By Carlos E. Sardi, Esq.
Lawyers are high achievers. That heightened capacity, in and of itself, increases levels of lawyer stress. The current state of the economy can certainly lead one to wonder in a financial whirlpool, all of which can cause tremendous stress on an individual. Economic factors like inflation can put a dent on your personal finances. The American Psychological Association reported that 72% of adults feel stressed about money, whether it is worrying about paying rent or feeling bogged down by debt. While some practice areas have flourished during the COVID-19 pandemic, other areas have not performed as well. This translates into more economic pressures for our colleagues who are already stressed from the routine of our profession. Solo and small firm lawyers are more likely than not to face economic pressures and hardships. This is significant since financial stress is linked to so many health issues. Further, the American Bar Association has also recently reported that financial stress and the isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have pushed lawyers to act imprudently or unethically. The economic pressures and continued isolation can certainly lead professionals to feel stressed about personal finances, the prospects of a comfortable or viable retirement or depressed about the long-term economic outlook and future career prospects. These pressures affect the old and young legal practitioner equally.
Financial stress can have a real, toxic impact on your health. It can lead to desperately cutting money from areas that you should not be cutting expenses, like with your health care. Indeed, Gallup’s Annual Health and Healthcare Poll reports that 29% of American adults held off seeking medical care in 2018 because of cost. Delaying medical care is not the answer. It can actually cost more at the end, and, then, lead to even more stress. Financial crisis can morph as well into a mental crisis. People in debt tend to have higher rates of mental health issues than those who are debt-free. Lawyers are most at risk, given the massive student loan debt amassed by our peers in the legal profession.
Ongoing stress about money has also been linked to headaches, stomachaches, migraines, heart disease, diabetes, sleep problems, and more. But, perhaps more commonly, financial stress can cause you to engage in a variety of unhealthy behaviors, from overeating to alcohol and drug use. Indeed, the American Psychological Association published a survey in 2014, in which it reported that 33% of Americans ate unhealthy foods or ate too much to deal with stress. Likewise, when finances are imperiled, off-limits behavior can take over and take you to the dark side. Financial concerns have a definite cognitive impairment, comparable to losing a full night of sleep. That means that our decision-making skills are so diminished when distracted by finances that we make questionable decisions and do not ask for help. When you are 40 years old and have $100,000 in student loans and you see your solo practice go downhill, dipping into client funds suddenly becomes justified.
While one can understand the stress that economic uncertainty can cause to individuals, there are ways in which one can manage financial stress to effectively manage your financial situation and make you feel more in control of your life, reduce your stress, and build a more secure future.
First, one should focus on what is under your control to improve your situation. Setting lawyer goals can be a powerful way to reduce stress. It is much easier (and less stressful) to run with a finish-line in mind than it is to run aimlessly. Setting and working towards goals can give you a stronger feeling of control, even in a challenging economic environment. Goal setting can turn your attention to the bigger picture in your life and career. You can ask yourself, for example, where you want to be in a year, two years, and five years down the road.
Debt and the stress it can cause may also mentally overwhelm you. Do not hide from your situation. Lenders are open to discussing your situation. You should talk to professionals if riddled with too much debt. Consider talking to a financial advisor to help in setting your financial goals, saving money, and decreasing debt. You may also want to consider talking to a bankruptcy specialist to know what your options are.
Lastly, but, most importantly, engage in self-care!! Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important to help you manage stress. Know your limits and draw boundaries. For example, if you’re a solo lawyer, set a realistic limit for how many clients and how much work you can take on. Then, make sure you stick to it. Exercising also improves your mental and physical health. Walking is a great way to get a workout and to make time for it for most of us. Be bold and take up a hobby. This could be the time to pull out your old sewing machine or juggling clubs. Or, it could mean making an effort to explore new hobbies, such as painting or cooking. The idea is to take time to unwind, relax, meditate, enjoy a fun activity, and connect with family and others. You cannot eliminate all stress, but you can change how you respond to it. This is why mindfulness is so powerful. Mindfulness—or learning to pay attention and stay present in a moment—may seem simple, but it can be challenging. In sum, eating well and healthy, exercising, sleeping, maintaining relationships, being in the moment and just having plain good old fun with your family and loved ones certainly help mitigate financial stress.
It is important to share your money concerns and not just keep them to yourself. Talk to trusted friends and family. The more you talk with your support system, the less isolated you will feel. If talking with others does not work, you should consider seeking professional help.
Financial stress is real in our profession and the discussion must continue. The key is knowing how to handle it. Using the above tips can help you manage and control your financial issues without losing your sleep or, better yet, crossing ethical boundaries. Try it!