You Need a Shrink

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By Murray Gottheil | July 8, 2024

For years I delegated work to Mindy, who was very competent, productive, generous, and warm.

But when I walked into Mindy’s office to ask her to do something, I never knew whether she would be her usual lovable self or would bite my head off.

Although Mindy had a heart of gold, her stress came out as frustration or anger. Since her positive attributes outweighed the negatives a hundred times over, I learned to adapt. On a bad day, I walked away and came back later.

In law firms, many people are under stress. Everyone handles it differently. Some delegate their stress to their associates, clerks, and assistants with impossible demands, nasty comments, swear words, yelling and screaming. A few launch projectiles. Still others go quiet and sulk. Then there are those who come across as if they don’t have a care in the world, but their stomachs are churning and their minds are racing.

You would think that with stress so prevalent, law firms would do something about it. In fact, most do very little other than make it worse by glorifying a hard-working culture and providing financial incentives to work incessantly. (I would be remiss if I didn’t give credit to those who organize the occasional yoga session or speaker on mental health.)

The sad truth is that everyone has to learn how to deal with the stress in the profession – and they don’t teach that course in law school.

I started thinking about this because a law student reached out recently to ask my advice on dealing with stress. My reaction was that I was a strange person to ask since I never figured it out myself while practising and only achieved a measure of calm by retiring.

Here is what I can offer:

  1. Understand that you are entering a high-stress profession and it’s up to you to figure out what to do about it. There are a few firms that care about mental health, will support your efforts to hold onto yours, and prioritize that over profits. Very few. The odds are not with you;
  2. Start thinking about what you want out of life and the profession and how to achieve those things;
  3. Think about balancing your mental health against the need to work hard in the first few years to learn your craft;
  4. Embark on a program to learn what you do not know, be it developing your self-confidence, public speaking, meditation practice, relaxation techniques, how to set boundaries, and how to say “no” without looking uncooperative;
  5. Try not to work for people who have not figured out how to handle their own stress. If you do work for such people, understand that it is a “them” problem, not “you” problem; and
  6. Get professional assistance if you need it. And you do need it. We all do. In most cases, thinking that the stress levels in the profession are “normal” and that you are the crazy one is what is insane.

Murray is a happily retired lawyer who lives in the country, drives a pick-up truck, writes, teaches and mentors. You can reach him at [email protected] or see what he is up to at lawanddisorderinc.com.

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