Law is a high-intensity, high-demand profession. If you’re a lawyer or legal professional, chances are high that you’re pretty stressed, often overwhelmed, and could use some tools and strategies to help you work better and feel better. We reached out to Judith Gordon, an attorney and performance trainer to lawyers, to learn more about the mindset lawyers should strive for in order to be more successful and stress free.
What is the mental and emotional toll attorneys are experiencing?
More and more, attorneys are experiencing symptoms of burnout, which include
- Feeling energy depleted or exhausted due to work demands
- Increased mental distance from one’s work and
- Reduced professional productivity
The good news is that we can prevent and reverse burnout with proper attention to our mindset and our energy. This burnout prevention formula, developed by renown psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is aligned with our physiology: Focus. Rest. Recover.
Focus, followed by a rest and recovery phase, fosters problem solving and breakthrough ideas, boosts productivity, and prevents burnout and cognitive fatigue. Repeating this cycle throughout the day not only improves performance but leaves us with more energy at the end of the day, rather than drained.
Our brains aren’t designed to work for hours nonstop, which is how most lawyers operate. Mental work—drafting documents, problem solving, advising clients, thinking—takes energy and effort, and drains the brain of the resources used for those efforts. When thinking slows or brain fog rolls in, the brain is signaling that it needs rebooting.
One of the best actions we can take is to take a break away from our devices. Devices keep the brain engaged, even when we’re just scrolling through photos on Instagram, which deprives us of a reboot.
Ideally, the break is a “nonthinking” one—a walk to the water cooler or outdoors (double benefit if there’s nature nearby), gazing out a window, taking some deep breaths, doing a few jumping jacks, or meditating for a few minutes. These actions oxygenate our blood and send much needed nutrients to our brains that restore its energy, improve focus and problem solving, and keep our emotions stable when stressors arise.
What is a “winning” legal mindset and how can one shift their mindset and embrace change?
“Thinking like a lawyer” is a cognitive skill that relies on purely analytical thinking. It’s a rigid construct designed for a singular important purpose—legal analysis—and intentionally excludes emotional, psychological or moral considerations.
The downside is that too many lawyers don’t turn off this type of thinking in other areas of practice. Analytical thinking has its limits, for good reason. Applying this thinking to our interactions with peers, clients or personal relationships has psychological consequences, and can be damaging to our businesses and our work efforts.
A useful practice mindset is one that is flexible, empathic, and favors realistic optimism. Flexibility, empathy and realistic optimism foster mental and emotional agility, as well as connection with clients, colleagues and peers. Lawyers who develop a flexible mindset are better equipped to connect with others, a fundamental human asset. They are also better able to embrace change and challenge, as well as stay mentally engaged under stress.
What is the first step someone can take? Where to begin?
Five fundamental steps for sustaining energy on a daily basis are:
- Take scheduled, device-free breaks. This brief time-out will make up for itself in improved productivity over the next hours.
- Drink plenty of water. Lawyers think for a living. Thoughts are electrochemical synapses. Water literally conducts the electrical energy that our brains use to think. Even minimal dehydration can cause a big drop in cognitive function, so staying hydrated keeps us mentally active and alert.
- Work standing up or move often to keep oxygen flowing and your mind clear. This also stabilizes emotions under stress. Sitting is actually fatiguing. It slows thinking, increases stress, and has negative metabolic impacts.
- Monotask. Focus on one thing at a time and limit interruptions. Do focused work in short blocks of time (a timer helps!) and control when to answer email and respond to calls. Multitasking leads to cognitive fatigue, lower productivity and poorer performance.
- Avoid processed sugar, which lowers cognition and increases stress. The “boost” we feel from sugar is a spike in cortisol (stress hormone), not productive energy.
To develop a more flexible mindset:
- Increase self-awareness using emotional intelligence tools or mindfulness practice. Both reduce stress and enhance mental fitness and emotional agility.
- Examine your attitudes and core beliefs. We have habitual narratives that are running continually in the background and without attention. They influence our decisions and actions, and can even run counter to our best interests.
- Take the quick mindset assessment on the Center for Thriving in Law website (it’s free!)
How does building a healthy relationship with ourselves, our work and our lives make us more money or more successful?
Decades of research show that being engaged in work that aligns with our values, or that is meaningful to us at some level, is directly correlated with wellbeing and financial success.
When we’re engaged in work that matters to us, we have more energy and greater motivation to persevere through the challenges and difficulties that inevitably arise in practice. The key is to tap into the intrinsic motivation—our internal driver—for the work that we do.
Not all legal work is fulfilling; some of it is downright drudgery. Yet finding meaning or value in practice has been shown to correlate with both greater well-being and financial success. Doing a values identification exercise can be very useful for identifying whether you’re headed in the right direction or a shift in practice focus would be beneficial.
The emphasis in law school on analytical thinking, competition, and financial success for its own sake, ignores the undeniable importance of considering values in making career choices. This has led to a high rate of attrition from the profession. Integrating one’s values into practice increases personal wellbeing and success in practice. Get ahead of curve by designing a practice that reflects your vision of success.
Judith Gordon is the founder of the Center for Thriving in Law which brings lawyers, law students and legal professionals tools and strategies for successfully navigating the intense demands of the legal profession, so that they thrive in practice and beyond. Judith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.