is super important—time when they don’t answer work calls or check emails; time when they can be fully present in other parts of their lives without distractions. And naps are glorious—I highly recommend them, even if it’s just 20 minutes.
—Amira Hasenbush, owner, All Family Legal
4. Draw and keep clear lines around communication, work and personal. Make yourself available during business hours and unavailable at all other times, absent exigent circumstances. Keep your email address for business separate from your personal email address(es). Do not give your personal email address to clients or work colleagues, and discourage friends and family from using your business email address. Make it known to everyone possible that you can be reached by email during business hours for work (at your work email address) and during nonbusiness hours for nonwork (at your personal email address). Re-frain from reading work email after hours and on weekends, and if the temptation becomes too much, refrain at all costs from responding until first thing the following workday morning.
—Richard Wilson, owner, Richard A. Wilson P.C. Law Offices
5. Make a plan for your downtime so it actually rejuvenates you. I know this one sounds counterintuitive, but for lawyers, downtime is precious. Having downtime that recharges us can make the difference between early burnout and a long, satisfying career. If I don’t plan for restful and rejuvenating activities, though, I’m likely to get sucked into social media, online shopping or something else not worthy of my precious free time.
—Christina Sava, associate, Troutman Pepper
6. Take two-minute breaks between tasks to give your brain a reset and refresh your focus. Our brains are not designed to focus 100% of the time, so building in “mini-moments of well-being” that allow your brain to go offline and reset helps you come back to a task with greater concentration. The more you focus, the less you procrastinate, the more hours you can bill in less time. Try these high-caliber mini-moments: Stretch for a few minutes to release tension in your neck and shoulders while waiting for a meeting to start; look out the window instead of checking social media when you notice you’re losing focus; think of three things you’re looking forward to doing after work while taking a drink of water; recall the best moments in your day instead of ruminating about work when you wake up in the middle of the night.
7. If you are working at home or on a hybrid arrangement, try to set up a separate area to work that other family members respect. It is important that you mentally approach your office as separate from your home. Set a regular schedule for work, but build in your breaks for self-care, both physical and mental. Once work is done, leave your technology/devices in your workspace, and be present for your family, your pet and/or yourself with no work in the mix.
—Laura Farber, partner, Hahn & Hahn
8. Many attorneys think they are great multitaskers and the exception to the rule. The irony in this is studies find that the more confident people are in their ability to multitask, the worse they actually perform. We can be horrible judges of our own capabilities. One of the best things you can do when you have a lot of stressful work on your plate is clear out distractions. Close your email tab (even if it’s for 10 minutes), silence your phone, turn off those addictive red notification bubbles, delete any social media apps from your phone if you find yourself getting drawn in on a regular basis.
—Jennie Malloy, workplace wellness innovator and founder, Lights Camera Kale
Photo by Shutterstock.
Set the tone
Being the boss is stressful enough. If you bring your stress to the office, then it will make everyone else feel worse. Setting a good example, keeping open lines of communication and knowing when to delegate will help establish a strong culture of wellness.
9. I think I speak for many in the legal profession when I say that in the past I had felt as though handling everything myself was the only way to ensure that things were done correctly. I quickly learned this was not only untrue, but that this mindset was largely detrimental to my own health/sanity and the overall efficiency of the firm as a whole.
—Christina M. Gullo, counsel, the Kantor Law Firm
10. Listening is key. So is understanding that we may not have all the answers and that well-being means different things to different people—there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. It goes back to being aware and being intentional about acknowledging the challenges and working together to do what we can to meet them.
—George Demos, partner and chief operating officer, O’Melveny & Myers
11. Hire people whose skills complement yours, not people you want to mold into the next “you.” I would not be where I am without the dedication of my longtime associate. When I hired him, I knew our skills complemented each other; and I am more convinced of this each day. For example, I like to think on my feet (with relatively little prep), while he thrives on the ability to take a deep dive into issues. Also, he is more risk-averse than I am. Together, we make a great, well-rounded team.
—Julie O. Herrera, Law Office of Julie O. Herrera
12. I suggest starting with incremental assignments with reasonable deadlines and defined objectives to start, and then assigning progressively more difficult and important tasks as the employee’s confidence and your trust increase. It’s also important not to make anything a referendum on competence. There has to be room for some failure to be tolerated, or else the pressure can interfere with performance.
—Joshua Dratel, Law Offices of Dratel & Lewis
13. You have to set the example of thoroughness, responsibility and motivation. Treat your staff well, and they will treat you well. Be respectful, understanding and kind. With rapport, you will be happy, and your staff will be happy.
—James Gray Robinson, lawyer coach, Lawyer Lifeline
14. If we want to receive more feedback, it’s important to give more feedback. It doesn’t matter if you are a partner, associate or support staff: When you see someone doing something well, acknowledge it. Be specific about what exactly the person did well. It’s not enough to just say, “Good job.”
15. The second is: If we want to receive more feedback, ask for feedback. The main trap attorneys fall into is saying something vague like, “Let me know if there is anything I can improve upon.” By simply changing the way we ask for feedback, we can increase our chances of receiving it. Even a simple change to: “How can I be more helpful to you going forward?” or “Was there anything I did that you found helpful?”
16. For those in a leadership role, frequent and open communication is imperative as uncertainty, fear of the unknown future, and isolation can all be drivers of unhealthy stress. Set up regular calls with individual team members, allowing time in the conversation for checking in on how they are coping in this unprecedented time. These opportunities for open and honest communication can be a well-being boost for both leaders and those on their team.
—Bree Buchanan, president, the Institute for Well-Being in Law
Wellness doesn’t stop at the office
Wellness starts at home. Maintaining healthy habits in your personal life can help promote mental well-being and improve work performance.
17. Our world, more than ever, seems completely out of control. Surrender to that concept and think small: Focus on the tiny things that you can control, like the amount of sleep you get and how much water you are drinking. From there, move up to the way you prioritize tasks through the lens of focusing on things you can actually impact with your effort.
—Sateesh Nori, attorney-in-charge, Legal Aid Society (Queens), New York City
18. Develop a consistent exercise schedule (i.e., three times a week) and put it in your calendar. Exercise is crucial for your physical and mental health. It is an appointment that you make with yourself for your self-care. If something comes up, reschedule for another day like you would any other appointment.
19. Studies have shown that exercise can improve memory and stimulate the growth of new brain cells. People who exercise on a consistent basis also experience lower levels of cortisol, our stress hormone. These are benefits that can positively impact our work and critical thinking skills.
20. By being transparent about self-care, we can set a positive example for others to follow suit. Transparency also breeds trust. The caveat to this is that we need to be consistent. The more consistent we can be with our habits, the more our colleagues can predict our availability and in turn, our reliability.
21. Many overworked attorneys often forget to eat and then are ravenous by the end of the day and make unhealthy food choices. Thus, keep healthy meals and snacks readily available in your office. You can also set an alarm to alert you to mealtime or put it in your calendar with an alert.
22. Get enough sleep: Quality sleep helps us to learn more quickly and retain what we learn. When we are rested, we think and problem-solve more effectively and more creatively, and we feel more motivated to bill our client hours. While certain parts of our brains can function fairly well on little sleep, the prefrontal cortex—the “executive functioning” part of the brain that we use when lawyering for reasoning, organizing, planning and problem-solving—struggles greatly with sleep deprivation. Working chronically tired can lead to ineffective lawyering resulting from making mistakes, missing solutions to problems, forgetting and acting out emotionally. Bottom line: Good sleep supports our well-being and is good for business.
23. Healthy eating and exercise on a regular basis are great tools in self-care and wellness. Much is written about excess salt and sugar in the American diet to satisfy American tastes while hurting our health. Also, 30 minutes of walking several times a week, along with core exercises like Pilates, make us feel better and add years.
—David Shaheed, senior judge, Marion Superior Court, Indianapolis
Photo by Shutterstock.
Plug in—or unplug
Technology can help enhance wellness, but it can also make you more overwhelmed. Use it wisely.
24. The AllTrails app provides trail maps for hiking and exploring. There is nothing better for well-being than getting out on a hike or walk somewhere new. It’s easy to use with detailed maps and information about hikes in your area.
—Michele Powers, certified executive and team coach, Elite Lawyer Coaching; chair, ABA Law Practice Division’s Attorney Well-Being Committee
25. Did you know that Microsoft 365 can help with your well-being? Log into your account online, and you can make use of Viva Insights, which will calendar “focus time” for you. You can adjust for how many hours a day or days per week you want scheduled. If you don’t block out time for yourself—whether that is for lunch or to work uninterrupted on a project—you may find yourself overbooked with insufficient breaks or time to think deep thoughts. Another benefit is that because this works seamlessly with Outlook, you will get reminders.
—Roberta Tepper, chief member services officer, State Bar of Arizona
26. Fitness trackers such as Fitbit provide information on fitness but also exercise, nutrition, sleep and mindfulness. Fitbit also has games where you can invite friends to compete with you each week in getting the highest amount of steps. This is one of the best motivators for me to make sure that I exercise every day!
—Lita Abella, California health and wellness consultant
27. It’s easy to get swept up in the rush of the workday and start feeling harried and reactive. It helps me to be reminded now and then to pause for a moment, breathe and re-center myself. To give myself those reminders, I use the Due app on my phone. It lets me create a reminder that will then gently ping me every hour, 30 minutes or 15 minutes—whichever I prefer. Apple Watch users can do something similar with its Mindfulness app.
—Jon Krop, founder, Mindfulness for Lawyers
28. Zoom yoga is the absolute best for relaxation and finding a few minutes to feel connected and be in a “class” but not have to leave the building. Meditation added to these sessions is a plus. It helps to clear the mind and create some quick and effective “me time,” which is beneficial for mental and physical health.
—Patricia Brown Holmes, managing partner, Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila
29. With the invention of technological devices such as smartphones, computers and television, we are constantly being bombarded with blue light, which emulates the blue light of daytime. One study found that exposure to blue light from computer screens between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. shortened the participants’ total sleep time, suppressed melatonin production, increased nighttime awakenings, prevented their body temperature from dropping and altered their circadian rhythms. We can actually reduce blue light exposure in the evening by turning on Night Shift mode on our iPhones. (Android has a version of this as well.) For your computer, there is free software from f.lux that syncs your computer screen with the rising and setting of the sun.
Law firms are starting to embrace wellness initiatives. Here are some examples:
30. Vision Pursue is a training program designed to teach participants mindfulness, which reduces stress and in turn increases performance, both personally and professionally. The program attempts to change the way the mind experiences the world through workshops, meditation and mindfulness exercises performed daily on an app. It is used primarily by large corporations and professional sports teams.
—David Gordon, shareholder and chair, the professional development committee at Polsinelli
31. At Akin Gump, we have several initiatives and programs focused on mental well-being as well as career counseling. For example, through our Be Well initiative, we offer our lawyers the ability to engage with apps such as our Journey Meditation app to schedule time to relax, meditate, engage in calming breathing exercises, etc.
—Meg Meserole, chief human resources officer, Akin Gump
32. O’Melveny has been a member of the ABA’s campaign to improve the landscape surrounding mental health in the legal profession, also known as the Well-Being Pledge, since its inception. We also work with a market-leading Employee Assistance Plan called CCA to offer confidential professional counseling as well as seminars with experts on a range of life moments and experiences. And very importantly, we socialize and normalize conversations on mental health at all levels of the firm, including with our leadership and our partnership.
33. Client service, financial benchmarks and attorney well-being are not competing goals to be balanced; they impact one another and live on a continuum. As such, we foster policies and behaviors that allow for mentorship, professional and personal trainings, open communication with firm leaders, reduced hours and part-time working arrangements, enhanced parental leave, and pro bono and community involvement.
Photo by Shutterstock.
Know when to ask for help
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to seek help. Whether you decide to rely on trained professionals or friends, family and loved ones, or some combination of the above, it’s vital to erase the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
34. Normalize therapy. There is nothing more brave and strong than seeking help. Being open about seeking and receiving care is the best thing we can do to reduce the rampant mental health stigma in the legal profession that deters folks from getting help. My investment in myself has helped tremendously, both personally and professionally. Seeking and receiving therapy and peer support literally saved my life, and I’m extremely proud of that work.
—August Hieber, manager of programs & advocacy, Chicago Bar Foundation
35. A classic symptom of burnout is emotional dysregulation. For lawyers, that tends to look like snapping at a junior or bursting into tears when an email comes with an extra assignment when you thought you were finished for the day—i.e., snap emotional responses that are inappropriate both in degree and in object. In other words, if you’re having a lightning-fast, much-too-strong emotional response to someone who really isn’t that important to you one way or the other … it’s time to stop and reassess … and maybe break glass and pull lever, because you need a vacation. And it’s no longer simply a suggestion, it’s a necessity.
—Will Meyerhofer, psychotherapist and former practicing attorney
36. Another symptom is cognitive lock. If you’re staring at the screen, knowing you need to finish that document, but two hours later you’re still staring at that screen and nothing’s happened … once again, it’s time to break glass and pull lever (and put in for a few days off) because you’re no good to anyone in your current condition.
37. This may seem an obvious answer, but seeking help as early as possible, [at] the first sign that something appears “off,” is going to position you well to access the necessary resources. Counseling services and possible accommodations, should the need arise, can take time to process, but even a pep talk with your dean of students can make all the difference in the world.
—David Jaffe, associate dean of student affairs, American University Washington College of Law
38. Get help when you would advise a client, friend, family member or loved one to do the same. Chances are, that is sooner than when you would normally seek help for yourself, often because we underprioritize our own health and well-being or convince ourselves that everything is fine, or that we are too busy right now and some other time will be better. The problem with deferring maintenance on ourselves is the same as when we defer maintenance on our home or vehicle—it tends to come back like a boomerang.
—Patrick Krill, founder, Krill Strategies
39. Build a circle of accountability. I have a group of core friends who routinely check in on me. I call them my “Sister Circle.” They make sure that I am resting, maintaining healthy eating habits, working out and staying spiritually grounded. We are guided by the principle of ubuntu: “a person is a person through others”; hence, our well-being is interrelated and interconnected.
—Artika Tyner, professor and founding director, Center on Race, Leadership and Social Justice, University of St. Thomas School of Law
40. Be willing to ask for help sooner rather than later. The options for treatment of depression, anxiety, substance use problems, etc., have greatly expanded in the last decade, many of which are covered by insurance. Connecting with a good psychotherapist is a great place to start learning about these options. Most legal workplaces have employee assistance programs that offer a set number of free sessions, and all states have a lawyers’ assistance program that can assist with appropriate referrals.