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LPAC: The Legal Profession Assistance Conference
LPAC: The Legal Profession Assistance Conference
LPAC: The Legal Profession Assistance Conference
LPAC: The Legal Profession Assistance Conference
LPAC: The Legal Profession Assistance Conference
Stress Coach

Legal Profession Assistance Conference
of the Canadian Bar Association

National Administrative Office
500-865 Carling Avenue
Ottawa, ON K1S 5S8

Office: 613-237-2925, x109
Fax: 613-237-0185
Email: rachellew@cba.org

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Do I Think and Act Like a Lawyer or a Normal Person? Can They be One and the Same?

By John Starzynski

Thinking and Acting Like a Lawyer

When we go to law school as highly-intelligent human beings we are turned out as lawyers. The professional training changes us into skilled legal analysts and practitioners. We learn ways of thinking and acting unique to the profession. There are some personality traits that help in this formation and performance. These factors can also be contributors to the stress we feel personally and professionally. See if you recognize yourself and your behaviours.

Perfectionism – We spend great amounts of time in paperwork – reviewing agreements, dictating affidavits, preparing facta, making file notes and docketing time. It seems impossible to delegate these tasks but we can get to the stage of believing that nothing, even more general tasks, can be assigned to others and that we have to do it all ourselves. We feel that only we can make sure that everything is done just right. It is an understatement to say that the stress of perfectionism adds to our daily pressures.

Conscientiousness – Many of us have things that must be done according to our personal logic to make our lives work. Things such as returning all telephone calls and emails from that day before going home or cleaning all files off your desk every night or following up on three outstanding accounts every day. We may do this even if it means missing dinner with our family or skipping family events. When this happens, we can feel guilty and overwhelmed. And stressed.

Needing control – We often believe that we can control when other people do things, what they do and how they do it. The reality is that others work on their own schedule, at their own pace and with their own personal priorities. Not recognizing this can add stress to an already busy practice.

Delaying gratification – In law school, we learned quickly that there were not enough hours in the day to read all that was assigned, attend classes, study, write essays, eat, sleep and have leisure time. So, we cut out some of the “unnecessary” stuff like leisure time, eating and sleeping. We learned to “manage” but most of us had and have sleep deprivation and lived (and may still live) on a diet of fast food, chocolate bars, soft drinks and coffee. Leisure time may be that smoke break whenever the stress gets to be too much. The deprivation sometimes goes deeper in that we defer relationships to when we “get around to it”. Even if we enter into a relationship, we may take our partner for granted believing that he or she will understand the late nights, weekend marathon sessions and missed social events. We may not spend any money for fear of not having any after our poor days in law school or the infancy of practice. This can lead to resentment of other around you and stress. In some cases, it can lead to rebound behavior in overspending, social relationships without boundaries or neglect of daily obligations. The result either way – stress.

Need for approval – Whether we want to admit it or not, all of us need approval. In our case, we need our clients to appreciate the hard work that went into their file and our partners to know that we are pulling our weight. However, we are not always comfortable with praise and approval and we may dismiss or negate it when it is given. If a client complains or does not pay our account, we can get defensive, angry and even aggressive. If a partner asks for an explanation of something, we come armed with information and statistics to justify ourselves. Innocent questions or differences of opinion can become major league stressors.

Self doubt – Some lawyers feel like imposters. We may feel that we have fooled others into believing that we know what we are doing. We worry about getting found out about how little we really know. So we try harder, achieve more and do more in the belief that not matter what we accomplish, it will not be enough. Imagine the pressure we can put on ourselves!

Thinking and Acting Like a Normal Person

The personality and behavioural characteristics set out above may have helped to get us to the role of lawyer that we enjoy today. It may seem like they are depicted as totally negative traits but knowing how to temper the extremes will lead to less stress and more balance in our lives personally and professionally. Here is the ying to the yang.

The Courage to be Imperfect – Being perfect all the time is such a tall order that no one can fulfill that lofty goal. Acknowledging that you can only do your best, albeit with a high standard of best, allows for those times when all things do not go perfectly (sorry for the pun) for you. Learn to laugh at life’s incongruities. Learn to laugh at yourself! Things, some good, some bad, just happen sometimes.

Learning to Have Boundaries - It may be more reasonable to make as many quality phone calls as you can before your normal day-ending time of 6:00 p.m. or 7:00 p.m. (many of you are probably laughing at the thought of leaving work so early!) Or tidying up your files on your desk rather than putting them all away so you will know where they are in the morning. Or following up on one account rather than three if your day has been too full. It does not all have to be done today. Prioritize those things that, in life and death, must be done first. The rest is optional and a bonus.

Knowing Your Limits of Control – One approach to control is to ask whoever you are delegating something to how they will do an assigned task, negotiate when it is to be done and set up a system for a progress report. This might alleviate the stress of worrying that your work will not get done properly without you overcontrolling or micro-managing the situation. Making it manageable, though, means giving up some of the belief that you can control all of it all the time.  Knowing how and when to delegate is a skill we need to learn for our own stress levels.

Feeling Fulfilled – When we delay gratification, we set up resentments for the things we have lost. Setting reasonable boundaries to include work, family, nutrition, exercise and leisure pursuits make all these activities enjoyable and complete in themselves. The trick is to set priorities for what matters most that do not make one activity override the others. This requires tinkering, patience and constant reevaluation.

Self Approval – Whenever we rely on others for our self esteem, we will have many disappointments in life. Recognizing our own strengths and weaknesses will give us a realistic sense of who we are, what we believe and what we stand for that makes other people’s opinions just that – opinions and not judgments!

Self Trust – It took a lot of study, self sacrifice and intelligence to become a lawyer. There is no book “Lawyering for Dummies” because no one can be taught what we know and how to do it in a little bit of time in a few pages. Turning self doubt into self trust is a matter of perspective realizing that we are our own toughest judges and that, in the grand scheme of things, we are capable and competent professionals and persons.

What Does It All Mean?

There are always two sides to an issue - on the one hand; on the other. As lawyers, we do this analysis every day in situations that cross our desks and in our personal lives. For every trait listed above that helped make you a lawyer, they are good things. Without that perfectionism, control and conscientiousness, you would not have been successful. However, too much of those attributes can turn them into liabilities.  Balance is the key to being healthy and happy. It is possible to be a lawyer and a “normal person” with awareness, self love and boundaries. Ask someone you trust to help you with your personal inventory and journey.

Thanks to Dr. Mamta Gautam, President of the Ontario Psychiatric Association, for her inspiration for this article.