Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Lawyers and Anxiety

I was talking with a lawyer friend of mine the other night who wanted some dating advice from me.  A woman on a dating site had messaged him asking my friend to tell her more about himself.  He called me in a panic.

“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?


  1. It is nice to be able to spend time on enjoyable activities and hobbies, or with your friends and family. Plus, who the hell really wants to receive a work-related call at 4:00 am?

    1. Ah, yes, the 4a.m. work call. I recall receiving several of those in my litigation days. Have you read "Way Worse Than Being a Dentist?" It's really funny and pretty sad too. It's written by a former Big Law attorney who's now a therapist. He had a colleague who emailed people all night, and as I recall, that same colleague would be the first one in the office in the morning. It's no wonder so many lawyers become alcoholics.

  2. I believe a good work/life balance can be found practicing law. I know several people who have done it with great success. But, these people enjoy the practice of law, it is part of what makes them happy.

    I have switched professions myself from lawyer to therapist and I enjoy what I do now so making my life balanced is easy. It's all about how you feel about your job. I was never happy as a lawyer, but I know people who are and I respect that. Whatever it takes to find your passion, I say go for it!

    1. You know, I've thought about it and I actually do know one happy attorney. He does business transactions, but only part-time. He is also a practicing psychologist. He doesn't like lawyering as much, but he makes much better money at it, so that's why he stuck with it part-time.

      I do not know any happy litigators, though. I think the nature of the job just makes it difficult to be anything but cynical.

      Wow, that's quite a switch from being a lawyer to a therapist. Hats off to you, Lawfrog!

    2. I am a happy litigator at a large Midwestern law firm. Sure, there are times when my career, like any, is stressful, taxing, and involves long hours. But I like the challenge, the creative thinking and problem solving involved in my practice, and I like the substantive area in which I practice (energy and environmental litigation, primarily). I understand that my experience is not everyone's, but I guess I would caution against overgeneralizing or stereotyping all attorneys' or all litigators' experiences...

    3. Thanks for reading! I write about my experiences with law practice, and the attorneys I've encountered. I don't think that's stereotyping, since I'm not claiming that my experiences are true for every single lawyer out there. Most of the attorneys who find my blog do so by googling "hate being a lawyer," which makes me wonder how you happened to stumble across this post. Are you secretly unhappy or just trolling? ;)

  3. Thanks Recovering Lawyer! I am much happier in this field than in law. I personally know several people, litigators and others, who love what they do. People can find happiness in law. I couldn't, but I allow for the possibility that others can.

    I have a friend who is into commercial real estate litigation, another in criminal law (defense) and another in prosecution. All have successful careers, are married with children, and are loving their lives. More power to them, it's just not for me.

    I was so glad to find this blog though because law seems to be a profession that is uniquely looked upon as one in which you can never escape. Once you've gone through the horror of law school and the bar exam, it's as though people believe you must now stay in it forever because you've invested so much time in it. As though previous time invested is a good reason to continue to dump more time (and emotion) into it!

    In any case, it's good to know I'm not alone in my feeling of " suck, go die!" ;)

  4. At least you got married first. My career is such a mess I can't in good conscience drag anybody else into my life. If I was more of a dick I probably wouldn't care, and would probably like being a lawyer more too, but alas, I'm a genuinely good person and would rather go down by myself than burden another person.

    Thank you law school, the legal practice and ridiculous student loan debt with low employability for keeping me from having a normal life.

    1. Actually, my husband and I got married shortly after I graduated law school. But he knew about my student loan debt, and he had acquired some of his own, so we just made it work. I do feel guilty about bringing so much debt into the marriage, though, which is why I am so adamant about paying it off as quickly as possible. I cannot wait until it is gone!!

      Are you practicing law right now and hating it or have you found yourself in the same predicament as many recent grads (meaning, you have six-figure debt, and the only job you can find requires a name tag and a hair net)? I know several 2010-11 grads, and none of them have found gainful employment. I had coffee with someone the other day who told me about her plans to go to law school. I begged her not to go, but I told her if she does, at least do not take out student loans to pay for it. She didn't look me in the eye after that, so I could tell she was planning on going into debt for it.

      Do you want to email me and tell me more about your situation? Maybe I can give you some tips for getting out or finding a job? I can at least send you some good materials on how to pay off debt and get your finances in order, if you still have law school loans. Hang in there. :)

  5. A new world just pops up inside you and creates a new personality that will eventually overcames your old self. Quite scary.
    Macon Lawyers

  6. Being a lawyer demands you to be physically, mentally, and psychologically tough. With all the workload that you need to get done, it sometimes seems as if working 24 hours a day is never enough. But it is all about time management. Don't let your health deteriorate, and do not miss important events. After all, human interaction is still important for you to achieve a balance in your life.

    Jacquelyn Gwin

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  8. I just began my legal career in June of 2011 as a family law attorney and almost daily I want to crawl under my desk. I feel hunted, used and under-appreciated. Last week I woke up at 2 am thinking that there was a hearing the next morning and that I accidentally put it on the wrong calendar date, but it was just my paranoia. I have people emailing me about splitting mattress sets and pots and pans while others are starving and abused in third world countries. As soon as my student loans come out of deferment for whatever reason, my phone explodes. I come home hoping to escape into an episode of Jeopardy. I used to cook gourmet meals at least three nights a week and since I started, I can count on one hand the number of times I cooked for my family. My toddler crawls into my lap and all I feel is guilt for not being more engaged. I don't use drugs or drink in excess or have any other vices, but I certainly understand how attorneys develop bad habits. I really just want to disappear. My consistent thoughts are what I should have done instead of going to law school and assessing what talents I might have that would help me thrive in another career. I have invested so much on fitting in this lawyer box, but I don't know what else to do.

    1. I'm so sorry to hear you're struggling. :( I remember having similar anxiety dreams when I was practicing. It was always about having a trial that I had not prepared for. Just remember, you don't have to practice law, or you don't have to practice the type of law that you currently are. Try to keep dreaming, and brainstorm about what your dream job is. Spend time with your family without the TV on (TV just exacerbates anxiety, I think), and don't give up hope! It's just a job, you can always change it. Email me if you want to chat more in-depth.

  9. I can relate! Nearly 20 years in this awful profession and I am working very hard to get away from it before it kills me.

  10. If a lawyer is passing through a hard time, he needs a few tips to keep himself happy. Use your strengths and personality in your work, that will make you feel way better. Be optimistic, start by challenging your own thoughts. Optimists perceive every setback as temporary. Be socialistic and spend some time with your best friends. These all things in practice will help you pass through your bad times and emerge again to be known as one of the Best Lawyers of your state.