Finding balance between work and life is a daunting task for the professional family. As an attorney, the need to meet with clients, draft memorandums, meet statutory deadlines, attend court hearings, and participate in networking events is a full time job. Add to that family obligations to raise children, run a business concurrently with pressing family duties, and find individual time to spend with loved ones, it’s a wonder that practitioners of law are prone to substance abuse and a number of other emotional problems that accompany the stress of the job.
The stress of being an attorney is well documented by both Bar Association and psychological studies. A Johns Hopkins University study found that attorney’s have the highest incidence of depression out of 100 professional fields studied (Eaton, 1990). Attorneys have also overtaken practitioners of dentistry as the profession with the highest incident rate of suicide (Greiner, 1996). Furthermore, an ABA study showed that an estimated 15 to 20 percent of US attorneys suffered from alcoholism and substance abuse problems (Jones, 2001). While depression, disenchantment, anxiety, substance abuse, and the psychological ramifications associated with prolonged exposure to stress are prevalent amongst lawyers, all hope is not lost when it comes to finding a way to balance the daily stresses of life with the beauty of the dreams we once had as first year law students.
This article is co-authored with my husband, Dr. Thomas C. Maples, Ph.D. As a licensed psychotherapist, entrepreneur, business consultant, personal coach, and spouse, he has helped me navigate the road of business as it interrelates to pressing family concerns that can cause undue distress. In this article we explore the psychology behind finding work and life balance as it relates to the practice of law.
The Issue of Issues
A joke published in a Psychology Today article presents the quandary that most attorneys face as they strive to find balance between work, personal time, family life, and psycho-spiritual health. Latham (2011) states that “as long as there are lawyers, there is always going to be a need for therapists… because the very thing that makes lawyers so depressed, is the very thing they are unwilling to give up,” (ie. the law). Although depressing, the answers to find balance between professional duties and a healthy lifestyle is not only attainable, but is found within the very strengths of personality that drives the professional working class to seek and attain advanced levels of success.
Rules of Personality
Every career begins with a dream. The ability to see towards some distant point in the future, plan, schedule, and implement the time, financial, and family resources needed to execute a professional career takes a certain psychological make-up: one built on a strong foundation of success.
The journey towards success often begins early in the life of a working professional. Early success in the classroom drives competition amongst peers, which in turn drives healthy ego development. Having tasted the fruits of success, the future professional then attunes their positive attitude towards increasingly complex goals. However, during early adult life, the budding personality of the successful professional shifts focus, and success becomes linked to learning the procedures needed to attain success in one’s career rather than the personal satisfaction that once drove the healthy ego development of the young adult. The culmination of this right of passage usually manifests in the ability a young adult has to attain advanced degrees and advanced levels of success.
In psychology, we identify the personality that continually strives for success the Type A Subset. This personality make-up is common amongst attorney’s, M.D’s, Ph.D.’s, CPA’s, and other professions where perfectionism is not a goal to be achieved, but a requirement of practice. There is no room for error on the surgery table, in the court room, the psychotherapeutic couch, or on one’s taxes. To error, which is only human, can have catastrophic consequences for both the victim of the mishap and the working professional, who must ultimately accept accountability for the mistake made. As the stakes increase, the ambitions of the high profile professional turns early success into rigidly applied rules that although applicable to professional practice, are not conducive to finding balance between work, love, life, family, and spiritual well being. In the rules of personality, the strengths that drove our initial success are then turned upon us, and become the very demons we must slay in order to find work and life balance.
An Attorney’s Perspective
As an attorney, I understand the hardships my colleagues undergo to practice law. We were not born attorneys, but we’re born with aspects of personality that drive us to replicate the positive feelings associated with success. However, those positive feelings can then turn negative by our professional demand to succeed in everything we set out to accomplish.
After beginning my law career, I began to feel the grind associated with the practice of law. Not only did I have a profession to learn, a business to run, client’s to market myself to, and a family to raise, I soon began to realize that the dreams that were the driving force behind my aspirations were becoming reality. For better or worse, I was now a professional, juggling career and family, striving to find balance between personal and professional life. While the stress of career ambitions and family obligations were still present, having a supportive family helped me achieve balance between my professional and personal life, and allowed me to further my personal and professional ambitions.
In The E Myth Attorney, Michael Gerber states that all businesses are a family business. Whether we are an employee of a firm,the owner of a business enterprise, a solo practitioner, or just starting out in the workforce, we can never truly separate the work we do from the relationships we share with loved ones. Financial problems at work affect finances at home; just as stressful days at work are often carried over to the home. We cannot,nor should we categorize our lives into such rigid structures that would impede our personal growth. We grow within our careers, just as we do within the life journey we share with loved ones. If Michael Gerber is right, and all businesses are a family business, than the practice of law should be a family affair that allows for the continued growth of all parties involved.
Advice from the Doctor Tom.
Set Attainable Goals – The successful professional often fears the woes of failure. The early taste of success combined with fear and anxieties caused by early failures oftentimes drives neurotic compulsions for control. The need to assume control of one’s personal life and career underlies the difficulties many professionals have to keep work and life in balance. However, the anxiety that accompanies perfectionism does not have to control ones life. Instead, if we look at our personal success story, we will find that it was built on a number of small successes that ultimately became engrained into our personality makeup.
The key is to let go; set realistic and attainable goals. The need for perfection is a fool hearted pursuit; perfection ultimately stagnates our need for continued personal growth. Life is a journey to enjoy, not a barrister to conquer. In the pursuit of attainable goals, nurture and enjoy the journey you undertake to achieve success. This will ultimately become the story of your life, and the story your family will know you by as you find work and life balance.
Prioritize – The first individuals to suffer when career and family life is not balanced are the very individuals we strive most to keep from the stress of the profession we practice. The professional class is consumed by time; but many of us fail to schedule family into the daily grind of the workday. Time Matters! And the best use of your time is set some aside for your personal and familial needs. It is about quality, not quantity of time spent. Your family, friends, and loved ones will thank you, as you notice your life and work habits begin to stabilize.
Manage Your Stress and Emotions – When time becomes an issue, take heed of your emotional state and stress level. If you are stressed out, listen to your body and thoughts. They are warning you of a need to prioritize your time and re-evaluate your life goals. Take control of your life by prioritizing time around what is most important. Your emotional state, mental health, and stress level are not solely personal problems. They affect all members of your family. Achieving work and life balance is a family affair, and when integrated, the payoff is exponential, each nurturing the other to help ease the personal burdens associated with professional life.
Finding balance in life and work is attainable. As professionals, we are used to success; and the need for success often drives secondary needs to establish degrees of control within our home and work life. However, success is not an enemy to conquer through battle. Oftentimes, the root of our stress is found in the idea that our work and home life is somehow separate. But as any spouse of a professional will understand, stress on the job equates to stress in the home. Do not kick the cat because you got into a fight with the boss. Instead, listen to your body, your mind, and your heart, as it moves you towards the heartfelt calling of your dreams.
Dreams manifest into reality by setting attainable goals and taking that first step into the uncertainty that accompanies a new journey. As children, we first learned to crawl before we learned to walk. We subsequently had to master walking before we learned to run. As adults, we often forget this fundamental lesson, running from one dream to the next without savoring the journey that brings continued success. Just as the tortoise overtook the hare, burning himself out too early in the race, we must also take heed of our emotional state, stress level, and psychological wellness to avoid burnout. Slow and steady wins the race every time, and allows for life’s most precious gift: time to enjoy the fruits of our labor with those whom we love. As The Buddha once said, “it is better to travel well, than to arrive.”References
Eaton, W.W. (1990). Occupations and the prevalence of major depressive disorder. Journal of occupational medicine, 32 (11), 1079-1087.
Greiner, M. (Sept., 1996) What about me? Texas Bar Journal.
Jones, D. (2001) Career killers. In B.P. Crowley, & M.L. Wi nick (Eds.). A guide to the basic law practice. Alliance Press. 180-197.
Latham, T. (May, 2011). The depressed lawyer: Why are so many lawyers unhappy. Psychology today. www.psychologytoday.com/blog/therapy-matters/201105/the-depressed-lawyer.