Stress and Ethics, Part Two
Part one of "Stress and Ethics" dealt with how to identify the sources of stress in your professional and personal life, and that of your client. Now that you have identified the stress factors, what do you do? The most effective way to cope with stress is to recognize what contributes to the onset of stress, identify the initial symptoms, and act to reduce its effects. Most importantly, begin taking care of stress by focusing on yourself. A stressed-out legal assistant will be of little help to the client or the lawyer. To paraphrase the instructions flight attendants give on every flight: We don't anticipate a drop in cabin pressure, but should one occur, put the oxygen mask over your own face first, then assist the person next to you.
A. Avoid Avoidance
If your reaction to stress involves avoidance behavior you may have to make a concerted effort to avoid the evils of procrastination. Effective time management and procrastination avoidance skills will aid in minimizing stress and maximizing your day. One way to avoid procrastination is to place your least favorite task first on your "to do" list. "Follow through" will also be a struggle for the "avoider" personality. Do not get side tracked. This may be difficult, given daily interruptions, but make this a personal goal. Several small, incomplete projects can often produce more stress than one or two big projects. Taking an aggressive stance toward task completion will help you be a more effective, healthy, and happy legal assistant.
Changing the way in which you approach the day is often a key to reducing stress. Try flipping through your stack of telephone messages and dealing with the difficult phone calls first. This puts you back in control of your day. Taking care of problems early in the day frees up the rest of your day with fewer dreadful tasks looming overhead.
If possible, set aside some part of the day for pure, unadulterated, uninterrupted work. It is amazing how much can be accomplished each hour you are free from phone calls or knocks at your office door. A commitment to working only one or two hours per day uninterrupted will help maintain your workload and your sanity.
B. Help Yourself by Dealing Effectively with Others
Interpersonal relationships can also be a major cause of stress especially if you and your supervising attorney are in the "trial" mode. For presentation in Court, the litigator perfects the task of communication in a one-sided, manipulative, and forceful manner. Effective interpersonal skills require two-way, open and cooperative communication. Legal assistants can vastly reduce their stress by developing interpersonal skills, but this requires listening, not just hearing and reacting. Listening is an active process where you are really trying to understand the meanings and feelings being expressed. Hearing, on the other hand, is just being aware of the words.
Always remember that family law clients are under stress simply by virtue of their legal predicament. Unlike attorneys, most clients are not trained for litigation. The legal assistant can play a vital role in minimizing the client's stress. Keeping the client informed can minimize much of the stress they are feeling, and can prevent a violation of Rule 1.03, TDRPC.
If stress is an issue with a client, address the problem with your supervising attorney openly and honestly. Obtain guidance on the lawyer's preferences for handling the difficult client. Do not avoid the problem. It will not go away, and can lead to unwelcome surprises, such as a grievance or malpractice action.
Set limits. Define your personal boundaries as a legal assistant. Avoid becoming personally involved in the client's life. For example, do you really want to give the client your home phone number? A client in distress will call you in the middle of the night. Is there really anything you can do to help at 3 a.m.? Maintaining objectivity allows the legal assistant the distance to make appropriate ethical choices regarding his/her actions in a case. Remember not to internalize your clients' problems. You cannot put your validity and self-worth on the line every time you work on a case.
Set boundaries in the workplace. Do not allow your dedication to your job to interfere with parenting your children or nurturing other relationships in your life. If you let yourself get talked into working every weekend, soon it will be expected and you will find yourself experiencing true burn out.
Advise your client to set boundaries and discuss this with his/her counselor, if applicable. Let her know that she doesn't have to talk to her husband every time he calls to berate and verbally abuse her.
D. Correcting Negative Thinking Patterns
Most mental health professionals agree that there are many diseases which are caused or aggravated by negative thoughts, attitudes or beliefs. Think positive thoughts. They lead to better physical and mental health. For example, if you forget to bring a major exhibit to a hearing and your attorney gets angry, try not to continually replay the scene in your mind over and over again. This only adds to the stress your body has already suffered initially. That is, your shoulders continue to remain tense, your blood pressure continues to be high and your heart continues to pound. Tell yourself to let go of the event. Learn from your mistake, apologize to your supervising attorney and go on. Everyone makes mistakes. This added stress is not anyone's fault but your own. You are the only one responsible for how you feel.
Remember that there are some things you cannot change. You will never find serenity, peace or freedom from stress unless you accept this fact. You cannot control the "Rambo" lawyer who faxes a fifty page Motion for Sanctions at 4:30 on Friday afternoon and sets it for the day you leave on vacation. You cannot control how the judge rules or even when the judge rules. You can control how hard you work, how well you prepare, and how organized you are. Try and find some humor in each crisis situation. This will relieve a tense situation and help put the crisis in perspective. (But I would caution against humor in front of the client. It is their life that's being affected, and some humor, even well-intentioned, might not be funny to the client.)
E. Professing Feelings
Standard operating procedure in most family law firms is to have the client do a detailed marital history, listing not only the events of the marriage, but the emotions they caused, the damage done, the deepest, darkest secrets a person has about their most intimate of relationships. It is a difficult, but necessary task for the client, which many times proves to be a cathartic release of pent up emotions for the client. It is definitely part of the "due diligence" the lawyer must observe, to gather all relevant information, both good and bad, that reflects on the client's case in chief.
If you find yourself suffering from unexpressed strong feelings, about the job, the case, firm politics, etc., try writing them down. Write a letter or memo to the supervising attorney expressing your problems in clear, concise and logical thoughts. Whether anyone ever reads it is up to you. But the action of putting it down on paper may prove to release some of the stress and put you back on track.
Be good to yourself, eat healthy, get an adequate amount of rest and exercise. Meditate, as needed, to cleanse the mind of any negative thoughts or self-doubt. Take time out during your week to do something special for yourself, even if its simply calling up an old friend, gardening, reading a good book, or watching your favorite old movie.
You should not neglect your spiritual well-being. Strive to get in touch with your spiritual self, whether it be through organized religion or some other avenue, such as meditation. While meditation is not necessarily religious, it can be spiritual. For some, meditation is a time to get in touch with a higher power. For others, it is simply a time to get in touch with themselves. Meditation is simply a slowing down and focusing of the mind. You have experienced it while sitting quietly and watching the ocean waves or a fireplace burning. Meditation requires a "letting go" from the active, aggressive pace of your day. Meditation slows the mind down so that you can become more aware of the moment. During the work day, when you begin to feel tense, or when you feel the onset of negative emotions, pause for a moment and become aware of your breathing. Observe how disturbing emotions affect your breathing pattern. Starve this negative emotion by taking long, deep breaths. Long deep breaths create a physiological reaction that aids in neutralizing the stress being experienced by your body. Do this for a minimum of two minutes and see how much better you feel.
Give some positive reinforcement to clients, let them know that even though it might not seem like it, their divorce will be over and life goes on. Encourage them to think about their needs occasionally, and to do something special for themselves (within limits - a $10,000 spending spree at Neiman's is probably not a good idea).
G. Support System
There is no underestimating the importance of relationships. You need to maintain a support system of family and friends with whom you can share life's ups and downs. Someone with whom you can share your hopes, dreams, anger and frustration certainly helps to put stress in perspective and provide a safety valve and an occasional reality check.
Under the supervision of your attorney, advise clients to use the support systems available to them, either family and friends, or to seek professional support systems such as counseling, clergy, organizations and associations to help relieve stress and increase understanding of themselves and the situation in which they find themselves.
Though there are many events in life beyond your immediate control, diet and exercise are two areas where you (and the client) can develop and maintain some semblance of control. The choices of exercise options are endless. Develop a program you can begin to enjoy early on, then stick with it. At a minimum, try to make walking a part of your daily exercise routine. Walking is suited for nearly everyone because you do not need any special lessons or equipment. If you are skeptical about the benefits of exercise, just try walking three times per week for thirty minutes per day and see how good you feel, both physically and mentally.
Healthy eating does not necessarily mean going on a diet. Pay attention to your diet - see what affect good nutrition has on your outlook. Advise your client to watch what he or she eats. Some clients react to the stress of a divorce by not eating at all, others gain 20 pounds. Neither is good.
Sleep is an important component in stress and lifestyle management. Your body and mind need sleep to recuperate from the stress inflicted on them during the day. Although the proper amount of sleep varies from person to person, most experts suggest a minimum of seven or eight hours of sleep four nights a week. Without the proper amount of sleep, people tend to display burnout symptoms more readily. Sleep is essential to one's physical and mental well-being, and is one natural means the body uses to dissipate stress.
I. Setting Priorities
Of all of the ways to control stress listed above, the most important to the legal profession is setting priorities. Know that you will probably never be truly "caught up" with your work. Rank tasks according to the consequences if they are not done. Not filing timely answers to Requests for Admissions has a much greater consequence than forgetting to send a conformed copy of a Temporary Order to your client. In order to know what the consequences are, familiarize yourself with the Texas Rules of Professional Conduct, Rules of Civil Procedure, Family Code, etc. Know what you can and cannot do. Know what your attorney can and cannot do. Discuss the Texas Lawyer's Creed with your supervising attorney. Reach a meeting of the minds on what is acceptable behavior and what is not, for the client, the opposing counsel, and within the firm. Relay the priorities to your client. Be clear about what is needed from them and when.
The Legal Assistant of today is accountable to the attorney for whom he/she works, the legal system, the judicial system, the public and to himself or herself. An obligation of Legal Assistants is to maintain the highest standards of ethical conduct. A legal assistant who is constantly under pressure, anxiety and distress, without the means to relieve the stress, will not bend, only break. This does not serve the quality of justice.
If you notice your client struggling to cope with stress, ask the attorney to recommend counseling or other help for the client. If you notice the warning signs of unrelieved stress in yourself, do something about it. The avenues to stress reduction are many, but the ultimate choices are up to you.
Kay Redburn is a legal assistant with the Dallas firm of McCurley, Webb, Kinser &Nelson.
If you have any questions regarding any ethical issue, please contact the Professional Ethics Committee.
Originally published in the Texas Paralegal Journal © Copyright 1996 by the Legal Assistants Division, State Bar of Texas.