Monday, January 21, 2013

Has the Practice of Law Aged You?

As I watched the presidential inauguration,  I couldn't help but notice that number 44 seems to have a few more wrinkles and grey hairs these days. Does it come at any surprise? Imagine if your job required you to deal with one of the largest economic disasters in American history, a couple of wars, the health care debate, oil disasters, hurricanes, hunting down terrorists and several mass shootings. To top it all off, you have kooks demanding to see your birth certificate every other day.  Some medical experts maintain that U.S. presidents age twice as fast while they hold office.  For normal folks, we often deal with stress by talking about worries with friends and family. Of course, the president isn't about to discuss national security concerns with his neighbor between lawn mowings.  While not quite at the level of the president,  it can be the same for many professionals with high stress occupations. In my opinion, the practice of law ranks high on that list.

Attorney Baron at his law graduation (left)
Attorney Baron after a few years of law practice (right)
It goes without saying that the practice of law can be very stressful.  If you are an attorney, you have basically chosen a profession that requires you to shoulder the burdens of other people. With attorney-client confidentiality we cannot very well share those burdensome secrets with those around us. 

I remember when I first started as a bright faced attorney.   Working at a general practice firm, I had the opportunity to work in a variety of  practice areas.  Unfortunately, the firm's practice areas seemed to be the most stress inducing ones. I recall one case where a man was arrested for a particular crime. It was his fourth consecutive arrest for a charge that carried a mandatory jail sentence.  His doting wife was suffering from a terminal disease and had months to live.  She begged me to save her husband from jail.  She wanted him to be with her as she dealt with impending death.  I had saved him from incarceration many times, but I was not a magician.  The evidence against him was far too strong and he had used up all of his second chances with diversionary programs.  The client had two options: accept the state's offer or go to trial.   If he went to trial, he would face the possibility of a decade in jail.Although it was not what the mother wanted to hear, I told her that I recommended the state's very fair offer.  I had managed to nolle several charges and he would face the bare bone minimum of jail time allowed by law.  The state gave me a final continuance date.  Accept the state's offer or go to trial.    The night before the final court date, I tossed and turned.  What if the wife died alone?  How would the client handle jail?  Was there something I missed?  Should I have pushed for a trial?

Similar cases would follow over the years.  In our divorce cases I wondered if I would be able to get custody of the children for my client.  In immigration matters, would I be able to save a family from deportation?  In real estate matters, did my title search find everything?  Would I miss a statute of limitations deadline in a civil case?  I even stressed over the occasional speeding ticket for a family member.  Would Uncle Ted's insurance go up if I didn't get rid of his ticket?   People used to joke that I looked too young to be a lawyer.  Now, grocery store checkout girls were calling me sir.   I found myself watching more Matlock and rushing to the local Country Buffet to catch the early bird special. My wife noticed I had a few gray hairs and wrinkles. Was law practice aging me?  

Of course, it was not just the casework that caused me stress.  As a partner in a small firm, I was responsible for bringing in clients.  I had to make sure the lights stayed on and the staff was paid.  I was responsible for making sure the Iolta account balanced out and that deadlines were met.  More attorneys were moving in on our "turf."  How was I going to compete with law firms that advertised on billboards and buses?  How was I going to compete with unethical firms that relied on runners and shady tactics?  When would I finally pay off my tuition? 

Over the years I've learned to handle the stress. I was lucky to have a law partner that shouldered the burden with me.  He was someone that offered me some sage advice.  If you find yourself stressed, here are some tips I learned along the way:

(1)  Don't take every case personally:  
Your job is to represent your client to the best of your abilities.  You weren't the one who caused that couple's divorce.  You didn't put the keys in the hands of that drunk driver.  It is good to have empathy for your clients, but don't let it consume you.  As they say in the mafia, it's business nothing personal.  

(2) Take time for things that matter:  
One of the things I regret is not spending more time with my grandmother who passed away from cancer. I had plenty of excuses.  I had a long day in court.  I needed to prepare a case. It wasn't just my grandmother.  Since law school, I skipped weddings, birthdays, soccer games, and other outings with family and friends.  I always put the office first.  I now make an effort to make family events whenever I can.  I've made an effort to reconnect with friends.  That doesn't mean poking them on Facebook.   Actually go outside and do something with them.  

(3) Take a Mini Vacation:  
For many of us, there are never enough hours in the day.  If we take vacations, some of us resign ourselves to one week in the summer.  Others don't take any vacations at all.  Last year, my wife and I decided to start taking weekend jaunts.  Living in the Northeast, this left us with plenty of opportunities.  No time for a Paris vacation, we decided to drive up to Quebec.  With cobblestone streets, horse drawn carriages and a bunch of people talking fancy French, it was a great escape.  No time to visit stately manors on the English countryside? Our next weekend trip was visiting the summer homes of the titans of industry in Newport Rhode Island.  Living in Connecticut, I was two hours away from Boston and New York where I could do some sight seeing and catch a Broadway show over the weekend.  I would be back in time to return to the drudgery of the office.  I found that these mini vacations were a great way to recharge for the office.  A few moments of relaxation can really clear your head.  Even if it's just a movie, take some time for yourself.  

(4) Exercise and Eat Right:  
The practice of law can often be sedentary.  You spend hours sitting behind a desk.  If you're anything like me, you tend to eat a lot of fast food.  On court days, I find myself eating hot dogs from mobile eateries parked outside of the court house.  Other days, it's the drive thru at the local McDonald's, Wendy's or Burger King.  I made the decision to do something about it.  I joined a gym and started brown bagging my lunch to the office.  I began opting for the stairs instead of the elevator.  In a short time, I found myself sleeping better and I now have more energy at work.  Unless I'm crazy, I also find myself thinking clearer.  My work product seems to have improved.  While I am not planning to run a marathon anytime soon, I no longer get winded chasing after ambulances.

(5) Screen Your Clients Better and Set Boundaries:  
When I first started law practice, I felt I needed to take on every client that walked through the door.  I also found myself doing favors for friends and family.  Sometimes, it's better to "just say no".  Time and time again I would be asked to just send a letter or make a phone call.  If it's not in your practice area, just politely decline.  That little favor can often turn out into a drawn out affair.   If I get a bad feeling about a client, I turn down the case.  Just look for the warning signs.  Was the client represented by a few attorneys before you?  Does the client want to sue someone for the "principle" of the matter?  Does the client have pages of laminated research and evidence?  Is the client already making unreasonable demands?  You may get a legal fee from the case, but it will be at the expense of your health and sanity.  Time wasted with a problem client or accommodation work can be better spent on something more worthwhile.  Like getting a root canal.  I've heard the argument.  Sometimes accommodation work can lead to bigger cases.  While this is sometimes true, usually it is not.  More than likely, the client will keep coming to you with trivial matters that some other attorney didn't want to bother with.  While you deal with the stress, the client will take their lucrative case to the attorney who doesn't deal with such small matters.

(6) Get Help:  
If the practice of law is really getting to you, seek professional help.  There is no reason to let stress overwhelm you.  Sometimes it's better just to talk about it.  People seek your professional services to deal with their problems.  There is no reason you cannot do the same.

(7) Buy a Jet Ski:  
As comedian Daniel Tosh noted, have you ever seen someone miserable on a jet ski?  I know I haven't.


Martin del Mazo said...

Respectfully, Obama's job has not forced him to "deal with" one of the largest economic disasters in American history, it has simply allowed him the opportunity to perpetuate its disastrous effects in an effort to "fundamentally transform" this country. He has aged us all.

Adam Garcia said...

Practicing law is absolutely a stressful experience. I agree with your recommendations. I try to take a 1 day vacation per week.

Thomas Edison said...

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