Whenever other lawyers learn that my wife and children (two daughters) are lawyers, I usually get a quizzical look, often followed by a question about how I could ever let my children become lawyers. I patiently reply that these were choices freely made by my daughters, and that I didn’t try to influence them. Then, just to dissipate the awkwardness, I joke that apparently my wife and I had done a good job of hiding our job stress all those years. The conversation then moves on to a different topic. Unfortunately, the question that is asked, as well as my response, suggests something we all know too well: Law can be a stressful career choice.
Notice, though, I don’t say it is stressful. That is because I think the stress is often manageable, with the right amount of attention to work-life balance. That, of course, is easier said than done. I have known many lawyers over my 30+ years of practice, and the vast majority have persevered in their chosen careers with a few complaints but, all in all, are happy. Some who I would have expected to make it, however, did not. Some of them didn’t just burn out. They actually flamed out. I still think about the good and smart lawyers over the years who I have seen lose their licenses due to very bad choices. The trouble in each case was not moral culpability. These were good people, as well as good lawyers. What they had in common was uncontrolled stress that seemed to devolve into serious depression and isolation. Sometimes misguided efforts to “self-medicate” led to substance abuse or addiction. These ingredients are a recipe for poor decision-making, even by the most capable of lawyers.
Compassion, Understanding, Support
The reasons for all of this are often complex, and it is a serious mistake to suggest that such conditions are always or simply due to personal choices. We know a lot more about mental health than we did a generation ago, and we have come to appreciate that it is often strongly related to things like brain chemistry, genetics and other factors—an insight that reveals the attitudes and stigmas of the past as grossly misinformed and unfair. One of the most important things we can do as a profession to help lessen the challenges of addiction and mental health among our colleagues is to leave the judgment out of it, and to approach those who are suffering with compassion, understanding and support.
The forces that produce burnout, depression or addiction are often beyond our control, but many times there are things we can do to manage this challenge and help to keep ourselves on track. These things should not be ignored and we shouldn’t adopt a fatalistic approach. Our careers don’t have to be as stressful as they sometimes feel. Each of us should take steps to take care of ourselves.
For those who have not yet been challenged in this regard, I encourage you to not take this fact for granted. Just because things are going smoothly at the moment doesn’t mean that it can’t change. By being proactive, you can best assure your continued good health. As with our physical health, prevention is the best strategy. Our careers are marathons, not sprints. You may be early enough in the “race” that you haven’t hit the wall. But the most experienced marathoners know they need to pace themselves and plan ahead to keep fuel in the tank.
Taking Time to Reflect
One good place to start is to take the time to reflect on whether you are living according to your goals and priorities and, when you are not, make the necessary changes. That is not just a one-time exercise. It is something that should happen on a recurring basis to deal with the changes that life imposes.
One thing that has worked well for me is to make an annual retreat to a beautiful and quiet place, in which I spend some time thinking about my life goals, career, happiness and responsibilities. I try to honestly evaluate whether I am living according to my priorities. Usually this reflection helps me to identify shortfalls and make the needed adjustments. Some of the changes stick. Others, not so much. But that just keeps me coming back to try again. This process of reflection should not just be career-focused. It should include all elements of your life. Family, fun, relationships, recreation, physical health, and community are a few things to keep in the mix. I also have found it is best done with some measure of solitude, to avoid distraction and promote insight.
While solitude works well when you are doing well, solitude is not a good strategy for dealing with the times you are feeling seriously out of balance and becoming unhappy. As I noted earlier, many of the lawyers I have known to get in the most serious trouble have done so following a long period of social isolation. If you are feeling stressed and unhappy, you should not ignore that. It is not something that gets better with neglect or denial. You should reach out. Similarly, if you know someone in that position, you should reach out as well to see what help you may offer them.
Often friends or partners can be a great help—even ones with whom you are not all that close. But if that is an option that you are not comfortable with, then I encourage you to check out Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (www.mnlcl.org or (651) 646-5590). They provide knowing and confidential help from other lawyers who have been down the same road and know what a difference it can make to have someone willing to help. They have a track record of success.
Devote time and attention to your own work-life balance. You owe it to yourself. If your personal happiness is not enough to motivate you, then consider that unless you are happy and healthy, you will be no good to your clients, your partners, or your loved ones.
Michael W. Unger is President of the Minnesota State Bar Association. He is a Certified Civil Trial Specialist at Unger Law Office in Minneapolis, representing negligence victims for serious injuries and wrongful death. He is also on the adjunct faculty of the University of Minnesota Law School.