EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series on stress management and the practice of law. This month's self-study package deals with types of stress and how to alleviate day-to-day burdens. Completing this test will earn one hour of MCLE credit in the special category of substance abuse/emotional distress. The second part of the series, which will appear in the July California Bar Journal, will deal with stress management. Completing the July test will earn one hour of MCLE credit in the special category of law practice management. The CLE test immediately follows this story.
Stress is an inherent and inescapable part of practicing law. Attorneys face a type of stress that is intense and unrelenting: Unforgiving statutes of limitations. Accelerated trial programs. Increased competition for a decreasing number of available cases. The constant demand for billable hours. The growing use of hardball tactics and uncivil behavior in the profession.
This type of stress is not, unfortunately, the productive stress that mobilizes our resources and enhances our performance.
It is, instead, destructive. It overloads our mental and physical resources. It interferes with the effective use of our skills. It becomes a disruptive factor in our relationships, our outlook and our well-being. Nearly all of us know of cases where stress has taken a punishing toll on a friend, a colleague -- or ourselves.
A cumulative verdict
Recent state and national surveys of attorneys reveal a profession that is suffering from cumulative and sustained stress. Career dissatisfaction is at an all-time high. A record number of attorneys are seeking alternative careers. Only half those practicing law today, these surveys say, would choose to be attorneys if they had to do it over again -- and would not advise their children to enter the profession.
Justice Felix Frankfurter was fond of saying, "In the last analysis, the law is what the lawyers are." What he meant is that our attitude toward what we do for a living affects how we practice. And how we practice determines the quality of justice achieved and the public's impression of both the law and the profession. If Justice Frank-furter was right -- and I'm sure he was -- both the profession and its members are in trouble.
There are four basic laws which decribe the relationship between stress and performance and the way these two factors manifest in our lives.
1. Cumulative, unmanaged stress deforms our bodies and changes our personalities.
2. Stress can be transformed into enhanced performance and a more satisfying life.
3. This transformation is based on a shift in how we relate to and experience our practices and our lives right now, in this moment.
4. Making this happen requires a daily strategy designed to develop and maintain a relaxed body and a calm, focused and alert mind.
Over the last 25 years of practice, I've been fascinated in exploring how these laws lead to widely varying levels and quality of performance in our profession.
What allows one attorney to remain cool and perform at near peak capacity in the face of the pressure of trial work or the onslaught of demands of a busy transactional practice, while another suffers from ongoing anxiety, diminished performance and exhaustion?
Why will one attorney operate effectively and with a sense of ease while another will be inefficient and seem to be driven by external demands that override common sense?
Justice Frankfurter hinted at the answer: It's our attitude toward what we do and how we do it. It's our perspective how we see and experience the challenges and difficulties in our lives. Our attitude establishes an invisible environment that influences how we relate to all our experience.
Learning to surf
A poster advertising a meditation class I saw a number of years ago illustrates this point.
The poster depicted a famous Indian meditation teacher in a complex yoga posture, balanced on one leg, standing on a surfboard -- on the crest of a large ocean wave. Under-neath, the inscription read: "You can't stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf."
Stress emerges from believing you can control or stop the waves. Performance is about learning how to ride them.
Those in our profession who have learned how to transform stress into enhanced performance understand the foundational principle that what's important is not what's happening, but how we're relating to it.
We are frequently unable to control the way our cases develop or their outcomes.
But we always have the ability to choose how we respond to these developments, rather than merely reacting automatically and unconsciously.
If we can make conscious and skillful judgments and choices, rather than mechanically responding from habit and emotion, the results will naturally take care of themselves.
A spacious, non-reactive attitude is what separates those lawyers who can remain cool and perform near peak capacity and those who don't. And this attitude arises from the type of relationship they have developed with their experience.
They are able to enter into a balanced relationship with whatever arises in their practices and their lives.
When we're in balance, our concentration is stronger, our work more effective and our perspective more positive. When we're out of balance, our ability to focus tends to be unstable, our work product more erratic and our perspective susceptible to negativity. If we hurriedly perform a task full of tension and anxiety, it's unlikely to be our best work.
Equally important, the end result will probably feel inadequate.
State of mind
If we bring a calm, balanced state of mind to a task, the end result is likely to be of a higher quality -- and feel that way.
This inner balance, at its core, is based on the skill of listening deeply with care and attention to ourselves -- something that many of us have lost touch with, forgotten or never learned in the first place.
It involves tuning in to how we're feeling right now, in this moment and adjusting our attitude or work rate, rather than ignoring our needs and upping our stress level.
It involves taking a few moments out of our normal work day to look at what needs to be done, in what sequence and by what date, rather than rushing blindly forward and overlooking or missing some critical aspect of strategy or a time deadline.
Attorneys frequently find themselves in difficult legal situations because they have failed to pay care and attention -- to simply be conscious and aware of what they are feeling and doing.
Their focus of attention is divided between a current project, some other pressing matter, anticipation of difficulty with yet another case and worrying about something that happened the day before.
As a result, they are not fully present for and focused on the work underway and errors and misjudgment occur.
Malpractice, from this viewpoint, is more about the state of mind we bring to our work than the actual acts or omissions that become the subsequent focus of litigation. The acts and omissions are merely a symptom of divided concentration and a lack of inner balance.
Learning to let down
Many lawyers have become so accustomed to being tense, stressed out and distracted that they don't know how it feels to let down, relax and be present.
They've lost the ability to detect stress build-up and to do something about it. They become stressed out not only by experiencing an unpleasant event, but by merely thinking about or anticipating such an event.
Counterproductive stress and its associated unhealthy states of mind have become an accepted way of life.
They think this is the way life is supposed to be. They are stressed out all day at work and find themselves taking it home at night.
And the worst part -- most of this stress is self-induced, an habitual and ineffective way of responding to challenges and an inability to relax.
Once the wheel of stress starts to turn, it is difficult to get off. Many lawyers stay on it for the rest of their lives.
Any efficient, modern law practice must include elements such as sound time management techniques, strategic planning, computerization, fiscal control and human resource development. None of these, however, will result in a quality professional work environment unless the attorney using them is in a balanced, focused and relaxed state of mind.
Dennis M. Warren is a Sacramento healthcare attorney who conducts workshops to help attorneys identify and monitor stress