From the Multnomah Lawyer: Ask the Expert - Is this the right career for me?

Dear Expert:
I am trying to settle into my career as a lawyer, but I am feeling overwhelmed by the stress of my new responsibilities and find myself worrying all the time that I am not living up to expectations or cut out for this job. Is this the right career for me?
- Anxious Associate

Dear Anxious,
The responsibilities inherent in our profession are draining and anxiety-provoking, even to the most experienced attorneys. Taking on those responsibilities as a newer associate is bound to bring up feelings of unworthiness and fear, on top of the stress of learning a new profession and trying to make a good impression on supervisors and clients. What you are feeling is completely normal in the first few years of practice, and for many of us, throughout a legal career. However, even if it is normal, it is still important to take care of yourself. Mental health issues are prevalent in the legal profession (you have probably seen many articles recently about the 2017 report on lawyer well-being and Oregon’s newest CLE requirement). Even if you don’t think you have diagnosable depression or anxiety, these tips can help you manage your stress and get the support you need to thrive.

Don’t Forget About Your Friends, Family and Hobbies
I know it’s like a broken record, but work-life balance really is essential if you want to survive in a career as intense as the law. It can be especially hard for younger associates but set boundaries and do your best to stick to them. It’s okay to stretch them every once in awhile, but do it on your own terms. In your off time, make sure you have some activities that have nothing to do with the law, and leave your work emails alone. Re-connect with your non-lawyer friends, get involved in a recreational sports league, go on a hike, play with your kids, read a novel, paint a picture - anything that turns off your lawyer brain for a little while. Sometimes this profession makes us feel like we have to be on all the time, and involved in everything, but that isn’t practical for most of us. Figure out which professional activities are the most important to you, and then spend the rest of your quality time on fun and relaxation. You are worth it.

Reach Out to Your Peers
Most newer attorneys are probably experiencing something similar. It’s hard to transition into being a practicing attorney. Try to connect with the other associates at your firm who might understand what you are going through. If you aren’t comfortable admitting to co-workers that you’re struggling, attend YLS social events or join a YLS committee. This will give you a safe place to vent about your stress with people who understand, but in an environment that won’t impact your job directly.

Reach Out to Your Supervisors
If you are really struggling, reach out to a senior associate or partner in your firm you feel is willing to support you. If you are honest about what it is you are struggling with (and have some ideas about changes in the environment that will help you), chances are they will be willing to help. Most of our supervisors want us to succeed - that’s why they hired us in the first place - and they have all been where we are. They don’t know you need help unless you tell them. If you don’t have anyone at your firm you are comfortable speaking honestly with, reach out to a trusted law professor or mentor, and then consider the suggestions below.

Reach Out to the OAAP
The Oregon Attorney Assistance Program is staffed by attorney counselors who have a JD as well as counseling credentials. Their services are free and completely confidential for all members of the Oregon legal community. The OAAP can help with serious mental health issues and substance abuse, and also with career counseling, managing grief, or just checking in on where you are and where you want to go. They are available one-on-one, but also facilitate a variety of groups to help with career transitions, substance abuse recovery, grief management, anxiety/depression, and other topics. If you are questioning your career choice, struggling with mental health or substance use, or just not sure what you need, an OAAP counselor can point you in the right direction.

Think About the Future
If you are reading through this list and feel like there is no way you can bring up any of your concerns in your current work environment, maybe it isn’t the best environment for you to develop your career. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be a lawyer - it just means maybe you should be a lawyer somewhere else. Think about what it is you are not getting from your current job and what that ideal job looks like. Then, put a plan in place to get there. It probably won’t happen overnight, but sometimes knowing that you are actively working toward something better can help you get through where you are right now. Being a lawyer does not have to mean being miserable, over-worked, and undervalued.

Seek Professional Help
Talk to your primary care physician about what you are experiencing. If you are dealing with depression or anxiety, you might benefit greatly from therapy and/or medication. Don’t be ashamed if that is what helps you. There are innumerable well-respected attorneys who are successful specifically because they have developed the support structure they need to manage their stress or mental health issues, through therapy, medication, and other support systems. 

You can only be a good advocate for your clients if you are also taking care of yourself. It’s okay to value your own well-being, and doing so will help you maintain a long and successful career. Most of all, remember you aren’t alone no matter how much it might feel like you are. It’s doubtful any attorney out there hasn’t gone through a time of self-doubt, burn-out, heightened anxiety, or depression. If you reach out for help, you might find one or two people who will just be uncomfortable about it, but you will find many more willing to open up about their own struggles and help you get the support you need. If at the end of the day you decide lawyering is not for you, that’s okay too, but you worked too hard to get here to give up out of fear, or because you are not in a supportive environment. There are a lot of different ways to practice law - do what you need to do to find the one that works for you! 

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