Stress in Practicing Law and How to Minimize it from the Perspective of a Family Law Practitioner
by Carolyn Zuethen
Although most lawyers will agree that the practice of law is demanding and intense, the legal community does not agree on how one finds satisfaction, fulfillment, creativity, and happiness in the practice of law. Perhaps the choices I have made to reduce the stress in my practice will serve to illustrate that a positive attitude is possible. As a lawyer practicing in family law for the past twenty years, I have certainly struggled with the intensity and demanding nature of the practice of family law. But I believe that I have come to enjoy it now more than ever. There are several reasons for this, but the most important are the choices I made that helped me to come to terms with the stressful environment in which I work.
Since law school the complicated issues of family law piqued my interest. When I started my practice, I felt that I should practice in several diverse areas such as real estate, criminal, and even personal injury. However, it was the family law cases that interested and motivated me. I received the greatest satisfaction when helping a client. It took me several years to discover this and realize that what really matters is doing what I enjoy and in an area in which I am truly interested. I learned that there were other areas of law in which I could earn more money or get more recognition, but which in my case, provided little satisfaction. I then made the important decision to limit my practice to family law with the attendant areas of guardianship, wills, trusts, and serving as a Guardian Ad Litem. By limiting my practice, I became knowledgeable in specific areas of law and soon discovered that focusing on one area, and knowing it well, allowed me to become more creative in my work. My mind was not continuously racing to become proficient in many topics, and as a result, the amount of stress I had to endure decreased.
However, the stress I experienced in the early years of practice did not entirely disappear. Even after several years of practice, I found myself frustrated, especially when cases did not settle, either because the parties wanted to seek revenge or because the opposing lawyer insisted on going to trial in lieu of at least an attempt at a peaceful and practical settlement. At this point, I had already learned that the “Rambo” style litigator who finds it necessary to go on the offensive is not effective in the emotionally charged family law arena and that this attitude eventually takes its toll on both parties, as well as their lawyers. This style does not work for the lawyer who believes, as I do, that effectiveness in my work with clients is directly correlated with my personal satisfaction and the meaning I derive from the ways I help them. When mediation became a requirement, the mediation process helped me to resolve more cases, bringing greater satisfaction to my clients and more peace to my law practice.
Because of the existence of the “Rambo” litigator and the clients who seek them, I made another choice in my law practice. I decided that it was most important to know what cases not to take. The client who came to me to wage war with a spouse or a former spouse got a quick referral to another lawyer. I found it was far less stressful to go to trial with a client who needed to assert rights as to particular issues of law or fact rather than in an attempt to trample on or destroy the other party.
I also found that the practice of law took an excessive amount of time. Consequently, I noticed that by the weekend I was too tired to be social, spend time with family, and sustain friendships. I only wanted peace, rest, and time to prepare for the week ahead. It was then that I decided to get serious about reducing the stress that was devouring me. I made several choices to change what was happening in both my personal life and my practice.
When I decided to take the time to improve my personal life, I recognized that my time could not be reduced to a monetary value. I realized that I could only develop my relationships with family and friends by taking the time. I looked at my marriage and family and realized what a great value they have always been to me. I made it a high priority to spend a lot of time with those closest to me. This resulted in taking time for short trips and longer vacations. By making this switch, I found that I was becoming more relaxed. I also allotted time to relax with friends and engage in activities such as hiking, skiing, and backpacking. Last, and most important, I took time out for myself. By learning and practicing meditation, not only did I find out how to relax but also how to focus better on the work I did. I used the additional time to become physically fit with a corresponding drop in minor ailments. Having the freedom to make choices as to my free time greatly reduced my stress and eventually I was able to get rid of the feeling that I should always be in the office working.
The choice to reduce stress in my law practice has also worked. When I understood that clients who are divorcing are suffering a loss of a relationship and need understanding and compassion I began to apply this understanding in my daily practice of law. And when I became more compassionate, it helped me become a better lawyer by having greater insight into my clients needs which in turn helped my clients considerably. This idea is affirmed in Professor Hall’s book, The Spiritual Revitalization of the Legal profession: A search for Sacred Rivers, when he discussed the attorney personality and the lawyer’s soul:
The lawyer’s keen analytical mind sits next to her passionate ear. They do not work against each other, but serve as a catalyst for each other’s growth for some of our most creative and thoughtful ideas and solutions come when our minds are still, and when our hearts have been stirred.
When we have been advised to be detached from the client and the problem, we could suffer the inability to do our jobs effectively and to live our lives to the fullest. We run the risk of becoming like hired guns or “Rambos” and address the technicalities of the law without ever considering how the client feels or even what he or she wants; or have any idea how to resolve their legal problems in a creative way. I have seen lawyers allow themselves to insult the other party without even considering the consequences to their client and a satisfactory resolution of the case. If we believe that these actions will not have an effect on our personality and personal life, we are very much mistaken. As Professor Hall stated, “creative and effective thinking does not come from detachment, but from immersion.” I believe that I have enjoyed my practice in large part because I have become more sensitive to my clients’ feelings while still being objective as to how to help them with their legal matters. I now listen to my clients and respond to their feelings while working toward a positive resolution of the case, always in relationship to the client’s future happiness.
Some other principles I have adopted to reduce stress involve fees and frequent communication with clients. Before I start working on a case for a client, I always ask for a retainer fee and a signed retainer agreement. I personally explain my charges and bill my clients every month so that they know exactly where their money is going. I encourage my clients to ask questions about fees at any time and make sure they know that I may require another retainer in particular circumstances. I do not hesitate to discuss fees no matter how sensitive the case is or how urgent the matter is for the client. This works because it lessens the chance of not being compensated for work performed, which is a definite source of great stress for lawyers. Likewise, the client endures less stress because of the continuing communication about fees and the billing process. Another way to keep the client from being stressed over fees is to attempt to minimize the legal costs by encouraging mediation or meetings with the opposing party and lawyer.
Another major stress reducer for both the lawyer and the client is taking the time to fully explain the legal process and particular proceedings with the client and then encourage them to call and ask questions if there is something they don’t understand. I never promise great outcomes of a case but, instead, attempt to give a realistic appraisal of the merits of their case. As to returning calls, I consider every call important, as does the client, and return them as rapidly as possible.
I believe the positive choices I have made to reduce the anxiety and stress in my law practice have worked. If I had been aware of these choices earlier, the practice of law may have been a lot easier for me. It is still a struggle sometimes to relax when I see what I perceive to be unfairness and that bothers me. But I now mostly enjoy practicing law and have overcome, in a very large part, the stress that once threatened my work and personal life.