November is National Career Development Month. Developing a career as a lawyer is one of the most difficult professional paths, with intellectual and emotional challenges evolving along the way. Make sure you’re aware of common risks in the legal profession and rules to avoid them.
Practicing law is the most isolating of all professions, which can make it difficult to recognize problems and find help to resolve them early on. In recent years following two 2016 studies on lawyer and law student well-being, the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (COLAP) worked with other stakeholders in the legal profession, forming a National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being and issuing The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change. Similar to our organization, Lawyer Assistance Programs in other states across the country provide Free & Confidential services to help lawyers, law students, and judges to overcome isolation and seek help when needed.
In his recent 2019 State of the Judiciary, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Gants announced the formation a new Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being and further work with our organization to improve awareness across the Commonwealth about the services we offer, encouraging those who need our help not to hesitate to use it. Established in 1978, LCL’s services were originally limited to assisting legal professionals having difficulty with their practice of law due to alcohol and other drug dependence, including prescription abuse/dependence. In 1992, recognizing the value of our services and opportunity to provide more proactive help, the SJC issued a rule providing funding (through a small portion of attorney bar dues) to support operating expenses and to expand our services, which grew to include establishing the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program in 2007.
Asking for help before a situation gets out of hand is key to minimizing damage and accelerating a successful resolution. Calls to our Free & Confidential helpline are numerous, frequently complex, and reflect the highly competitive and often overwhelming nature of today’s legal profession. Roughly half the lawyers seeking assistance are solo practitioners. From our experience, the following risks seem to be the most common, and ultimately, the most destructive if unaddressed.
1. ADDICTIVE BEHAVIORS: Addictive behaviors can be hard to identify by yourself and are often more noticeable to others. Behaviors such as drinking or use of other mood-changing substances usually develop incrementally and begin to create problems that may seem unrelated to the alcohol or drug use. Other common addictive behaviors are compulsive gambling, compulsive sex, and food compulsions (that may include excessive or restricted food intake, bingeing, purging, and use of laxatives). As psychological dependence develops and strengthens over time, unconscious defenses arise that can blind you to the source of mounting consequent problems – such as work errors, irresponsible management of client funds, neglect of work, and many other health and relational problems. Thus, problems that originally seemed to be diminished or avoided by the addictive behavior begin to multiply as new ones appear. Find more on becoming Sober Curious here, and a listing of our Free & Confidential Addiction Recovery Peer Support Meetings here. Unsuccessful attempts to cut back on behaviors that have become habitual or addictive, guilt feelings about them, or concerned feedback from others suggest that at least a clinical evaluation is warranted.
2. DEPRESSION: Not simply feeling blue, depression is a constellation of symptoms often including loss of interest, pleasure, motivation, hope, and energy, and can further manifest in irritability, problems with concentration or memory, and social withdrawal. Related behavior It is probably the 2nd most common cause of behavior leading to disciplinary complaints, in that it often leads to neglect of cases, errors because of impaired concentration, loss of sleep, apathy, etc. Depression often runs in families genetically, but is also commonly a response to circumstances such as a personal loss, or feeling trapped or helpless. If you’re unsure whether you’re suffering from depression or experiencing a low mood, a licensed clinician can help. The good news is that depression is highly treatable, with either psychotherapy/counseling or medications or both.
3. ATTENTION DEFICIT: Formerly thought to be only a childhood issue, we now recognize attention problems (sometimes but not always accompanied by hyperactivity) as a life-long concern for many people. Although people with “ADD” are often very creative and intuitive, they may find it very difficult to organize, prioritize, and stay focused. The result can be missed deadlines, incomplete projects, and sometimes complaints to the disciplinary committee for (unintentional) neglect of cases. Following accurate assessment, helpful remedies are available which may include medication, coaching on how to stay organized, and career choices that utilize strengths (such as an ability to think on your feet) and that de-emphasize weaker areas (such as organizing or prioritizing). Find more on the difference between attention deficit and being spread too thin — and our supports for those practicing law with ADHD — here.
4. WORKAHOLISM: Lawyering can be workaholic heaven. The new lawyer working to establish a thriving solo practice, or the new associate’s pressure to move up the ladder of a large firm can work mightily against prioritizing personal, family and spiritual needs. While some admittedly seem to adjust well to such a life, long-term consequences may result, such as relationship or marital problems, problem behavior in children, or stress-related illness. You may not see the “forest for the trees” until it’s too late. Find tips for lawyers and law students to avoid burnout by practicing self-care here.
5. AVOIDANCE: Procrastination and avoidance behavior may reflect any number of underlying issues. It may, for example, indicate an anxiety or phobic problem. Or it may be a covert expression of anger. It may suggest a sense of meaninglessness or poor fit with the work at hand. It could also pertain to a fear of failure, or even a fear of success. The motivations, often not conscious, are myriad. Consistent with the nature of the problem, lawyers often avoid addressing this behavior until the inevitable crisis erupts, quite possibly with career-damaging effects. You can find 5 Steps to Bust through Procrastination and Overwhelm [Webinar] here. Also, find Tips for Lawyers + Law Students to Reduce Anxiety here. Finally, practicing mindfulness can help you build a better ability sort through stressors and focus more consistently — find essentials on mindfulness for lawyers and law students here.
THREE RULES TO PREVENT PROBLEMS — Or, At Least Catch Them Early.
FIRST: Stay awake to your own behavior.
You might find yourself irritable, stress eating, scrolling too much on social media, overspending, or otherwise seeking to numb a problem of any size. When anything in your life is out of balance, talking to close friends, family members, spiritual community members, and a licensed therapist can provide help and insight. Lawyers, law students, and judges in Massachusetts can find more here on scheduling a Free & Confidential appointment with one of our licensed clinicians. You can also check out our Career Development for Lawyers Workbook Series to find more insight on finding a healthy career fit.
SECOND: Listen to feedback about yourself.
When others, especially those closest to you – spouse, partner, sibling or friend, tell you things and you find yourself reacting defensively, e.g., refusing to listen, arguing/blaming, rationalizing or avoiding them, they may be seeing something important. When we react defensively, it’s always worth leaning into the feedback to explore more deeply why it’s triggering such strong emotion. Take a deep breath, and listen until you clearly understand what they are saying. Take time to think about it and follow up at an agreed-upon time. If you find yourself unable to do this, it is time to seek professional help — find more on scheduling here. You can also find a full list of our Free & Confidential groups here, including Solo | Stress Connection, SuperMom, Immigration Lawyers, and plenty more.
THIRD: Do not be afraid to ask for help.
Attorneys who are typically more comfortable having the answers and giving the help, tell themselves that they should be able to handle their own problems. However, lawyers are no less subject to the human condition than anyone else. It takes courage and humility to acknowledge a need for help, and can prevent a lot of damage in the long run. Massachusetts lawyers, law students, and judges and law students can find more here on scheduling a free and confidential consultation with a licensed clinician, law practice advisor, or both. And it’s never too late to ask for help — our Professional Conduct Group is designed to support lawyers facing bar discipline.
Solutions to your own personal and professional problems can be elusive regardless of what type or how excellent a lawyer you are.
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This post was adapted from an earlier article and book excerpt titled “5 Ways to Sabotage Your Career — and How to Avoid Them,” which now redirects to this post.