The Stress Hug

When you’re selling the snake oil of mindfulness at $500 a pop, it behooves you to feed into the notion that sad lawyers are suffering, miserable, losing sleep and hair over the stress of practicing law. No doubt, some are. At the same time, pitching the notion that this is pervasive, that all lawyers live lives of desperation, that no lawyers can handle the stress, serves only to make the weenies feel validated in their misery.

Good news. Well, not so much for the weenies who should never have become lawyers in the first place because they can’t handle the stress, and who now seize upon the misguided lie that there is nothing wrong with putting their own interest before their clients, because you deserve it, or that incompetence and failure is totally understandable and forgivable because nobody’s perfect. There is no good news for you, and there never will be.

But for the rest of us, the experience of a Norway winter offers comfort without sacrificing our raison d’etre. The people of Tromsø see winter as a hug.

Recently a Stanford University researcher reported on her time in Tromsø, Norway, more than 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where she studied the effects of winter on mental health. Not only is Tromsø bitterly cold, it’s dark: For two months the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon.

Her findings surprised her: When asked about winter depression, many people there didn’t know what she was talking about. Most were looking forward to the season.

“Norwegians have a saying that ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,’ which typifies their ingrained belief that being active is part of a happy life – and, especially, a happy winter,” writes Kari Leibowitz, a PhD candidate in psychology.

If you happen to live in Norway, or Tromsø, Norway to be more precise, you’re going to experience a cold, dark winter. Your options are to whine about it and be miserable, or make the best of it and enjoy it.  Or you can move from Tromsø to Miami Beach, but then you won’t be Norwegian any more.

She wondered if the insights of Alia Crum, a Stanford psychology professor, might be evident in Tromsø. Dr. Crum’s research has shown that the “mind-set” or attitude people hold toward a stressful situation makes a huge difference in whether it causes mental or even physical problems, or actually enhances their mood and abilities.

Some people collapse under stress. Others thrive.  Most lawyers, however, fluctuate between the two, the negative impact of frustration from the stress of trying to serve their clients in an environment that sometimes seems designed to crush one’s soul, and then the realization that it’s the life they chose, the system within which they serve, and that their duty to their clients demands that they not waste their time wallowing in their own misery. Our clients have misery enough.

Even lawyers suffering from clinical depression can fight it, can resist the urge to succumb to the feelz and do what they have to do to get back in the game.  But that resilience can be undermined when voices are crying, whining, that it’s okay to be pathetic, that you’re entitled to forsake your responsibilities and wallow.

Everybody wallows. You should too, they say. And since wallowing is easier, and “easier” is the path you so desperately want to follow, you find your comfort by embracing those who forgive you for being miserable. Yay! It’s all about you! Let’s throw a pity party!!!

The lesson from Norway is that it’s a choice you make, to make the best of things, to find things to enjoy and appreciate about a situation that others might find unpleasant, even miserable, or not.

Law isn’t easy.  That law profs and deans have chosen to pretend otherwise to get kids to take out loans to pay tuition, and fail to explain this detail beforehand, doesn’t change the nature of the practice of law.  Nor does it beget a profession that allows its practitioners to forget why it exists so that they can harp on their own entitlements, their own happiness.  Lawyers exist to serve clients.  Lawyers do not exist to be happy lawyers. And clients most assuredly do not exist so that lawyers can be happy.

And practicing law is stressful. If you can’t turn this into something that invigorates you, challenges you, pushed you to your highs rather than lows, then you may not belong in this profession. But when the stress gets to you, think Tromsø. Unless you want to move to Miami Beach (there’s a job opening at the local Dairy Queen, I hear), remember that it’s your attitude toward the fight, the frustration, the persistent banging of your head against the brick wall of the law, that allows you to get up the next morning and start the fight all over again.

And, my dear academic buddies, instead of catering to the most fragile of your charges, rubbing their tummies and telling them they’re entitled to be sad and miserable, do your students a real favor.  Tell them that law is a stressful and frustrating profession, and if they can’t stand the pressure, if they can’t find the moxie to wake up the next morning and fight again, they should find something else to do. Embrace the stress, because that’s going to be with them for the rest of their career, and they will never be able to focus on clients if their only concern is themselves.

H/T Stephanie West Allen

11 thoughts on “The Stress Hug

  1. William Doriss

    Just reading this blawg posting is stressFULL for us non-lawyers. And if we happen to be clients, you can imagine how we share your professional stresses. (Not really!)

    1. SHG Post author

      When you say “we,” you might want to consider whether the stress of representing you is different than that of dealing with an otherwise stressful system. Maybe you are a peculiarly stressful client.

  2. CLS

    About two days into law school, my civil procedure professor stopped in the middle of discussing diversity jurisdiction and said the following:

    “No one else is going to tell you this, so I’m going to right now. If my colleagues and I do our jobs right, and you walk out of this institution with a diploma, the way you view the world will forever be changed. You will see every day situations in terms of liability and fault. Once you begin practicing law, you will see just how broken this system really is as opposed to the principles and ideas we will teach you here. No matter what you do, you will constantly be in stressful situations. You will get calls in the middle of the night from people demanding you come handle an issue because they need it. You will spend Valentine’s day at some point in a prison helping someone inside rather than spending it with your loved ones. You will do it because this profession demands you work consistently under stress, in stressful situations.”

    He then pointed to the door. “If this bothers you in any way, I invite you to leave now before you take on too much debt and suffer through a career you will hate.”

    Sixteen people in my 1L class quit the next day.

    With the rise of people like Ms. Testy as profs teaching students, it truly saddens me we don’t have people in academia giving people that “real” talk.

    That guy’s also not teaching at that school anymore.

  3. Pingback: Lawyers Represent Clients, Not Causes | Philly Law Blog

  4. losingtrader

    “Attitude is that difference between an ordeal or an adventure”

    Try that one on your spouse

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