The pressure to succeed in a high-functioning profession like law can throw your personal wellness into a sort of dark tunnel. Luckily, you can find your way out with the right kind of light.
Sometimes I think what lawyers should be told when they pass the bar is “welcome to the dark side, we’ve been expecting you”.
I’ve seen, lived and been crushed by the dark side of law; a profession that’s still the apple of my eye. And I’m not the only one. Lawyers’ health, on average, is so poor that lawyers rank fourth in suicide rates by profession.
I’m not trying to scare you, but we can’t ignore the truth. I certainly couldn’t when I burned out and saw many of my colleagues burn out too. The only way we can work to make it better is by confronting the dark side. I knew there had to be a way to bring light to the dark side of law and make it better.
Having to confront the dark side of law is what drove me to become the coach I am today.
Why such a ‘dark’ side? Intense career-induced stress. So, when my own practice pushed me hard against the wall, I did something radical so I wouldn’t break; I decided to step away from my legal practice and step into a wellness quest to become the Coach I wish I had back when I was a lawyer.
Exceptionally bold- and risky- to leave such a prestigious career! I know! But I stepped away so I could find answers for myself and for you. I knew there had to be a way to bring light to the dark side of law and make it better. I went on a journey that encouraged me to become a wellness coach. Now, I help design and implement bespoke programmes that help lawyers who face the same health impacting struggles I, my former colleagues (and now clients) and every other lawyer I know had.
What’s So Special About Lawyers? Every Profession Has Health Challenges
Our world isn’t perfect, so no job is. The health issues that lawyers face are neither new nor unique to them, but what is unique is the frequency and susceptibility. And considering that self-sufficiency is a professional obsession, lawyers are less inclined than others to seek help, especially when it comes to mental health.
The most common profession-induced health issues lawyers struggle with include:
Excessively sedentary lifestyle
Movement is incredibly important to both physical and mental health and is one of the most powerful tools we have to slow down the negative effects of ageing. Sadly lawyer’s work is often bound to the desktop and tend to reinforce a sedentary lifestyle; both in the short and long run this can be very dangerous as it sets off a cascade of negative biological effects. Long stressful hours in front of a computer screen erodes away at one’s mental sharpness. Where long work days become long work weeks, and long work weeks blend into months, brain performance can deteriorate.
Some of the major issues with extended screen time and sedentary sessions are:
- Poor posture and sedentary behaviour, chronic back, neck and shoulder pain;
- Poor nutritional choices and lack of proper break or proper food;
- Chronic stress and anxiety;
- Metabolic diseases (diabetes, excess weight, high blood pressure).
Law is a high-pressure field and combined with lack of regular cardio training that gets to the heart.
A study in Nepal showed that nearly 19% of lawyers have this problem, with 70% of them being previously unaware of their situation.
Poor Sleep and Excessive exposure to artificial lights
Most lawyers I work with and coach suffer from chronic stress and elevated cortisol (stress hormone), which negatively impacted sleep.
Sleep is essential for health, wellness and performance – health can’t be optimal if your sleep quality is poor. Poor sleep can disrupt the overall metabolism, which can lead to weight gain and poor digestion and nutrient absorption. Optimal sleep, on the other hand, improves mental health, weight loss and wards off metabolic diseases. Most lawyers spend most of their day indoors, in front of a screen and under fluorescent light. This type of light is known as blue light, a potent disrupter of the hormones regulating our circadian rhythm. The average office worker will spend almost 1,700 hours a year in front of a computer screen, a poll has found, and this poll was done before 2020 when remote working became the norm – it is likely this is much higher and also does not include out of hours and mobile screen time. We now spend a lot of time in front of a screen and evolutionarily this is not the norm, and it is starting to impact our eye health. Including red light therapy into daily work, schedules is a cutting edge way to help offset the negative effects long screen time is having on our eye health.
Light exposure plays a vital role in affecting the biological pathways that impact your sharpness of mind – light to your brain is a key signal for when you should be awake or asleep. Most of us spend hours and hours in front or under blue light and that can seriously impact the biological signals our brains need to function and age optimally. Chronic exposure to blue light means the biological pathways needed for mental rest and recovery are not being activated optimally.
Many of my clients and lawyers I work with suffering from headaches, dry eyes, migraines and these are remedied only a few weeks into my programme thanks to the biohacking tools I use.
Frequent ‘social drinking’
Alcohol has a relaxing effect, and most people will reach for their favourite bottle to help them forget about their problems. Now imagine when in addition to personal problems, your JOB is handling other people’s problems?
This study reveals that 21% of US lawyers struggle with alcoholism. Some estimates even suggest that as many as 1 in 3 lawyers are “problem drinkers”. The desire to quickly relieve the enormous stress they face contributes significantly to what this group of researchers have referred to as the professional legal disease.
Alcoholism is one of the key disorders that the American Bar Association highlights in its mental health awareness campaign.
Other than alcohol, many lawyers tend to abuse substances like nicotine, various stimulants, valium, sleeping pills etc to find a sense of relief. Substance abuse issues even begin as early as law school, with more and more studies like this revealing the extent.
The legal profession is one of the most competitive fields EVER. For instance, by 2020, the number of active solicitors in the UK increased by 24,000–that’s a lot!
Aside from this, the law is intrinsically competitive, and many times adversarial. In litigation and transaction proceedings, lawyers have to ‘fight’ each other not only for their client’s sake but to safeguard their professional prestige. There is always one winner, and every lawyer wants to be that one.
In addition to this, lawyers have to be extremely careful to ‘cover themselves’ when involved in any case. The ease of bringing up malpractice claims, especially out of spite is something they have to protect themselves against. And let’s not forget the impact that ‘Murphy’s law’ has on lawyers. The anxiety that anything can go wrong and WILL go wrong affects their quality of life. 19% of lawyers show signs of an anxiety disorder.
Sometimes, for lawyers, it can really seem as though there is nowhere to turn. At work, your head feels like it’s in a hydraulic press, and then outside of work, you’re one of the most hated professionals in society. Lawyers are believed to lie, cheat and steal their way into riches, so what do they have to be sad about?
Remember what I said about lawyers ranking fourth in suicide rates by profession? Lawyers are the most depressed occupational group in the US and are 3.6x more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.
So In spite of what wealth some may accumulate, no amount of money can compensate for the stress and pressure of moving ahead in a legal career. Even when at the zenith, the pressure remains.
And, because of the ‘fix-it attitude and self-sufficiency of the profession, most don’t seek help and many end up becoming another sad suicide story. There are also well-grounded fears of being considered ‘unfit for practice’ that prevents lawyers from seeking help.
Post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD)
I know it goes without saying, but lawyers are people too! There’s proof that “lawyers who’re exposed to trauma in their practice are 2.62 times more likely to meet the probable PTSD diagnostic criteria than their unexposed colleagues”. Working on traumatic issues, like criminal lawyers often do, can be traumatic in itself. Especially when visual evidence of gruesome crimes are considered.
But there is such a stigma around mental health in law that even symptoms of PTSD can are ignored. Criminal lawyers are especially prone.
This is an indirect experience of trauma and distress. This is more common than most people think. I remember how emotionally invested I came to be in some of my client’s cases and lives. What affected them, affected me. It’s impossible to be 100% detached from 100% of cases, lawyers aren’t robots. And this isn’t a matter of personality as Maguire and Bryce’s research has shown.
Studies show that vicarious trauma greatly contributes to disrupting beliefs about trust, intimacy, control, safety and esteem
Let’s Make it Better! Optimising Lawyers’ Health
On the upside, we can make the dark side of law fade away. Most interventions need to happen on the institutional scale, to address the root of these disorders–a negative work culture.
Thankfully, organisations like the American Bar Association have been awesome in dismantling stigma, especially mental health, and providing useful resources. These resources mirror the exact same strategies I keep writing about in the corporate wellness section of my blog.
But these things are never a one-size-fits-all scenario. Each person, firm is unique from the general field and needs tailored approaches. This is why I am absolutely passionate about creating bespoke approaches and leveraging biohacking techniques to optimise your health and wellness. Most of my clients (individuals and organisations) are immersed in the high-functioning world of law; so trust me, I understand.
I think it goes without saying that a healthier lawyer is a better lawyer, and I wish I knew what I now know when I was practising. In the end, everything has happened to put me in a better position to help you optimise your health to improve your performance.
There are solutions to keep doing the extraordinary work you do as a lawyer while looking after your health. I am a firm believer that with the right method and blueprint, you can have it all – the thriving career in law and an outstanding health.
When onboarding my programme, my main focus first is often with mindset as the body goes where the mind leads it and most people fail to cultivate wellness habits due to mindset issues. Cultivating healthy habits is essential for wellness and even having a few healthy habits can increase one’s life, performance and overall sense of wellness.
Some of the healthy habits to cultivate that I teach as part of my workshops/seminars and my coaching programme are:
- Sleep optimisation and recovery
- Mindfulness, breathwork and mindset
- Movement and exercise
- Nutrition choices and eating habits
- Mental and Metabolic health optimisation
- Awareness of the Environment (light, air, water, indoors vs outdoors)
Always remember that it’s okay to ask for help. It doesn’t make you less, instead, it reflects your self-sincerity and inner strength. I could meet you halfway or go all the way to pull you up on your feet. If you’d like to know more about my VIP individual coaching or Firm-wide workshop and events check here.
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