On Lawyer Stress (a/k/a the Post I will send clients when I raise my rates for 2023)

Do you think you might be having a heart attack?

No matter what the actual ailment is. Food poisoning. Anxiety. Indigestion. Insomnia.

When you wake up at 2am, with a racing heart, and a feeling that something isn’t quite right, and get asked “Do you think you might be having a heart attack?

Well, in that moment, you think one thing. That you might be having a heart attack.

I know this from my own experience, just last month. It was the very early Tuesday morning evening of a very busy week: I had a trial scheduled to start 32 hours later in Memphis and, at the end of the week, a bankruptcy conference in California.

And, in that moment, at 2am, yes, it felt like I was having a heart attack.

My 2:15am trip to the Vanderbilt University Medical confirmed that I had not had a heart attack.

It took about 7 hours to get to “We don’t know, but it wasn’t a heart attack.” In the end, I am sure that there’s a line in a medical chart at Vanderbilt that lists “Lawyer-Stress” as the cause of it all.

And maybe it’s right.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably in the legal field or lawyer adjacent, so I hope you’ll be sympathetic for a moment: What a tough job we have.

A very wise lawyer said it best:

After a client signs a retainer with me, I look them in the eye and tell them “Okay, you don’t have to worry about this any more. Your problems are now my problems.” It is just a thing I say, but it is a true thing I say. My clients go home and sleep soundly for the first time in weeks or months. I go home and think about the legal issues all evening. At night I dream about my client’s case. Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat and pull up the scheduling order on my phone, convinced I blew a deadline. When I am at the playground with my kids, I check my email in case I get something from opposing counsel or the court. When I go out to dinner with my wife, I talk about hearings and depositions.

Why are Lawyers so Expensive? (full article here)

In short, it’s all part of being a lawyer and agreeing to take on client cases. Their problems become your problems.

Missed a deadline? Call your malpractice carrier. A typo in the caption? Idiot. An emergency hearing set on your anniversary? Cancel dinner and buy flowers on your way home.

I actually use that line all the time–“You don’t have to worry about this any more. Your problems are now my problems“–and I absolutely mean it every time.

If you can’t say that to your client when they hire you, get a new job. If your lawyer doesn’t care this much, you’ve hired the wrong lawyer.

Around 4am, still in the emergency room, my wife texted me: “You aren’t going to that trial, are you? Can’t you email the Judge and get a continuance?”

Sure, it crossed my mind, but so did the fact that this was a trial setting and I had made the other side (a pro se litigant) promise that there’d be no more continuances (there had already been 2). Of all the things that could happen in Memphis, my showing up was the only way to ensure I upheld my professional responsibility to my client. It’s what lawyers do.

When my first child was born 20 years ago, I was in Bankruptcy Court the very next day, wearing a “Girl Anthony” bracelet. When my beloved dog Jack got hit by a car before I left for work one morning, I was at a Meeting of Creditors working out plan treatment while he died in the animal hospital. I drafted a lien lawsuit on my Honeymoon in Maui. After my son was born 11 years ago, I made it out of court just in time to drive him and my wife home from the hospital (note, to be clear, I was there for the birth).

There’s nothing particularly special about any of these stories, and I’m sure other lawyers could tell stories like this all day long. It really is part of our job.

I’ll finish the story about my trial now.

After walking out of the emergency room at 10am on Tuesday, I walked into the Shelby County Courthouse at 9:55am on Wednesday, a folder full of exhibits, research, and question outlines in hand, all for the unavoidable and inevitable trial that I had to make it to.

By 10:15am, I was leaving the courthouse, after the case was continued for a month. The presiding judge was absent, and the fill-in judge asked both parties if they wanted to proceed. I said Yes, the other party said No, and that was that.

I don’t regret going, though. If I hadn’t been there or if I had faxed a letter that got lost on a desk, the substitute judge would have looked at my empty seat and entered a judgment.

And, to be clear, it absolutely wasn’t a heart attack, but, in retrospect, a little bit of indigestion mixed with worry over whether I should take shorts with me to Palm Springs.

What has surprised me as I’ve composed this post was that there’s no real solution. Should lawyers care less? (of course not) Is this is a courts problem? (not really) Is this, then, just part of the job and a reason why billable rates are so high? (maybe)

This post turned a lot more somber than I intended. I actually really love being a lawyer, and I am honored by that trust from clients. It’s also a heavy burden.

Lawyers are quick to complain about it and share stories about waking up in the middle of the night to hastily check deadlines on PACER, but we don’t talk about the stress, the health issues, or our various ad hoc coping mechanisms. Even though all of this is so common, lawyers fear it’d be viewed as a badge of weakness. Maybe that’s the real culprit here.

It’s a shame, because it generally only takes one person to casually mention something like this, and the conversation gets going. That happened to me at the legal conference in Palm Springs. I talked about my wild week to some other lawyers, and it turned out that everybody had a similar story to share. Part of this blog post is to keep that conversation going.

Author: David

I am a creditors rights and commercial litigation attorney in Nashville, Tennessee.

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