Our Mistress, Stress.

stress 2

I am somewhat obsessed with the hidden cultural messages in the results of Google Images searches.  There are any number of wonderful/horrible images associated with the word “stress,” but this has to be the most fantastic by far.  Without bothering to find out why the image was actually there, I speculate: Is the cow stressed because he (no utter) is being required to perform outside of his natural environment?  Or is this a happy heifer who has shed society’s expectations to pursue his dream?  At any rate, it makes me laugh—a proven “stress-buster.”


1 : constraining force or influence: as a : a force exerted when one body or body part presses on, pulls on, pushes against, or tends to compress or twist another body or body part; especially : the intensity of this mutual force commonly expressed in pounds per square inch b : the deformation caused in a body by such a force c : a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation d : a state resulting from a stress; especially : one of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium <job-related stress>

If we actually look at the definition of stress, it does not present a pretty picture: words like “deformation” and “disease” indicate it is an undesirable state.

And yet it is conventional wisdom that law school is “stressful,” as is being a lawyer.  In working with students, “being stressed” is a common self-description and a broad, undifferentiated designation for any type of mental and/or physical anguish resulting from outside forces.

As a practicing attorney, it was the typical and acceptable—maybe even required!—answer to the mundane inquiry, “How are you doing?”  If you’re stressed, it means you’re working hard, and even sacrificing your well-being to do so.  It’s the verbal equivalent of face-time at the office, not leaving until the partner has left, sporting bags under your eyes and a pallid complexion as a sign of your devotion to the job.  Signs that in other arenas might evoke concern but that in our profession are taken to mean that this person is toeing the line and probably getting ahead.

The idea that we as law students and lawyers are “stressed” is so common, so everyday, that I think the term has little specific meaning anymore—we accept it as a constant presence in our lives, a necessary evil of our career path.  We don’t interrogate the specific sources of our stress, the different types of stress, and whether certain stresses are really necessary.

*          *          *

To me, this helps explain the title of Larry Krieger’s booklet, The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress.

My first reaction was, “Hidden?  What’s hidden about law school stress?  Aren’t the stressors numbingly obvious?”

But in fact they are not.  Because there are different types of stress from different sources that affect us in different ways and require us to respond with different strategies.  And certainly the starting point to handling stress and, dare I say it, reducing stress—if we can embrace that as a goal, which I imagine many attorneys, law professors, and even law students are hesitant to do—is to understand it, rather than submitting to it as a necessary attendant to our career choice.

On the above point, also alluded to earlier: it is no secret that many of us take pride is being stressed and feel that it is an important “value” of the profession that we need to transfer to the upcoming generation.  I would not be the first to observe that there is an aspect of hazing associated with law school and legal training as a new lawyer.  We had it rough, we believe that built rigor and character, and we insist that the next generation have the same experience.  There may be valid reasons for this—lawyers do have to be “tough,” thick-skinned, and, at times, more concerned with outcomes for their clients than their own well-being.  But is that a mode of operating or is that our identity?  Further, it’s not a stretch to claim that there is a certain sadistic pleasure involved in disabusing young lawyers of their self-preoccupation, confidence, and naivete and inducting them into the values of the profession.

I remember well being a Teaching Assistant as a 3L in law school, and being charged with instructing first-year students in legal writing, legal research, and Bluebooking skills.  Which I was really in no way qualified to do.  At any rate, I have to say that despite my natural inclination toward empathy, I made a number of the first-year students cry when I handed back their first citation exercise, drenched in red ink and peppered with invectives like “You HAVE to pay attention to whether the comma is italicized!!!”

I was a good transmitter of the values of the profession (or at least as they existed at YLS, for people destined to be federal appellate clerks, who were being taught by former federal appellate clerks, and who knew well enough that they had to emulate their mentors in all significant respects to achieve their goals).

But I was not a great person.

*          *          *

These types of acculturation interactions are so much of what we do at law school.  There is necessary information that is transmitted, but it often comes wrapped in a barbed wire package of humiliation and authoritarianism.

Accordingly, one critical step to challenging the tyranny of stress over our profession is for those of us who are more senior to consider our attachment to and pride in “being stressed.”

But our own limited understanding of our constant mistress also undermines our ability to handle or reduce stress.  We all know about stress, or so we think, but it is so undifferentiated and ever-present that we don’t really understand it in any way that might be helpful to us.

That’s where “The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress” comes into play.  If you are a law student (or a law professor or a practicing lawyer, for that matter), run, don’t walk, here, and obtain a copy of this booklet.  Better yet, if you are a law student, make sure the Academic Achievement Program at your school has copies and get one.

Part of what is so devastating—and ultimately counterproductive—about stress is that it limits one’s ability to think clearly.  What is so useful about “The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress” is that provides an analytical framework for thinking about stress, its sources, and its solutions.


7 responses to “Our Mistress, Stress.

  1. I think (without doing any formal research on the subject) that the billable hour quandry may correlate to stress, or the appearance of stress. I think that sometimes attorneys may “pad” their hours, to look productive to managing partners, and to stay off the chopping block. I think that we (as law students and attorneys) claim to want to do what’s best for the client, but natural instinct brings us back to me–me–me. As long as we have our jobs, we will work in our client’s interest, but that may mean that we create the appearance of stress and an almost unmanageable workload, so that we come across as an asset to our company/firm, rather than a liability. Just my random thoughts.

    • Thanks for your comment Chris. I agree that the billable hours structure is very much tied in to the question of stress. It’s as if we as attorneys have fitted ourselves with the yoke of our own oppressions—“oppression” being an overly strong word for it. We’ve created a system where there really is no way to get ahead except by surrendering more and more of your time to your work. And there is virtually no qualitative assessment associated with the billable hours standard. That being said, I wonder if plaintiffs’ attorneys who work on contingency experience stress differently? It would be interesting to find out.

  2. Having worked in both arenas I can say that attorneys who work under the billable hour and attorneys who work on contingency are equally stressed. The key difference is that those under the billable hour are stressed about being fired and those under the contingency setup are worried about feeding their children. Neither are inviting.

  3. I think it’s the adversarial nature of the career in part. It’s very difficult to have to “win win win” all the time. The same level of pressure to be the best at someone else’s expense is not present in other careers. As a doctor, you aren’t trying to save the patient at the expense of another. Law school starts you out on a hideous path of “win win win.” You compete for every single extracurricular activity or grade on your transcript. If you are accepted to an organization, you compete for a better position in the organization. It translates into constant feelings of inadequacy which then lead to stilted conversations with your peers because no one is ready to acknowledge their feelings of inadequacy in the race to a career. The pattern continues right into our careers and leads to very high levels of alcohol and drug abuse within the profession. I have no idea what the solution is, but I’m pretty sure that a little more honesty with ourselves and each other wouldn’t hurt.

    • Thanks very much for your thoughts. You make an important point: that a pervasive culture of competition erodes our relationships. It’s a very sad thing, when you think about it. I may have a magical belief in the power of dialogue, but I do think that openly discussing the elephant in the room (that is, the competition, the stress, the sense of inadequacy) may leader to healthier, happier individuals AND a better profession—that is, a profession that does a better job of serving its clients.

  4. I think a lot of it has to do with society as a whole. Everyone seems to be expecting more with less. Engineers were typically expected to work 40-45 hours per week but now the expectation is 45-50 with more companies shifting to over 60 hours if you don’t want to be in the next round of layoffs. This has even spread to hourly production workers. Where I currently work, they follow the “Lean” manufacturing philosophy. To me this means not having the people or resources to do the job right. There are not enough people to get the job done so everyone is expected to be working 50-60 hours per week and everyone is getting more stressed. A friend used to work at Hewlett Packard where he worked 60-70 hours per week and most weeks included at least one 14-18 hour day. He continued to increase his thyroid medication in order to function properly before he finally had enough and took a significantly lower paying job with much less stress. This allowed him to decrease his medication level to almost the point of eliminating it. He couldn’t be happier even though he makes considerably less money. Stress kills.

    Another added stress is the threat of layoffs, even if you do work the 60+ hours per week. This only seems to be recently happening in the legal profession but it has been a regular occurrence in other fields for many years. As an engineer, I have been laid off 4 times since 2002. I see layoffs occurring more often in the legal profession which will only add to the stress level of excessive hours. How long before these added stresses cause you to lose your drive to make you a less effective employee/student. By wanting more, most employers are actually getting less.

    • Thanks for your comment Kent. You make a number of very good points. The one I want to seize on is about our personal power to make choices—like your friend who took the lower paying job and found that he was much happier as a result. Some would argue that one of the most unfortunate and unnecessary aspects of traditional legal pedagogy is that it gives us a false sense that we do not have the power to make choices—but we do.

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