Even the toughest litigator or most experienced advocate can still find themselves bucking under the strain at times, says Roy Morgan. This is the first in a series of blogs for Legal Voice
Lunch anyone? Sandwich in one hand, dictaphone in the other; phone on speaker; all in front of the laptop; papers thrust in front of you to check, amend and sign; a growing queue of staff, colleagues, miscellaneous interlopers at the turnstile that is your office door. Interruptions; intrusions; interjections – and back to court in 30 minutes.
A familiar scene? It is if you are a legal aid lawyer.
No doubt, high-flying city lawyers, negotiating their multi-billion pound takeover deal, broken only by a nap in their office sleep pods, or the treasury lawyers working into the early hours to hit the latest government deadline, or the commercial conveyancers checking the small print to complete that latest property development project, regard themselves as being at the pinnacle of the stress ladder.
Law is an inherently stressful profession. Many lawyers work long hours, but few working in other fields of law share with the legal aid lawyer the appallingly low hourly rate of pay to perform those hours with the urgency often required. Again, all have to deal with some level of bureaucracy but none share the quagmire of Legal Aid Agency red tape and unfathomable layers of administration. When you combine those elements with the stresses inherent in the work itself – the 3am phone call that summons the legal aid lawyer to the police station, or the family client needing urgent temporary accommodation after fleeing her violent and drunken partner, with two children in tow, or the immigration client about to be extradited and put on a plane at Heathrow.
Everyone experiences stress, but few really understand what it is, what impact it has, and how to mitigate it.
Put simply, a stressful circumstance is one with which you cannot cope successfully (or believe you cannot cope), and which results in unwanted physical, mental or emotional reactions. Stress is your reaction to the levels of pressure upon you.
According to a survey by the legal support service LawCare, stress is the second most common cause of lawyers’ absence from work, and by far the most common reason for calls to its telephone helplines.
Many lawyers have the compulsive, driven and perfectionist personality which makes them more prone to stress. For example, they believe they must always be completely competent, and in control of events and people. Their own attitudes and expectations can cause them to feel stressed by things which are happening around them. They may feel there is little they can do to change the levels of pressure upon them, but they can learn how to respond to it and deal with it. Perception of stress is totally subjective: one person’s motivational stress is another person’s intolerable pressure. Stress management is also subjective and some people will be much better at it than others.
Stress is a natural response to the environment and situations in which we find ourselves. It is related to the fight or flight response that served our ancestors so well. There are situations where we need to spring into action incredibly quickly and efficiently. Brain processes and physiological responses kick-in almost immediately. The risk is perceived, rationale is bypassed and the amygdala, a small almond shaped part of our brain, prompts an instantaneous fight or flight reaction.
Our physical response is in part driven by hormones, including adrenalin. This can help us to act quickly, to drive us into a state of hyper-alertness where we become very focussed on what is happening around us and provides us with extra strength to fight or run faster than we have ever done before.
These very same stress responses also help us when we come under pressure in our workplace. This is how many a legal aid lawyer survives their unpredictable working day.
It has been said that the advocates among us will live longer than the desk-bound lawyers, due to the adrenaline rush that makes the heart grow stronger. The flip side is that the stress factor will do for them.
Not surprisingly, once stressed, it takes a while for our pulse and our physiological state to return to normal. While stress arousal can be instantaneous, the come down afterwards is much longer, often many hours to revert to a fully resting state. The bigger come down and the sad news for the legal aid lawyer with a moment’s rest is that they have been second guessed by the LAA and they are not going to be paid, even poorly, for the catastrophe in somebody’s life that they have just averted.
Now the stressor is the bank manager, the cash flow, the next payment.