Lawyers Under Pressure
'My first encounter often finds a lost and frightened individual who is confused and often angered by having been singled out'
By Dr. Scott M. Weinstein
Clinical Director of Florida Lawyers Assistance
In the 12 plus years that I have been working with attorneys, and other members of the legal community, I have come to discover the dearth of coping skills available to them in dealing with the increasing pressures of practicing law. Filled with self-deprecating thoughts, they all-too-often find themselves retreating into the dark abyss of depression.
One familiar scenario goes like this: A young lawyer starting a solo practice gets in over his head on a complex case. Rather than seek the guidance of another more experienced lawyer, the young attorney presses on alone not wanting to be perceived as inexperienced or even “stupid.” Sadly, this desire to not be viewed as deficient results in missed deadlines, avoidance of calls from the client, and eventually a formal grievance filed with the Bar.
Or there is the seasoned attorney who suddenly sees a marked reduction in referrals and a diminishing bank account. Having become accustomed to a certain lifestyle and with the unvarying expectations from family and/or significant others who have become used to the “good life,” the veteran begins to question the career choice made many years ago. She begins to pin the blame on the demanding clients who appear ungrateful and unrealistic in their expectations. The once successful attorney starts to isolate from family and friends, avoids contact from clients, and spirals down into the chasm of despair. Not long after, an envelope from the Bar marked “Personal and Confidential,” arrives in the mailbox. Strapped with fear of certain disbarment, the envelope goes unopened, further compounding the pressure and stress.
By now some of you know the rest of the story. A Bar investigation produces a report outlining all the reasons the attorney should be brought forth on disciplinary charges. Panic and indignation take over as the attorney begins questioning his character and abilities. Often this is the very first encounter with adversity, as up to that point, the attorney has accomplished nearly every goal set forth in life.
I often ask lawyers this question: “Why did you choose the legal profession?” Most answer with a combination of “prestige,” “financial opportunities,” and desire for a position of control (i.e., clients come to lawyers for help). However, when the interrogation lights are suddenly pointed the other way, a different reaction takes place. The once invincible lawyer turns into a powerless, frightened victim. It is at this moment when I often come into contact with such an attorney.
In the scenario of the young attorney, there is much internal pressure exerted (internal dialogue) to be the best and most successful lawyer he can be. After all, there is often a six-figure debt following law school graduation weighing heavily on the new attorney’s shoulders. Additionally, there are the expectations of family and friends who now view their son/daughter/spouse/partner as a prodigy who is expected to do great things and make lots of money.
Unbeknownst to those outside of the legal community, a degree in law no longer guarantees a high-salaried position upon graduation. A major factor in Florida, for example, is the high number of licensed attorneys (more than 100,000 to date) competing for a finite number of clients. The struggle to grow a practice sometimes causes new lawyers to accept clients that should probably be turned away, cases that exceed their knowledge-base, or “causes” that 20 years ago might have been laughed out of the office. Often referred to as “door law,” (a term referring to taking everything and anyone that walks through the door), the neophyte lawyer can be drawn into a situation that proves to be overwhelming. As the pressure builds from getting further and further behind on the case, the attorney may start to duck phone calls from the client(s) fearing being discovered as incompetent to handle the matter. Not too much later, the disgruntled client, who is becoming increasingly anxious, files a formal complaint with the Bar.
The experienced attorney, on the other hand, struggles with the pressure in a very different way. After enjoying a fairly successful career, the veteran is caught off guard by the sudden drop-off in new clients. What used to be a dependable base of referrals may have dried up or succumbed to the changing economic climate. Having been used to life at the top of the proverbial food-chain, the old-timer competes with the growing number of hungry attorneys offering their services at a bargain basement rate. As the lawyer watches the income flow slow, anxiety rises.
This individual may begin to hide behind false pride by refraining from seeking the counsel of family or friends. Attempts are made to maintain the façade that all is well, but inside, the attorney is fraught with thoughts of doubt and depression, which may lead to other self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse or even suicide. These individuals sometimes lash out at clients whom they identify as the source of their struggles. This can come in the form of dragging their heels on a case, or by simply withholding information from their “undeserving” client(s). This too may eventually lead to a grievance being filed against the attorney.
In both scenarios, the lawyers are engaging in what is called avoidance behavior. In psychology, avoidance coping, or escape coping, is a maladaptive coping mechanism characterized by the effort to avoid dealing with a stressor. Coping refers to behaviors that attempt to protect oneself from psychological damage. 1Without necessarily being aware of it, both individuals may be trying to avoid thoughts and anxiety about letting other people down.
A useful tool to overcoming avoidant coping is to identify the function of the avoidance, i.e., which specific thoughts and emotions are you trying to avoid. To accomplish this one might:
• Recognize that it doesn’t work.
What have you been trying to avoid?
Feeling awkward? Feeling anxious? Thoughts of not being good enough?
Do you still have those feelings or thoughts?
• Recognize the costs of avoidance coping.
What has avoidance coping cost you?
How much time and mental energy has avoidance coping sucked up? How has it impacted your health? How has it affected relationships? How has it affected your sense of yourself as a competent person?
• Learn to tolerate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
You need to learn how to tolerate experiencing unpleasant thoughts and feelings until they naturally pass (thoughts and feelings are by their nature temporary). If you can do this, you won’t need to use avoidance coping.2 As the clinical director of Florida Lawyers Assistance, I am charged with helping these broken souls begin the process of putting the pieces of their shattered lives back together. My first encounter often finds a lost and frightened individual who is confused and often angered by having been singled out by the very institution to which they have earned membership and is now being seen as having it in for them. The avoidance coping actions engaged in by these individuals points to a disconnect between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors — a model utilized in cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy that was originally designed to treat depression, but is now used for a number of mental disorders.3 As part of the scope of services available to Florida’s legal community, FLA offers facilitated support groups, as well as a referral to qualified mental health providers, to help in dealing with the challenges of being an attorney. The foremost challenge is to get attorneys back in touch with their feelings.
Florida is one of many states that has a well-established lawyer’s assistance program. Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc., is a nonprofit corporation formed in 1986, in response to the Florida Supreme Court’s mandate to The Florida Bar that a program be created to identify and offer assistance to Bar members who suffer from substance abuse, mental health, or other disorders which negatively affect their lives and careers (Bar Rule 2-9.11). FLA is independent of The Florida Bar in order to maintain confidentiality, although it works with the Bar in disciplinary cases where substance abuse or mental health issues are involved. More information can be found at the FLA website: www.fla-lap.org.
1Moshe Zeidner, Norman S. Endler, ed. (1995). “Handbook of Coping: Theory, Research, Applications.” Wiley. p. 514.
2Boyes, Alice, Ph.D., “The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points,” Pedigree, 2015.
3Beck, J. S. (2011). "Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Basics and Beyond" (2nd Ed.) (pp. 19-20). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.; McKay, D; Sookman, D; Neziroglu, F; Wilhelm, S; Stein, DJ; Kyrios, M; Matthews, K; Veale, D (28 February 2015). “Efficacy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” Psychiatry Research 225 (3): 236–246.
Scott M. Weinstein, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and clinical director of Florida Lawyers Assistance. He is available at the FLA hotline or by email at [email protected].