This post is all about how lawyers can deal with stressful situations. Stress is just part of the job when you’re a lawyer, but there are right and wrong ways to deal with stressful situations. Read on to learn how you can deal with stressful situations that come up at work, whether caused by you or someone else.
My stressful situation: I forgot my suitcase at home for an overnight work trip ... FML
I’ve held off writing this post because I don’t want you or anyone really to know this story. It’s very embarrassing and is just not something that anyone would believe I’d do. At work, in the practice of law, my colleagues describe me as being super organized and a planner. They call or email me when they need to know the time and location for a meeting, the date of the Christmas party and where the charity 5 km run is taking place in the city. I’m known for being reliable and always prepared and helping others be the same.
The story I’m about to share with you shines a completely different light on those characteristics. I haven’t told this story to anyone at work, except for 1 close colleague, who had a similar but less extreme experience. No one else knows at work or will ever know, and that’s important because I need to maintain my reputation in the firm.
However, I’m writing this post to share with other lawyers how they can deal with stressful situations on the job. Spoiler alert: it’s not how I handled it, but if it happened again, here’s what I would do differently to deal with a stressful situation.
In the more than 6 years that I’ve been practicing law, I’ve never forgotten my suitcase at home for an overnight work trip. Can you imagine?! Well, I can.
Who are we?
Before I get into this story and share what I learned, if you’re new here, welcome! We’re a lawyer couple (Ms. OYP & Ms. OYP) in private practice, who are looking to increase lawyers’ happiness and financial freedom in the practice of law to allow lawyers to create their best lives. We’re debt free (other than the mortgage) and want to help other lawyers find ways to stay in the practice of law longer than they currently are. You can read more about us here.
My stressful situation ...
This summer, I had a hearing (think about it like a mini-trial) in a prison. I was there representing a client – to be clear, not the individual in prison. We (Mr. OYP & I) had driven down the night before my hearing and were staying at a hotel about 10 minutes from the prison. We left the city just after 6:00 p.m. and got to the hotel around 9:15 p.m.. It wasn’t until then, when we were emptying out the vehicle to head into the hotel, that I realized I had FORGOTTEN my suitcase at home. I remember the sun setting, my body frozen by the thought that I had forgotten my suitcase at home, my stomach sank and I just starred at the trunk of the vehicle not being able to comprehend how I had forgotten my suitcase at home.
I couldn’t understand how I could have remembered every other bag but not my suitcase. I remembered my snack bag (like really?!), my laptop bag, my briefcase, the binders to handout at the hearing and fortunately my suit jacket and suit skirt that I’d put on a hanger so it wouldn’t get wrinkled in my suitcase. Thank goodness I did that. BUT, somehow I forgot my suitcase at home in my room.
You might be thinking that because I had my suit jacket and skirt, it wasn’t such a big deal that I had forgotten my suitcase. Wrong. Let me tell you how big a deal I thought it was at 9:15 p.m. when I arrived at the hotel suitcaseless.
Rather than trying to think about my options, I just started freaking out. Like, it was ugly – I remember yelling, swearing and shooting down every idea that Mr. OYP had for solving my situation. The problem was that, other than having my suit, I had NOTHING else for the night or the next morning. I had no toothbrush, no deodorant, no hair straightener, no underwear, no nylons for my skirt suit, no heels for my suit, no pajamas, no make up (no one should see me without makeup), and the list goes on. I did have: my Nike runners, my exercise pants and 2 day unwashed hair. Yup, that was what I was working with.
So pretty much, I had forgotten everything that I’d packed that was going to make my night and the next morning the most relaxing I could possibly make it on a hearing day. A lawyer’s life is stressful enough, so all the effort I had put into making my night and morning less stressful by packing down to the last item was wasted. By forgetting my suitcase, I had just added more stress on myself.
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How Lawyers Can Deal with Stressful Situations:
This is what I SHOULD have done to handle a stressful situation like forgetting my suitcase when taking an overnight work trip:
1. Breathe and focus on your breathing.
Rather than automatically reacting in a negative way (it might have looked something like me having a temper tantrum after 9 o’clock in a hotel parking lot), I should’ve just tried focusing on my breath and breathing.
I have a consistent yoga and meditation practice. So, I should have started doing one of my yoga breathing techniques or at the very least, focused on my breathe and breathing to calm my body’s automatic reaction, which was to freak the eff out.
I find we, as humans and as lawyers, underestimate the power of taking a moment to breathe and to catch our breaths in stressful situations. We so need it though. Maybe if I had taken a moment to breathe, I would’ve been able to slow my heart rate and catch my breath. Instead, I reacted by having a pity party (alone) and focusing on how bad things were and how stupid I was.
I was so focused on complaining that I wasn’t taking steps to solve my stressful situation.
So, the first step is to breathe and focus on your breathing, consciously, for at least 30 seconds. Come back inward. Don’t lash out outward. Easier said than done, I know.
2. Take a moment to think.
Take a moment to think about how to solve or deal with your stressful situation. As lawyers, we often find ourselves in stressful situations and feel the need to react immediately and solve the problem immediately because that’s why clients call us. We are problem solvers at the core. Instead, just wait. Take a moment to think, even if just for one minute. It will make a difference.
Give your brain a chance to comprehend what’s just happened and help you problem solve.
3. Brainstorm your options in the circumstances.
Now that your brain has caught up with what’s just happened (insert stressful situation facts here), as you would for a client, start brainstorming ALL of your options in the circumstances.
I didn’t have that many options, but I should’ve thought about what my options were and then having thought them through, reacted to solve my stressful situation.
We were in a small town, it was after 9 p.m. and most stores were already closed. Wal-mart, the store that would have solved all my problems, was closed and would re-open at 8:00 a.m. the next morning.
What I should’ve done is considered ALL of my options in the circumstances. As I would for a client opinion setting out their options, consider every option – no matter how good, bad or unlikely it is.
My options were:
4. Consider and weigh your options. What do you need at a minimum?
Next, consider your options and weighed them to figure out how you’re going to deal with your stressful situation.
In my case, I weighed my options after running through a grocery store that was right beside the hotel. When the grocery store didn’t have makeup, clothes, nylons or shoes (anything I needed), I realized that I had to take a step back and weigh my options. It did buy a toothbrush, deoderant and face cream – all necessities.
We stood outside the vehicle and we considered my options by asking what it was that I needed at a minimum to sleep tonight and attend the hearing in the morning and look presentable.
I needed to be wearing professional clothing for the hearing (akin to a mini-trial) and not my exercise/driving clothes. I needed nylons and shoes if I was going to wear the suit I brought. I needed makeup to look presentable and to feel confident. I needed a change of clothes to sleep in.
With those needs in mind, I considered my options and weighed them. After an already long work day and 3 hour drive after work, I wasn’t prepared to drive an hour away (and an hour back) to go to the Wal-mart or my friend’s house. My friend is also at least 2 sizes skinnier than me, so it was very unlikely that her clothes were going to fit me anyway. I was also not prepared to let Mr. OYP drive 6 hours home and back to fix my problem. That’s just not fair.
The Wal-mart, that was an 8 minute drive from our hotel opened at 8:00 a.m. so I would have about 20 minutes at the most to buy everything I needed in order to get to my hearing on time. Mr. OYP (bless his heart) was willing to give me his workout shorts to wear to bed and the t-shirt he was going to wear the next day. He also shared his face wash and the toothpaste he had packed.
Here's a photo of the Wal-mart that saved my life that day. (Yes, I took a photo, it was a huge deal and big relief. I felt love for that Wal-mart.)
5. Plan and execute one or more of your options.
Come up with a plan on how you’re going to execute your best option or options. Sometimes it’s not 1 option, but a combination of options that have to work together to solve the stressful situation. Don’t have tunnel vision and think it’s just 1 option that you have to choose – be creative.
The plan then was to use what Mr. OYP had packed and run through Wal-mart first thing when it opened to buy shoes, makeup and nylons. Then, head straight to the prison, which was about a 12 minute drive from the Wal-mart.
I managed to make it through the night with what Mr. OYP was able to give or share with me. For the next morning, we drove to the Wal-mart well before it opened and hung around in the parking lot. At 8:00 a.m., when the doors finally opened, I went to find nylons and asked to put them on and keep them on. The Wal-mart lady thought I was insane and seemed weirded out by the fact that I wanted to put them on and keep them on. I told her my stressful situation, but she gave zero effs.
I then went to find makeup. Just the basics: foundation and blush. Found them. While I was busy buying no-name makeup, makeup I’d never normally buy or put on my face, Mr. OYP was on the hunt for black flat shoes for me. He found 3 pairs and brought them to me in the makeup aisle. I tried them on, picked the one I liked the best and then ran with him to the ladies shoe area to make a final decision. I found some black flats and then headed to the cashier.
Mr. OYP was then asking the Wal-mart greeter to remove the tag on my shoes with their scissors. After that, we hopped in the vehicle, and I did my makeup while Mr. OYP drove me to the prison.
I had more time to grab more things while we were in Wal-mart, but I had a plan. I had executed the plan and bought what I needed at a minimum.
6. Forgive yourself (or whoever made the mistake) and decrease your expectations while living through the stressful situation.
It’s so important to forgive yourself for the mistake or error that you made (or that someone else made).
When I realized I forgot my suitcase, I was so mad at myself and disappointed in myself for forgetting my suitcase and allowed that feeling get in the way of the job that I had to do: represent my client at the prison hearing.
While I was going through this experience, I needed to forgive myself for forgetting my suitcase. There was nothing I could do to get my suitcase to me. My suitcase wasn’t magically going to appear. I needed to accept that earlier than I did. I needed to accept that I forgot it and although I was disappointed with myself, I had to find a way to solve my problem.
At the hearing, I ended up confiding in the court reporter who was at the hearing with me. I’ve known her for several years, and I knew that she wouldn’t judge me because she knows me as being prepared and organized. When I told her what I had done, she laughed and said I looked great in my Wal-mart outfit. She would never have known. Plus, she reminded me that we were in a prison, and that this was probably not the place for me to be wearing high heels and a fitted suit. She had a point. We were walking with and around minimum security inmates.
To get through that day, I just let go of the every day expectations I had of myself and was proud of how I/we managed to deal with this stressful situation that I had caused. Sometimes, as lawyers, we just have to cut ourselves some slack and occasionally lower our expectations to do the job we’re there to do: be the best advocate we can for our clients.
- Breathe and focus on your breathing.
- Take a moment to think.
- Brainstorm your options in the circumstances.
- Consider and weigh your options. What do you need at a minimum?
- Plan and execute one or more of your options.
- Forgive yourself (or whoever made the mistake) and decrease your expectations while living through the stressful situation.