Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Lawyers and Anxiety
“So tell her about yourself. What’s the big deal?”
“Well, everything there is to know about me is in my profile.”
“Come on, I’ve seen your profile. All it says is that you’re a lawyer and you like to watch sports.”
“Yeah, I know, what else is there to tell?”
“Well, what do you think about all day? What new things do you want to try? What do you think the meaning of life is?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it.”
“Haven’t you ever read a book that’s completely out of the realm of what you would normally read? Or listened to some world radio station at random just to see if you like it?”
“Why would I do that?”
I didn’t know how to respond. On the one hand, I understood where he was coming from because I used to be him. When I practiced law, I stopped reading books for pleasure altogether. And as for music, the only kind I liked to listen to was anything that could put me to sleep at night the fastest. (I had a hard time sleeping back then.)
And on the other hand, I knew he needed a kick in the ass. His lack of engagement with his own life is a classic sign of lawyer malaise/burnout. So I told him I was going to send him an assignment. I would send him a list of activities he could perform that might bring him enjoyment and teach him a little bit about himself.
As I wrote the list, I started thinking more about my previous life as an attorney. The tone in my friend’s voice revealed some universal truths about being a lawyer. Lawyers are anxious about virtually every transaction that occurs in their lives (hence, my friend’s panic about the woman who messaged him) and lawyers tend to not cultivate their own personalities and lives since they are often so busy sorting out messes others have made with theirs. This lack of engagement with one’s own life inevitably leads to more anxiety. I’ll give you some examples from my own experience.
When I practiced law, I remember procrastinating all the time. I would put off writing a brief until the last minute because most of the time, the assignment was just so achingly boring that I had a hard time accepting the fact that I actually had to complete it. A heavy cloud of deadlines constantly loomed over my head as a result, and a large knot took up residence in my stomach.
I also had a hard time making decisions. I would get a settlement offer from a prosecutor or from opposing counsel in a civil case, and my mind would run through every possible scenario for how things could turn out based on how I advised my client to proceed. It paralyzed me because I could not stop running through these scenarios, even after my client made a decision and the matter was settled. Settlement only provided more scenarios that involved claims of malpractice or regrets about not pushing the client’s luck at trial and possibly getting a better result.
Since I operated inside of an anxiety-ridden world at work, these same anxieties spilled over into my personal life, specifically finances. I would pay my bills on time, but I had no plan for saving, for paying off my husband’s and my enormous student loan debt, or for saving up an emergency fund that would cover a few months of expenses in the event of an emergency. If I got a bonus at work or we ended up with more money than expected at the end of the month, we used the windfall to pay off our credit card balance, or some other expense would pop up seemingly out of nowhere.
I got so used to consoling myself with new clothes, magazines, dinners out, even a new car. I rationalized this behavior with the belief that if I could not enjoy what I did for most of my days, I would at least look good and be well entertained after hours. I never wanted to budget because the thought of taking stock of my debt would only accentuate the fact that there was no way out of practicing law for the foreseeable future. Not with student loan payments, car payments, and credit card payments to think about.
And then an amazing thing happened after I quit law. Not right away, but soon afterward, I found myself feeling a bit more hopeful about my future. At the end of the workday, I had time to think about what I wanted out of life and to make a plan for how to get there. In my lawyering days, all I thought about after work was heading for the wine bottle when I walked in the door, or dreading the next morning when I would have to wake up and repeat the same miserable day over and over again.
I wonder to this day if there is a way I could have happily practiced law. I don’t think there is. I think if I had continued on the path I was going down, I would have become more and more disengaged with my own existence. Maybe to the point where I would panic when someone asked me about myself because, like my friend who was emailed by a potential date the other night, I had nothing to say.
These days, I still suffer from anxiety, but of a different variety. Now I have many goals I would like to achieve and not enough time to reach them all. Most of them have nothing to do with work. I am reading again and enjoying music. I don’t waste money anymore trying to console myself with material goods that are temporary and can never fill an emotional void. I am finally dealing with my law school debt, a debt that will soon be a distant memory. And I am confident that if someone asks me to talk about my life, I will actually have something to say.
Are you an anxiety-ridden attorney? Do you find yourself disengaged with your life or do you think it's possible to find a good work-life balance while practicing law?