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Don't Give In to Stress – Manage It

Published in Small Firm Innovation 10/2012

Being a lawyer involves enormous psychological, social, and economic pressures, which have only been intensified by the Great Recession. Studies show that lawyers have among the highest suicide rates of all professions, some six times higher than that of the general public. This can be traced to the intense pressure on lawyers to succeed, both financially and professionally, and the sense of failure that a "loss" at trial or in a deal can bring. Psychological testing has shown that lawyers as a group have little or no "resiliency" to bounce back from criticism or rejection. Despite outward confidence, lawyers are too often sidetracked into doubt and defensiveness.

Often, the real issue for lawyers is that they can't prioritize which practice areas to focus on, how to focus on them, and whether – if they are even able to decide on a practice focus – the area they choose will provide enough income to support family and practice. Lawyers facing such an impasse should pause, take a deep breath and see the real problem as fear of the unknown. Fear creates indecision and stress by preventing action. These three actions are essential to beat stress.

The first necessary action is to develop a practice strategy. Start at the 40,000-foot level and do brainstorming with a paper notepad or a computerized one to prioritize the time spent on different parts of the practice. Begin by listing all client matters currently being handled, then sort them by those that are most enjoyable, that have the best clients to work with, or by which offer the steadiest work. Analyzing the practice piece by piece makes it less overwhelming.

Action number two is to understand the firm's financial position. Assess how much money is coming in today compared to six months ago or a year ago. Make a list of which clients can be expected to pay in the next four or eight weeks. Make another list of where revenues are going – for rent, salaries, equipment, and so on. What this creates is a documented cash flow analysis. If there's cause for financial concern, this analysis will show it. If not, it offers a tool to keep on top of financial activity.

Action number three is daily prioritizing based on the practice and financial analyses. Use them to create an overall goal, and break that goal down into smaller tasks that are achievable within smaller timeframes. Sit down today and create a list of priorities for tomorrow that focus on the goall. Upon arriving to work each morning, address the number one task for the day, then two, then three. At the end of the day, assess the priorities that were left undone and reprioritize them for tomorrow. Doing this means always at least accomplishing the first priority, moving the ball forward and creating a sense of achievement that can relieve the stress of uncertainty.

Sometimes this process is described as seeking balance. Day-to-day there is really no such thing as balance – there is a series of tasks in which the lawyer engages. The real issue is how much cumulative time is devoted to each task, and defining the direction in which those tasks are headed. This gets past the distractions and uncertainty, and turns stress into satisfaction.

Oftentimes, the mere prospect of attempting this 3 Dimensional review of your practice is stress inducing. You may want to engage a coach to help you with the process, or a trusted colleague. It will make the task and the results more enjoyable and effective.

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