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Articles on lawyer burn-out and stress often recite the characteristics of a lawyer in trouble: lack of interest in work, isolation from friends, irritability, persistent exhaustion, irresponsibility, anger, cynicism, and negativity (to name just a few). Commonly cited culprits in creating these conditions are crushing billable hours, and increasing demands from clients. Such articles often suggest that lawyers facing stress and burn-out cut back on work, and consider major lifestyle changes. Often, the articles include “success” stories about lawyers who work part-time, or who have moved to far-off small towns where clients are somehow friendlier, and the work somehow more fun. For many lawyers, such fantasy solutions (“quit working so hard” or “quit your job and go work somewhere more fun”) are so unrealistic that they ignore the problem altogether. Indeed, many lawyers pride themselves on how stressed and miserable they are. Say the word “workaholic” and their heads swell. Say the words “drunk,” “addict,” “mentally ill,” “divorced,” or “quit the profession,” and they think of some “other” losers who were not tough enough to take it. In short, because the problem seems to have no practical solution, or because they simply are not aware of (or do not want to think about) the problem, for many lawyers the question of how to avoid burn-out, stress and all the other symptoms that may come with them is never addressed. Worse yet, for many lawyers, once the effects of stress and burn-out become obvious, to themselves and their colleagues, their ability to rectify the imbalances in their lives may be too limited to permit recovery without a radical break from work, or other intrusive intervention. Withdrawn, irritable and afraid, attorneys suffering from stress and burn-out may turn to drugs or alcohol to ease their pain, or may simply give up on the responsibilities of their profession. Indeed, many lawyer assistance programs work on the assumption that lawyers who take advantage of such programs will do so because they are too impaired to work professionally, and may be jeopardizing the affairs of their clients and their law firms. Are those the only choices available for dealing with stress and burn-out: either ignoring the problem, or waiting until the horses have left to close the barn door? What if the problem were put in more practical, immediate terms? Ask yourself: if you had an argument in court tomorrow morning, or an important client meeting, would you try to get a good night’s sleep? If you had some document review or due diligence for a few days in Anaheim, Calif., would you try to have a night free to visit Disneyland? If you just had a fight with your spouse over the telephone, would you wait a while before making a call to a client? Obvious as they may seem, these are precisely the kinds of questions that busy lawyers may forget to ask themselves. Occasional failure to pursue such common sense means to avoid stress, boredom and exhaustion on any given day probably will not hurt you. Persistent inattention to the problem, however, can have devastating consequences. Stress and burn-out avoidance requires regular, if not daily attention. Just as a diet and exercise program can help you lose weight, establishment of a plan for stress and burn-out avoidance can help get you to incorporate behavior changes that can be comfortably incorporated into even a very busy attorney’s daily routine. A few basic principles deserve mention: Nobody else but you can, or will, take responsibility for this problem. Your co-workers and friends won’t make you diet, exercise, or go to the doctor, and they will not make you do this either. You must have the will and the desire to affect your own behavior in healthy ways. Relief from stress and burn-out will not come tomorrow unless you do something about them today. Lawyers are great at rationalizing, and even better at deferring rewards. Both characteristics can be tickets to gradual, but inevitable breakdown. Mere quantity of time away from work is not the solution to all stress and burn-out problems. Indeed, the idea that time off is somehow a miracle cure may be part of the problem. Stressed-out lawyers who take unsatisfying “vacations” only to return to work feeling no better than when they left may conclude (wrongly) that there is simple no hope for solving this problem. The key element of stress and burn-out prevention is some soul-searching, aimed at identifying things that truly make you feel happy and refreshed. The goal is to see how many of these things you can incorporate into your daily routine, and still have a successful career. Some of these things may be very brief (five minutes of “quiet time” or meditation each morning, a 20-minute jog three days a week, or reading a few stories to your kids each night before bed). The point is that daily, brief, “quality” experiences may be as valuable as less frequent vacations. Don’t knock vacations, however. Not only are they a great way to recharged depleted mental batteries, but thoughts of vacations past, or vacations planned, can be enjoyed as brief respites from a busy day. Aside from searching for quality experiences, some of the best methods of stress and burn-out avoidance involve efficient time management. Many management advisors, for example, suggest doing the hardest task you expect to do at the beginning of your day (when your energy and enthusiasm are likely to be at their highest). Similarly, prioritizing work, keeping a careful calendar, and learning to delegate effectively can all help to avoid the “permanent crisis” condition that some lawyers create. The nature of a law practice rarely changes as much as lawyers’ reaction to the practice. Something drew you to law in the first instance. What was it? Look for those elements of your practice that are most satisfying to you, and spend time thinking about how you can maximize such experiences. If you do not find such satisfying things in your daily life as a lawyer, perhaps you need to restructure some of the work you do, or consider taking on some pro bono, teaching or other outside occupation to spice up your working life. Pay careful attention to your reactions during times of maximum stress. If you are upset, tired and anxious, and feel “at your wit’s end,” take some action, now. Get up, take a walk; go to the gym; do some yoga; listen to some soothing music; call your mom. Whatever works for you, have some safety net that you know will always help make you feel better when you are truly down. There are many popular books and other resources on mental well-being that are well worth reading for ideas on creation of an individual plan to avoid stress and burn-out. Many bar and CLE groups conduct seminars on the subject. Most mental health professionals, moreover, are eager to consult both for prevention purposes as well as for treatment of acute problems. Formulation of a specific plan to avoid stress and burn-out will help ensure that vague hopes to “take it easy” some day do not give way to a working life of boredom, tension and chronic unhappiness. Mastery of basic stress and burn-out prevention techniques may be as important as other essential lawyering skills (research, writing, negotiation, etc.) for long-term success in a legal career. Steven C. Bennett is a partner in the New York City office of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, and a co-coordinator of the New Associates Group in that office. The views expressed are solely those of the author.

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