“If you don’t know, the thing to do is not to get scared, but to learn.” Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
It is what it is
We lawyers have many things in common, including the following: at some time in our professional lives, we will all experience some form of nervousness, fear, or anxiety (hereinafter referred to as anxiety). The question becomes, not to worry over anxiety but how best to address it. One answer: to recognize and accept anxiety for what it is.
Science tells us that anxiety is as common a feature of our daily lives as breathing, and an essential means of dealing with stress, allowing us to be aware of, and to avoid danger. For this reason science refers to anxiety appreciatively as our “natural fight, flight or freeze response”, a defence mechanism. It is therefore against nature to be entirely free of apprehension or anxiety. Greater numbers than we are yet fully prepared to acknowledge, and certainly younger calls, experience anxiety in their work lives in the form of worry, a sense of unease, doubt and disquiet, foreboding and trepidation, or merely concern. Many in fact may experience anxiety about feeling anxious. In this way anxiety breeds and multiplies. Worry in the dark, writes author Camron Wright, can make it even darker.
At a practical level, we need to convince ourselves and particularly our younger colleagues that anxiety is not the issue. Understanding and controlling the manifestation of anxiety is.
In commenting on these matters, I hasten to add that there is a difference between the “lower order” anxiety that I am addressing, and anxiety which presents in the form of an incapacitating state of mind. As a litigator of many years, while I know something about and understand the challenges of the former as a daily diet in my professional life, I am not pretending to have anything useful to say in respect of the latter (but I have experienced a taste to know what it is):
“While fear and anxiety are perfectly normal experiences, sometimes they become maladaptive – excessive in intensity, frequency or duration- causing the sufferer distress to the extent that his or her daily life is disrupted. When this happens, an anxiety disorder exists” (Joseph Ledoux – Anxious)
Even so, anxiety at any level of a lawyer’s performance surely gets in the way. It can interrupt judgment, contemplation and preparation, not only on the eve of performing but days before, making it difficult to consider and anticipate what lies ahead. It can cost sleep, disrupt memory, fracture strategy, and fumble diction.
There is little good in anxiety that disrupts excessively, it just gets in the way. Anxiety, to paraphrase Jodi Picoult, is like a rocking chair. It gives us something to do, but it doesn’t get us very far. Much of anxiety – particularly as it relates to professional settings and endeavours “is a response to uncertainty. We see worry (a response to anxiety) as a mental compulsion (albeit a generally unhelpful one) and an attempt to gain certainty” (Dr.Jeffrey Perron, Clinical Psychologist, Ottawa).
Stirring it up
The working environment of a lawyer can be a remarkable mix of stimuli capable of producing anxiety at any time, and at any stage.
In the first place, no day starts or ends the same, and the days are long. Clients expect solutions at the speed of light. Both substantive law (no matter the source) and the accompanying rules governing practice and procedure, are in a constant state of flux. For solicitors, deals can be difficult, for barristers, judges too. Colleagues are not always approachable, or easy to decipher. Communication can be inconsistent, civility spotty.
Of course, that is the challenge and why we like it. We are responsibly engaged in an honourable profession, which we share with our colleagues and peers. If, as we align ourselves to its demands and rewards, it should become a vocation, in the sense of a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation, all the better.
Of course, law and the service of clients who seek us out, is also a business. The practice of the business of law, has its own appetite. The services we provide generate time, time converts to a docket, a docket creates a bill, the bill to be issued and paid.
For most practicing lawyers these mechanics are wrapped inside a budget including overhead, together with billable or non-billable expectations or targets.
The mix of all these realities produces stressors or triggers leading to anxiety.
In legal terms, anxiety is an anticipatory breach, which in contemplation of the task ahead, is more than capable of filling us with a sense of foreboding and potential failure.
So, with Cameron Wright’s contribution in mind, perhaps we need to acknowledge, openly to ourselves and others, that anxiety comes with the territory.
The late Walter Anderson, the author of Meant to Be, and The Confidence Course: Seven Steps to Self-Fulfillment, has written that nothing diminishes anxiety faster than action. I like that. And here is my thesis: If we lawyers accept that anxiety of some form or other comes with the territory, rather than continue to deny or try to bury it, we can embrace it. We can prepare for it by doing a better job, each in our own way, of understanding, anticipating and readying ourselves, with or without the help of others, to overcome or diminish the impact of the stimuli that give anxiety its strength. In this way we can hopefully assist our younger, less experienced colleagues to do the same thing.
Consider anticipating the start of a trial, or a complicated business closing, suffering from a broken or badly sprained ankle. The best advice in this situation is to include the sprained ankle in preparations, to work with and account for it. Accounting for it means being alive to adjustments that may have to be considered. In the case of the trial, it may mean reflecting on and asking the court ahead of time for an accommodation, such as remaining seated. For solicitors, again, such circumstances require contemplation of how to account for and adapt. In both cases, the way to go is not to ignore, or actively conceal a disability.
There is no reason why the same does not go for anxiety. It too is an incapacity requiring recognition and accommodation. How do we face and embrace periods of anxiety that we know will appear and that for many lawyers otherwise is complicit in how they perform? This question will be addressed in a future blog post.