United States: How To Shift From Bad To Good Stress And Protect Innovation In Law Practice

Last Updated: May 20 2019
Article by Brett C. Bartlett

Last month, we learned of the death of Paul Rawlinson, global chairman of Baker McKenzie. At 56, Rawlinson took a medical leave six months ago, citing health concerns related to exhaustion. This news comes on the heels of several high-profile suicides and a growing body of empirical evidence linking the pressures of practicing law with mental health issues and substance addiction.

In this moment, there is no question that stress and burnout threaten the mental health of attorneys. This problem has been documented extensively and prompted the creation of the pledge campaign led by the ABA's Working Group to Advance Well-Being to raise awareness and take action on this important issue.

The threat of attorney burnout is real. And yet, we often forget about some of the other, subtler effects of chronic stress in the legal profession. Long before stress results in mental health issues or substance abuse, it takes a toll on one of the most essential legal capacities: innovation.


In discussions of attorney well-being and burnout, we often hear an oversimplified narrative that goes something like: "Stress is bad. We need to get rid of it." When it comes to the connection between stress and innovation, however, it's not that simple.

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that removing stress from the legal profession is a lot like trying to remove water from the ocean: Some level of stress is just inevitable in this profession. The second is that many attorneys report that not all stress is bad. The pressure of meeting a deadline or figuring out a complex legal challenge often sparks creative insight.

When we look at the science on stress and innovation, it becomes even clearer that not all stress is bad. In fact, researchers exploring the science of innovation have shown that there are really two types of stressors: "challenge stressors" and "hindrance stressors."

Challenge stressors are the pressures we experience that push us to be our best. These stressors help us grow. They take us out of our comfort zone. And they push us to learn something new and unexpected. In the research, challenge stressors have been found to spark innovation as well as the generation of new and more useful ideas.

Hindrance stressors, by contrast, are the pressures we face that diminish innovation and lead to the cascade of psychological problems that arise from chronic stress. These stressors include petty arguments, office politics and drama, unnecessary red tape and job insecurity.

Not surprisingly, this same body of research finds that hindrance stressors and decreased innovation go hand-in-hand. In fact, the negative impact of hindrance stressors is so profound that it led one research team to conclude: "When hindrance stressors are high, they will offset everything an organization may try to do."


What's the difference between these good and bad stressors? It really just comes down to this: control. When we feel a sense of control over the pressures we face, when we feel some degree of autonomy, we're working in the zone of good stress. The challenges we face serve to make us better and more innovative in our practice.

When we lose control, however, innovation is perhaps the first core capacity to go. This often happens at two levels. The first is internal, in our mental and emotional experience. When we lack the tools to effectively manage our reactions to challenging events, we often slip into the zone of what psychologists call uncontrollability.

The second contributing force that causes us to lose a sense of control is external. When we lack a sense of autonomy in our work, our experience of stress can also begin to shift from the realm of challenge to the innovation-diminishing realm of hindrance.

The upshot of this is pretty clear. If we want to foster a culture of innovation in law, we need to give attorneys the tools to shift from hindrance stressors to challenge stressors. We need to create a culture where attorneys feel a greater sense of control both in their mental and emotional experience and in their broader work environment.


It's all well and good to talk about the importance of innovation. But at the level of day-to-day practice, what are the concrete practices and tools that we can use to shift our experience of stress from hindrance to challenge, from bad to good?

On the internal side, at LIFE XT, we have found that attorneys begin to thrive when they are equipped with practices like the following:

" Mental Fitness: Using a variety of mindfulness practices, attorneys can begin to cultivate a greater sense of focus, internal ease and control. Through regular practice, even just a few minutes a day, they can train in habits that help them become less reactive to external circumstances and more responsive. For instance, simply taking a single 4x4 breath (4 counts in, 4 counts out, 4 times) can have a powerful effect on changing the nature of the experience of stress.

" Emotional Fitness: Attorneys can build their capacity for navigating the many challenging emotions (fear, anxiety and anger) that inevitably arise in the practice of law. Building the habit of practices like inquiry, compassion and gratitude can help mitigate hindrance stressors and give rise to a greater sense of overall well-being and resilience. When attorneys learn to reframe stressful situations, for example, they begin to build the muscle of shifting to a challenge stress mindset. This shift can be as simple as recognizing moments of stress and then consider a question like: "How is this experience in service of me and my firm? What can I learn from this?"

Addressing the internal demands of legal practice is only one side of the equation. It's also essential to address the external forces that amplify hindrance stressors and cause attorneys to feel a lack of control over their work. At Seyfarth Shaw, for instance, innovation is a hallmark of our firm's place in the legal market, and our lawyers are accustomed to change. There are two principles, however, that help our attorneys turn stress into a positive, innovation-enhancing force:

" Listening drives innovation: We believe innovation springs from a culture of active listening. This involves listening carefully to our clients for new insights on how to add value. It also involves listening carefully to our colleagues—our associates, our partners, and all of our personnel.

Case study: We experienced this firsthand recently. In complex projects involving the assessment of clients' compliance with complicated, multifaceted laws, we realized that implementation of our best practice recommendations could be overwhelming to the point of paralysis. A team of associates and legal project managers listened to our clients explain why it could be so challenging to move from recommendation to execution and developed a process-oriented protocol leveraging technology and bite-size implementation phases to eliminate the burdens that otherwise diminished the value and effect of our fee-intensive work.

" It's OK to fail: For many lawyers, this profession is a lifetime endeavor. Over its course, each of us will fail more than once: in cases, strategies, business development, in business relationships and in personal relationships. We work hard to empower our lawyers to give themselves a break when they come up short.

Learning from business loss: We learn from each loss, and it's so important that we do—especially as firms and lawyers must compete ever more heartily for work from discerning clients. It is more common than not that lawyers will lose engagements and clients over the years of their profession. Nowadays, clients often ask even their longstanding, incumbent lawyers to submit proposals to win new work. Sometimes they don't win. When that happens to us, we take the time to ask our client why we did not win the work. Generally, the answers to our questions are revealing and allow us to take practical steps to ensure that we improve, where appropriate, to win the next engagement. By accepting our loss and learning from it, we change what is generally perceived as a hindrance stressor into something good.

These internal and external strategies help in building a culture of innovation, and, as importantly, they help motivate high performance more generally. In addition, practices and principles like these also help prevent some of the more serious issues that arise from chronic stress. Attorneys who adopt these skills are empowered with a greater sense of control over their work and, as a result, will be less likely to slip into the traps of anxiety, depression and burnout.

These skills also have the potential to bring a greater sense of purpose and meaning into the practice of law. By shifting from hindrance to challenge, we can help attorneys reconnect with the sense of curiosity and intellectual vitality that brought them to the law in the first place.

Originally published in ABA Journal

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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