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Stress survival guide for harried legal professionals

Stress free is the way to go.
Stress free is the way to go.

     I don’t know anyone in the legal field who considers themselves an underachiever. Your employer may have a different perspective of you, but frankly, just surviving in this highly intelligent, crisis managed, fast-paced, exceedingly demanding, ever-changing arena can result in a predictable result: Chronic stress!

     Overachieving paralegals can be victims of stress-related factors such as

1) Competition: Today, we compete for everything: office space; to be first to own a new computer; to get the best assignments; to get our viewpoints across to belligerent attorneys or supervisors; to get the best raise or highest bonus. Our days are filled with stressful competitions. And most are absolutely unnecessary. Because they're driven by insecurity, fear of being left behind, an ingrained need to always have more or better than the next guy.

2) Meaningless deadlines: Our life is full of them. Arbitrary and unrealistic time constraints imposed by ourselves and others that serve only to make us more pressured, anxious, stressed out for no worthwhile reason. There’s a trap of assigning time frames to everything you do, especially if you have little idea how long it will take. Deadlines can overtake our entire career instead of saving your nerves, and your energy, for the few real deadlines we trial, closings, filings and yes, timesheets.

3) Unreal clutter: You've got too much stuff in your office, home office, garage, and attic. You have every letter you’ve ever written in your entire career on your computer. Useless clutter that's weighing you down, getting in the way, and obscuring the things you really need with no realistic expectations of getting rid of anything.

4) Unfulfilling job: Is your job fulfilling? What a concept! Or is it merely crammed? Being so chronically overscheduled, you never give yourself a chance to enjoy anything to the fullest.

5) Multi-tasking: It’s the skill of the day. Employers list it as a desired skill in job descriptions. Candidates list it as a selling point on resume. Multitasking might work for computers, but humans have yet to get the hang of it. It leads to careless mistakes, shoddy work and unreliable performance. Worst of all, having to do things over. This is no way to live. It’s well, stressful.

Mark Gorkin, a Washington, D.C. therapist, speaker and trainer is AOL’s “The Stress Doc” and a good friend. Many the nights I’ve called him to validate my career passions - my emotions psyched up, attention focused and enthusiasm fired up only to have him remind me to pace myself and to practice “Safe Stress”. “Harness a lightning-paced business environment,” he says. Dang, and just when I thought those cold sweats at night were pre-menopausal not suppressed anxiety.

     In today’s unstable and constantly changing, merging and purging world of “do more with less” work environment, paralegals bridge the gap between attorneys, clients and supervisors. In fact, it’s at the intersection of challenge and performance pressure that legal professionals can find themselves confronted with lack of sufficient control to deal with high pitched and fast paced demands. Gorkin has his own set of paralegal-related stressors:

1. Availability and accountability: The stress factor is double-pronged. While paralegals may exist in a different department, it is hardly an island in law firm waters. All attorneys believe that paralegals should be at their beck and call. If the paralegal totally buys into the rescuer role, taking every problem home at night – beware: burnout is less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away.

2. Objectivity: The paralegal must be both detached from the rest of the firm and an avid team player. They must also be an objective and concerned advocate for the attorney, client and various law firm departments and vendors they must bring together. Paralegals must be a robust problem-solving force in the organization or otherwise they flounder about.

3. Multiple Roles: It’s not surprising that the paralegal often plays many roles from mini-associate, trainer, conduit, grunt, peacemaker, authority figure, organizer and concerned advocate. And, if that’s not enough, he or she must be the back up when there are breakdowns or problems with a) cases or matters b) witnesses c) filings d) communications e) critical deadlines f) assignments and more.

4. Crisis Management: A potential danger is the belief that you are the center of the law firm solar system. All organizational matters of the case or matter depends on your energy source. Paralegals must realize when certain crises are outside his or her sphere of productive “hands on” influence and resist the “solo savior syndrome” role.

5. Confidentiality: An ongoing challenge for all legal professionals interfacing with numerous cases, clients and matters is sharing critical information and upholding the clients’ confidentiality rights. Another stressor comes to mind: a paralegal who is unsure how to respond to an attorney whom she believes has behaved unprofessionally (if not illegally). Such a breach is like a virus that can contaminate everyone’s operating system and sense of security.

6. Constantly changing technology: Like the rest of the corporate world, paralegals must keep up with new software and data processing systems. New software to ease the pain of litigation, case management and deadlines appears almost weekly. Getting up and running technologically takes longer than anticipated. Glitch happens!

7. Training demands: Effective in 2001, California passed AB 1761 which became Business & Professions Code 6450. This code provided for paralegals to complete certain mandatory continuing legal education requirements within specified time frames. California is only one of several states passing new education codes. Paralegals must have enough time to seek out education that not only is required but will enable them to stay updated on laws, technology, policies and procedures.

Consider these questions to assess your “stressability”:

1) Are you heroically still trying to be all things to all people?

2) Are you servicing a greater number of assignments than ever before?

3) Is there more pressure now than ever before to hit a minimum billable requirement?

4) Are you a slave to deadlines or frustrated from an apparent lack of time?

5) Do you accept too many responsibilities?

6) Are you scheduling more than you can do realistically?

7) Are you reluctant to admit you need or ask for help?

8) Are you afraid to take a vacation?

9) Are you afraid to make a mistake?

10) Are you cynical, callous, feel helpless or in constant crisis?

     If you answered “yes” to any of these, beware! Stress can lead to burnout, unhealthy boundaries or ill-health. This downward spiral can lead to feelings of being trapped or feeling paralyzed. Remember: Hitting bottom means there’s no more downward spiral. The task now is to learn how to handle these negative symptoms.

Here are five survival strategies I have put together based on Gorkin’s philosophy:

1) Balance interdependence and autonomy: Paralegals must strive to project an image of operational objectivity and team player while performing highly sophisticated assignments. At the same time, the paralegal must develop a capacity for “detached involvement,” that is, being sensitive to legal issues and concerns while resisting the rescuer role. If you’re always taking work home literally or emotionally, your personal boundaries are starting to erode.

2) Reach out to specialists and consultants: Whether you take things too personally, feel overwhelmed on a significant assignment or are working incredible overtime, don’t be that lone Rambo or Rambette. Reach out for expert support, particularly if you are working with the Green-eyed Monster in the corner office. Collaborate with an Employee Assistance Program counselor; go to your HR department or a supervisor with the power to help you. For widespread department tension, consider using a corporate change/critical intervention consultant.

3) Balance assignments and human relating: Beware the solitary document reviewer, sequestered in your cubicle! Don’t lose the human touch. Periodically, walk around the firm. Swap stories with folks at lunch or breaks. Rotate different hats. The Stress Doc advocates “fireproofing your life with variety!”

4) Encourage independence by setting boundaries: Here are three boundary-setting strategies that enable you to successfully juggle various roles and responsibilities:

a) Delegation: Delegate when you can and when it is appropriate. This critical stress management tool gives others a chance to demonstrate their skills and expertise while you monitor their performance.

b) Education: Help others not to be so dependent upon your indispensable knowledge. Train others on assignment-related procedures and move yourself up that invisible career ladder.

c) Separation: Generate the space-time dynamics for optimal performance as a paralegal. Balance accessibility and boundaries with “closed door” time. Master the stress management mantra: “Give of yourself and give to yourself!”

5) Maximize team meetings: Productive team meetings are essential for sharing an emotionally demanding workload. Meetings need to be more than time and task driven. Build in a fifteen-minute “wavelength” segment for group brainstorming and venting around emotionally tough issues dealing with deadlines, strategy, turf battles with other departments, cultural diversity tensions, etc. If you are not in charge of these meetings and are subject to supervisors calling the shots, see if you can get a five minute reporting time to let others on your team know what’s going on. Don't use this as a gripe session; use it to come up with new ideas and get valuable input from other team members.

     In these tough corporate times, being a survivor is not enough. You can get mighty old in quite a hurry if you’re giving to your law firm and not to yourself. Remember, we’re not human doings, rather, we are human beings – the secret to a less stressful and more fun filled life.