Controlling our stress levels is a constant theme these days. Although each of us differs in how we react and perceive life, I found that the following approaches work for me to my keep stress level within acceptable bounds .
Use technology to become more efficient and more effective.
A few years ago, I started converting my entire office to an almost totally electronic practice based upon Adobe Acrobat and Dragon Naturally Speaking. I found that I had become more efficient, more effective and able to respond much more quickly. That in itself reduced my stress level a lot and the concomitant reduction in non-recoverable costs made my practice substantially more profitable, which also reduced my general stress level. For more information, see our article on Using Acrobat in a Litigation Practice elsewhere in this issue.
Try not to demonize the other side.
There are usually two reasonably plausible sides to most civil controversies and a range of acceptable and fair settlements and results. Game theory, by the way, suggests that position-based settlement negotiations (e.g., $150,000 and not a dime less!) tend to be less economically efficient, more contentious, and less likely to be productive compared to an approach more akin to scientific fact-finding. See Stewart Levine’s ADR column here in Law Practice Today for practical approaches to less-contentious resolution of disputes.
No-prisoners litigation ultimately is usually too expensive economically and psychologically to be worthwhile to the intelligent and rational parties except in situations where the stakes are extremely high, on the order of an Enron criminal litigation or the Exxon Valdez oil spill $5 billion civil judgment. Even there, though, in the Exxon case, the State of Alaska settled quickly for a nearly one billion dollar habitat restoration fund and has been able to do a lot of good work with that money over the last 16 years even as the five billion dollar jury award against Exxon in favor of the private plaintiffs continues to bounce around the appellate courts 17 years after the spill and after many of the Plaintiffs (and their attorneys ) have died without seeing dime one.
When I first arrived in Alaska in 1977 after working in Washington, DC, one of our local Superior Court Judges took me aside and reminded me that the aim of every member of the Bar should be to resolve client problems as quickly and inexpensively as a fair resolution permits. Conversely, working toward ensuring a fair result may mean fighting unusually hard if the other side doesn't have the same perspective. But, first give the other side a chance to also be reasonable. Game theory, a formal academic amalgam of economics and psychology, in fact has derived a number of results experimentally and theoretically that suggest that the optimum economic result for everyone is achieved if a party starts off declaring a desire to be fair and initially acts accordingly, but punishing the other side if they act unreasonably, and then declaring your desire to resume a cooperative relationship unless the other side continues to be unreasonable. In that case, you really do need to fight as hard in the interest of upholding fairness as good practice and ethics may allow, but at least you tried to be reasonable.
Balance business needs with altruism.
It is worth recalling that our profession is, or should be, ultimately about finding truth and justice and that a narrow business-only focus is not really very productive socially or personally. It also produces a lot of stress over the long term. At the same time, you do need to make a reasonably decent living. Always being on the verge of financial delinquency will keep you up at night with worry, is proven by both common experience and the psychological literature to result in severe marital and family distress, and encourages financially desperate attorneys to cut corners that may lead to professional disaster. As with everything, there really is a balance here.
Be civil and extend courtesies to the other side.
Sooner or later, your deadlines will overwhelm you and you will need reciprocal courtesies.
Don't take on more work than you can handle.
Not only is an overload inherently stressful but we tend to make dumb mistakes when we are overloaded, and that only results in even more work and stress later. We all know, and sometimes ignore, this obvious point. I recently asked an outstanding trial judge how he managed to stay so productive into his early 70s after nearly four decades as a judge and his answer was simply "Pace yourself." Even in the midst of World War II, the top US commanders, such as General George Marshall, later of Marshall Peace Plan fame, insisted that his top generals leave the office at a reasonable time in the evening, stating that no one ever had a good original idea after 5 pm. Ten hours a day at the office is plenty. After that point, you'll be more efficient if you get some rest and do something that's different and fun.
Get regular exercise.
We all know that exercise is good for us physiologically but the psychological literature is clear that regular exercise is often better for stress and depression problems than medication, and with positive, rather than negative, side effects. Even though the easy course may be, in the short term, to avoid an exercise session when you're busy or feeling unusually stressed (I'm speaking from a long history of personal experience here!), get that exercise. About one and a half years ago, I started a Karate black belt program, partly because my step-daughter was working toward her black belt but mostly because my wife announced one day that I was getting badly out of shape and that she had accordingly signed me up for, and paid for, a three-year black belt program. She then announced that I was starting that same evening! That first year was an exercise in watching the clock, hoping that the hour would pass quickly. I was clumsy, badly out of conditioning, and generally felt like that British Colonel in the classic movie Bridge On the River Kwai, forced to stand at attention in the hot tropical sun until he collapsed. At this point, although I am not, and never will be, a Bruce Lee, I feel better physically and psychologically than I have in 20 years, and more focused. I now actually feel poorly when I am forced to skip several classes due to exigent circumstances. Indeed, recent psychological literature suggests that two of the best ways to integrate one's intellectual, emotional and physical aspects are playing music on a keyboard (piano, etc) and the martial arts. Besides, when you’re physically exhausted, you don’t have the energy to ruminate and feel stressed.
Choose your clients carefully and get rid of clients that continue to be difficult or continue to harbor unreasonable expectations.
We all know that difficult clients consume more time and costs, with less return but more stress and ethical problems, than all the rest of our clients combined. And, it's better to get rid of such clients early rather than on the eve of trial when a court may not give you permission to withdraw.
Don't isolate yourself in the office.
Be involved with your family, friends, community and the non-adversarial aspects of the law. Do something worthwhile and intellectually engaging in addition to practicing law .
Remember that some stress is generally positive - it helps us focus, do a better job, and generally avoid ennui.
The problem is excessive stress that results in becoming overtaxed physically, intellectually and psychologically. Each individual's overstress level and psychological exhaustion level are different. Even if we are reluctant to admit it, we all know when we have reached that point - back off a little before you hit the wall at 200 mph.
Do something that really requires that you focus on something other than current cases.
Rumination is known to result in more stress and depression. Believe me, when I am flying my small airplane over some rugged mountain terrain or over the ocean here in Alaska, I am not thinking about cases. Even if the flying is arduous, I find myself generally feeling refreshed or at least relieved and relaxed, after I land and maybe stop off for a decent cup of coffee and a biscotti. The martial arts are also good in this same way.
Remember and accept the fact that we are in an adversarial, and hence inherently stressful, profession.
There's no way around this unpleasant axiom. While participating in TechShow some years ago, I read a local bar association publication about lawyer stress. In that issue, several psychiatrists and other postulated rather overblown neo-Freudian theories about lawyer stress arising from early childhood conflicts and the like. Not one of them bothered to discuss the obvious - we are in an adversarial professional and there are really many opponents out there who will "Do on to us and our clients before we do on to them!" We can't completely avoid stress in our profession, especially if you're a litigator like me, and there's no sense pretending otherwise. That would simply be denying reality, which is inherently stressful.
Try to change your cognitive perceptions:
If you perceive and evaluate something as negatively stressful, then it will be that way for you. Within the bounds of rationality, try to experience “stressful” events as something positive, perhaps as excitement.
Take your dog to work, if you can.
At least on the West Coast, this is becoming popular if you have a friendly and well-mannered dog. Our big male German Shepherd comes to work every day. The clients and other tenants like him around, especially when he makes the rounds of open doors in the morning to say hello and maybe score a treat or two. The psychological literature suggests that having well-mannered pets around may help reduce stress. If you’re feeling absolutely too stressed, you can take your dog for a walk - he’ll enjoy it and you might, too. And, with the right kind and size dog, you’ll reduce your stress level about getting mugged if you work in the wrong part of town.
Marry a psychologist!
I did in 2000. And, try to listen when he or she makes the inevitable suggestion and likely sensible about how you unnecessarily overstress yourself in your law practice. Sometimes, even your spouse is right.
About the Author
Joe Kashi is an attorney and litigator living in Soldotna, Alaska, who is active in the Law Practice Management Section and a technology editor for Law Practice Today. He has written regularly on legal technology for the Law Practice Management Section, Law Office Computing magazine and other publications since 1990. He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from MIT in 1973 and his J.D. from Georgetown University in 1976, and is admitted to practice in Alaska, Pennsylvania, the Ninth Circuit, and the U.S. Supreme Court.